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.