When the final whistle sounded in Trinidad and Tobago Tuesday night, and the United States failed to qualify for its first World Cup since the lamentable era of the 1980’s American soccer, the predictable “soccer will die in the US” comments began being made.
Not so fast.
The mistake so many have made in the marketing of sport in this country from FOX Sports to MLS to other media entities is to link perceptions of the sport’s popularity and importance to the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) . In the process, the US Soccer Federation (USSF), MLS and many in the media have ginned up a sense of nationalism, a faux patriotism based around support to USMNT to drive interest in a sport which is considered by some of the elites in advertising and media as foreign. This has proven to be a huge tactical error, and with the US missing the World Cup, one which will now be exposed.
Any given Saturday you can full pubs and trending topics on Twitter related to club matches played in far-off European countries where not a single American is involved. Each weekend you’ll see legions of thousands of fans attend lower division American soccer matches supporting local clubs with no national team players and little media coverage. At the same time, over a million people often are watching Liga MX games where few if any American players are participating. Many of these fans don’t even support the USMNT, opting to root for England, Mexico or other national teams instead. These types of fans will continue to watch the World Cup even without the USMNT qualifying.
Every weekend the heartbeat of soccer lives on in the United States even if the national team isn’t playing. These fans will continue to support the products in soccer that motivate them irrespective of the USA’s non-qualification for the World Cup. For many in MLS and the elites that parrot general sentiments around the league, this “invisible” majority of soccer fans in the country isn’t worth engaging as the league seeks to market to a different audience.
So, what now happens to MLS that has hitched its wagon so openly to the USMNT, and which has an extensive set of questionable business ties to the US Soccer Federation? It’s imperative that MLS begin acting more like a league in Europe that appeals to authentic soccer fans instead of casual American sports fans and those driven by nationalistic appeals and a reverence for the concept of “American Exceptionalism.”
Maintaining interest in MLS now requires a delinking of the league from the USSF appeals to faux-nationalism and the excessively patriotic feel to the broadcasts on FOX. The appeal has been simple and raw – support MLS because you are an American. Watch MLS because Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore play in the league. This is an indication that MLS’ economic interests are directly tied to the USMNT through its marketing arm Soccer United Marketing (SUM) that bundles marketing and media rights for both properties together.
Instead, MLS needs to understand the type of supporters its clubs in places like Portland and Orlando have cultivated. In these cities, the core fan of the Timbers or Orlando City SC is more about local community and pride than the nationalistic appeals of MLS and USSF. Many of these fans watch soccer from abroad, embracing the culturally diversity of soccer as a global game. These fans are mismatches for the type of marketing MLS and US Soccer engage in. One Orlando City fan remarked to me over the weekend how different the type of people who attended the US-Panama match on Friday in Orlando were to the typical supporter who attends a sold-out MLS match for Orlando City.
If the United States is truly develop a national soccer culture, it will revolve around embracing globalism, local communities and the eclectic mix of thoughts that this sport brings in a way no other competitive sport can. This is already happening at a localized level and if MLS is to survive the USMNT non-qualification without the type of fall in interest being predicted, they need to embrace the culture of the sport on the grassroots level.