Soccer has gone from being a completely underground sport ten years ago to a niche sport today. That’s progress but if the sport is ever to be mainstream in the United States, certain things must happen.
In the last ten years, we’ve seen the Premier League move from the virtually anonymous FOX Soccer Channel to NBC Sports. At the same time, we’ve seen MLS elevate lower division teams from Seattle, Portland and Orlando to the top flight, and that has changed the tenor and direction of the US league. We’ve seen more investment in soccer than ever before, and more people wearing soccer kits on the streets of American cities.
Despite all this progress, soccer remains firmly a niche sport in the United States. Outside of major international tournaments, the audience for soccer matches rarely if ever eclipses 2% of households with televisions in the United States. These numbers, while an improvement over the virtual anonymity the sport had long been reduced to in this country, still pales in comparison to the more popular sporting events on American TV.
When soccer matches are promoted aggressively like the El Clásico Miami game was by ESPN, the numbers climb slightly, but not anywhere near to the level where similarly promoted American football, basketball, baseball, NASCAR or golf events would climb to on US television. Recently it appears, as well, that NBC Sports has tacitly acknowledged a ceiling is built-in for interest in the Premier League, and after incredible growth in the first three years the network has aired the competition, the last two years have seen a steadying of programming and promotion that have gone alone with stagnant numbers.
While international tournaments gets high ratings on US television, those numbers are classic big event audiences. People watch the NCAA basketball tournament in big numbers, but regular season college basketball has poor ratings. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are an event but the NHL struggles to break through at other times of the year. Similarly, soccer numbers tail back off to the 2% of the public who are the die-hards outside of larger international tournaments. How do we get past this ceiling?
Even within the small circle of soccer fans, you have fragmentation which prevents TV networks, advertisers and marketing executives from truly taking advantage of the sport’s following in this country. But soccer doesn’t have to remain a niche forever.
Here are some factors that could contribute to soccer becoming a mainstream event:
Continued aggressive marketing of the Premier League and soccer superstars in the US
The elite superstars of soccer are now household names in the United States. Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar. But beyond those three players, few soccer players have the kind of national recognition to put them in an elite class of athlete in terms of selling power. The next set of players including the likes of Alex Morgan, James Rodriguez, Carli Lloyd, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney are far less mainstream and often forgotten by general sports fans.
Most American sports fans and many casual millennials know about the Premier League but don’t really follow the league – but they understand it’s a global sporting product with no equal in terms of popularity and often can name a few clubs. The Premier League and its top clubs must continue to aggressively push their brand in the United States and generate interest in the stories of many clubs. The league has had success with this for several years but recently a stagnation in interest and even the dropoff of some fans who previously followed the league is worrying. With television partner NBC Sports, pushing the Premier League that serves as a sort of “gateway drug” to larger interest in soccer is critical.
Nothing brings a crowd like a crowd and Atlanta United points the way forward
Localized soccer just hasn’t been mainstream enough to break through in major American cities. While niche clubs like Detroit City FC have created a sensation in big markets among a small group of fans, and MLS clubs like Orlando City SC and the Portland Timbers have penetrated the local sports media and brought casuals to games, nothing of the sort has happened in the leading American cities. But hope is on the horizon — Atlanta United FC, the new MLS club that hails the home of CNN, Coca Cola and the world’s busiest airport — has become a bit of overnight sensation in what has traditionally regarded as bad sports town for America’s mainstream sports. What Atlanta United might be proving is that if you marry a good product that plays nice passing soccer and an international roster with a cosmopolitan city, local soccer can hold its own or even eclipse the major American sports.
Atlanta tends to be a big event sports town hosting major college football games that sell well but struggles to maintain interest in its professional teams. The NHL recently left the market for a second time and is unlikely to ever return. But MLS has hit lightning in a bottle with Atlanta United FC and the blueprint is clear – the classic MLS-styled team with lots of workmanlike American players and a former MLS player as a manager isn’t what works in a more cosmopolitan setting. What works is having a team built to appeal to all soccer fans, particularly those of the European club game as well casual American sports fans. The bigger question though is whether the rest of MLS is ready to change its ways and adopt the Atlanta model.
The attachment of soccer supporters culture to larger political trends
In this day and age, for better or worse, social media has allowed people to segregate themselves into self-contained communities that resemble echo chambers. For several years now, a general overlap between soccer supporters of MLS and lower league clubs with leftist political causes has been apparent. In 2015 and 2016 for example, at many matches you’d see things as radical as Bernie Sanders signs, Hammer and Sickle flags and Che Guevara posters in supporters sections. By comparison few if any conservative symbols can be observed in these sections. In 2017, as Yahoo Sports pointed out, an anti-fascist movement has popped up in soccer stadiums as a reaction to the Trump presidency. In fact, this movement goes further back. In Orlando City SC’s first MLS season, the Iron Lion Firm, one of the two supporters groups for the club, actively launched an anti-fascist movement as a way of attracting new members.
What has happened in the last few years on social media is that leftist-oriented chats on Facebook and Twitter have often included discussion of soccer. The sport is appealing to those on the American left because it is international, more free-flowing and generally more open-minded than the corporate-styled sports that are more mainstream in US culture. The growing Latino population in the country, which leans left, is also undeniably more attached to this sport than any other group.
While the divisive politics of this era is an uncomfortable reality for many folks, it might prove a boon for the growth of soccer in this country. More and more people I speak to through political channels are paying attention to the sport because they see it as “progressive,” and a place to meet like-minded folks culturally and politically.
American football, head injuries and youth soccer
Concussions and head injuries are leading many younger parents to prevent their kids from playing American football. The general violence associated with American football was first a driver of interest in soccer at the youth level in the 1970’s but now is finding more parents who normally would have had their kids play American football playing soccer. With more viewing options on TV and the Internet as well as better marketed local soccer clubs of both the professional and semi-pro variety appear around the country, the traditional drop off which has seen most youth soccer players not become fans of the sport as they grow older doesn’t need to happen anymore. In the past, frustratingly, youth soccer stars have become fans of American football when they went to college and have not become fans of the professional game be it in Europe or domestically. But that may very well could change as American football continues to suffer image problems while the distribution of soccer on TV and online increases. As more kids refuse to play American football and don’t have an attachment at all to the sport, the prospects for soccer improve.
While soccer remains a niche sport in this country outside big international events, the prospects to become mainstream have never been brighter.