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4 factors to help soccer grow in US

Photo credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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42 Comments

42 Comments

  1. Anthony

    October 9, 2017 at 3:03 pm

    At the end of the day,

    1) Soccer will probably never be the major local team sport due to cultural history. Football, baseball, basketball will always be more popular. If football declines in popularity, baseball will probably benefit more in the near term.

    2) Due in part to #1, MLS will never be among the top leagues globally. That by nature limits the appeal of the local league. So not only is the sport not number one, the league isn’t that big either. Now many leagues globally do fine without being among the top soccer leagues, but they more or less accept their place.

    3) International club and country soccer will always be more popular in international, more cosmopolitan cities. There are a lot of these cities in the US. But as politics shows, about half of the US or more isn’t going to be interested.

  2. Azer

    October 6, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    I wish ESPN would turn ESPN Classic into a full time soccer channel like FOX Soccer used to be and give it a different name. It could give Soccer more exposure. Who watches classic sports anyway? They could compete for the rights to La Liga for example or other leagues.

    • NaBUru38

      October 6, 2017 at 3:54 pm

      “A full time soccer channel like FOX Soccer used to be”

      Do you mean beIn Sports or GolTV?

      • Azer

        October 9, 2017 at 10:49 am

        I was talking about the old Fox Soccer Channel or as it was later renamed Fox Soccer without the word ”channel”. Also, do you remember Fox Sports World?

    • Oliver Tse

      October 7, 2017 at 3:36 am

      The deal signed by Altice (formerly Cablevision) with Disney calls for Altice to drop one ESPN-branded channel in exchange for carrying ACC ESPN Network (launching in August 2019).

      Translation: ESPN Classic will be eliminated prior to launch of ACC ESPN Network.

      The Long Island area, where most of Altice’s customers are, is targeted by ACC ESPN Network. Syracuse University is an ACC member and Syracuse recruits student-athletes heavily from Long Island.

    • Anthony

      October 8, 2017 at 8:23 am

      As far as I know, ESPN has never had its own branded single sport network. Soccer only networks tend to generally get shut down over time,

      • Azer

        October 9, 2017 at 11:15 am

        GOLTV is not available in many markets unless you have DirecTV but the network is still in business. For how long it’s a mystery. I sometimes don’t understand how ESPN stays in business. Just recently they were showing High School football. How desperate they must be to not have any professional sports.

  3. Carolyn

    October 4, 2017 at 7:56 pm

    Given that ESPN is the go-to network for sports coverage and sports talk, if ESPN were to show any of the top European leagues on a consistent basis and then have shows dedicated to soccer daily then there’s a a chance that the game will become more popular to the average American. Outside of that it will remain a niche sport.

    • Oliver Tse

      October 5, 2017 at 5:07 pm

      Perception is always stronger than reality.

      ESPN the flagship is now in a similar number of homes as FS1 and NBCSN.

      Furthermore, SportsCenter has lost 50% of its viewership compared to 10 years ago.

      SportsCenter is still a powerful brand, but it isn’t what it used to be.

      EVERYONE now has a voice. A blog only costs $50/year in hosting fees to operate.

      FACT: there is only one “mainstream” sport left in the U.S: NFL. Everything else is “niche”.

      Major League Baseball (MLB), in particular, turned itself from the “national pastime” into a “regional sport” to the point that two of the most famous (or infamous) sports TV commentators of the 1990s, namely Bob Costas and Keith Olbermann, now use the term “regional sport” to describe baseball.

      I was one of those 20-something sports media consumers who stopped buying tickets to MLB games after the 1994 strike. We found other products to consume over the years (including but not limited to soccer).

      • NaBUru38

        October 6, 2017 at 3:53 pm

        FS1 and NBCSN are in similar number of homes as ESPN, but ratings are much lower. Except for Nascar and NHL / MLB playoffs, these have similar ratings to ESPN2’s non-football events, which is marginal.

        My YouTube channel is as available as PewDiePie’s, but that doesn’t mean that I have as many viewers as him.

      • Harry

        October 9, 2017 at 9:08 am

        ESPN is still viewed by more Americans than any other sports channel. That’s a fact. Will it change in the future? Who knows.

  4. ryan sauter

    October 1, 2017 at 8:08 pm

    “and that’s the problem with so called fans in the USA”.Is Sergio aquerio mother tongue English? Is romelu Lukaku mother tongue English?The Epl is probably the league with the most players from all over the world. Which is one reason they are the most watch league in the world.Even the coaches and owners are from around the globe.I personally think it is the most enjoyable league to watch so I really don’t know the point you where trying to make RO

  5. Rick

    October 1, 2017 at 9:05 am

    The Atlant Hawks drew less than 300,000 in 42 home dates last season compared to close to 700,000 in 17 home dates projected for Atlanta United FC. The writer of this article has seriously missed the crux of soccers growth in this country. It’s at the youth level, where there are more youth playing soccer in this country than all other sports combined and it continues to grow. It is just a matter of time until soccer will be the #1 professional sport on tv in viewership. How much time is really the only question.

    • Oliver Tse

      October 2, 2017 at 1:34 am

      Youth numbers are irrelevant.

      The Atlanta Hawks skews its marketing toward the African-American middle class in Atlanta after noticing that the “corporate” (read: white) audience had no interest in attending basketball games in downtown Atlanta.

      The Atlanta Braves chose to abandon the City of Atlanta and retreated to a site outside the Perimeter Highway to build a new ballpark where EVERY seat between 1st base and 3rd base is a “club seat”. The Braves chose to go 100% corporate for its base clientele.

      Atlanta United smartly scooped up the working class customers that the Braves abandoned.

  6. ryan sauter

    September 30, 2017 at 8:16 am

    I remember in the 1970s. When pele came to the USA. Soccer really took off. Then dropped off. Now there is a resurgence but unless something like the EPL start playing a regular season game in the USA. Like what the NFL are doing in England. It may start dropping off again. If they do I just hope they don’t schedule a Manchester United game. Give me a lower half game

    • R.O

      September 30, 2017 at 1:54 pm

      “…resurgence but unless something like the EPL start playing a regular season game in the USA.” And that’s the problem with so called fans in the USA. If it’s not an English speaking League/game, the fans here aren’t that interested. If a person is a fan of the sport, it shouldn’t matter or only follow English speaking/clubs/teams. I watch games on Spanish speaking TV, even though I only understand limited spanish. When one goes to a game in the stadium, doesn’t matter what language is spoken or country the team is from, you’re watching the game.

  7. Richard Steele

    September 29, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    As a long time supporter of Association football, I don’t resent the niche status of the ‘beautiful game’. American sport fans always seem apprehensive about ‘football’, with the usual complaints about infrequent scoring compared to American sports. In the depths of the American psyche is a deep suspicion of the other; American football is the purest expression of American masculinity. ‘Football’, is preceived as European, less macho, not up to snuff to the American brand of football. It is this cultural resistance that prevents ‘football’ from capturing the imagination of working class whites, who form the core base of American football fandom.

    • francis

      September 30, 2017 at 2:51 am

      Soccer in the US will continue to swim along with the other 2nd tier TV sports like golf/tennis/auto racing/wnba etc, and that’s not a bad place to be. Nobody’s dethroning pro basketball or football any time soon – not even Trump

  8. JN

    September 28, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    US MNT winning a world cup? We might have troubling doing that in 30 years. We (in the US) anyway have some cultural differences that make things a challenge. Much as been said and written about those challenges (too much structure, lack of free play in general, pay to play, drop off after U16, etc).

    As for my comment about leagues and teams going behind paywalls, it was a rhetorical question. I don’t think it helps. It is again one way we make playing, viewing, etc more expensive.

  9. Dcudiplomat96

    September 27, 2017 at 11:20 pm

    Soccer has came along way tv wise in the English speaking end, just over a decade Fox Soccer channel to regular league playing on major sports networks and over the air tv flagship is a huge accomplishment, but still that has mainly benefit the diehards really, MLS still has to find thier place in the Mainstream, MLS is hardly ever talked about outside the games itself, the league doesn’t have any news or magazine type shows, on regular tv, they don’t really promote thier stars to the media. So they have to work on that.

  10. Dcudiplomat96

    September 27, 2017 at 11:16 pm

    Soccer is still a niche sport in mainstream America.. there is a gap between the youth and the established mainstream American sports scene in regards to soccer.. As for Atlanta , the stars just Aligned for ATL utd. ATLANTA has very little soccer history And the Silverbacks was barely supported. Most of the soccer fan base is mostly foreign transplants which pretty much was underground, or basically to themselves.. Also atlanta United is new, and they benefit with Arthur Blank and Falcons recent success and opening of the new stadium.

    • Kris Klassen

      September 27, 2017 at 11:22 pm

      Could the old Atlanta Chiefs of the NASL beat the current Atlanta roster????

      • Rick

        October 1, 2017 at 8:44 am

        No

  11. Cantona

    September 27, 2017 at 10:52 pm

    Soccer unfortunately is fragmented

    Women’s soccer
    MLS
    Premier League
    La Liga
    Liga Mx
    USNT
    USWNT
    All have different views and will fight among themselves and therefore football will never have a single voice moving forward .
    This will always be an issue in the USA.

    Cantona—

    • Kris Klassen

      September 27, 2017 at 11:07 pm

      Excellent point. I call the semi pro and pro leagues who constantly fold or change their names “alphabet soccer” People who work in soccer in America are all about greed, its a jungle out there

      • francis

        September 28, 2017 at 4:52 pm

        True about the fragmentation. And so many fans are entrenched in the various camps — fans of Liga MX have little interest in EPL, a lot of folks only follow the US national team and so on

        • R.O

          September 30, 2017 at 1:46 pm

          Most of those so called “fans” aren’t really fans of the “Sport”. I call them “me too” fans. Only watching or following one league isn’t being a fan of the sport. I try to watch many different leagues (when on TV) and National Teams, not only during the World Cup. I enjoy the Sport and the game. That includes the US leagues. While I favor NASL, I still watch some MLS and USL games.

    • NaBUru38

      October 3, 2017 at 12:56 pm

      Having one major league per country is not being fragmented, it’s being global.

  12. Kris Klassen

    September 27, 2017 at 10:52 pm

    Its just not covered or reported properly. In so many parts of the country its still not even considered a real sport. MLS will keep growing but I believe we will never win the World Cup in the next 30 years. A Liverpool v Man United is ten times more interesting than a Brewers v Cardinals baseball game. People are morons, look who are our president is

    • R.O

      September 30, 2017 at 1:38 pm

      Can’t compare Soccer/Football to Baseball. Two completely different. I love Baseball and Soccer.

  13. JN

    September 27, 2017 at 9:19 pm

    If we want the sport to grow here and increase it’s exposure, is it a good idea for some of the games and leagues to go behind a paywall (e.g., NBC Sports Gold, Turner’s plans, etc).

    • Kris Klassen

      September 27, 2017 at 11:10 pm

      Super league is inevitable. High school football gets more coverage where I live in a city of 600,000. I love what Atlanta has going on

    • Kris Klassen

      September 27, 2017 at 11:16 pm

      That pisses me off to no end. I will never pay. I will get my hacker friends to stay one step ahead. Total BS

    • Ivan

      September 28, 2017 at 12:49 pm

      Lol, not happening for me and many others. I won’t pay an extra dime to these greedy creatures, NBC and Turner Sports can go and XXX themselves…

      • Oliver Tse

        September 29, 2017 at 10:17 pm

        Turner’s pay wall at BleacherReport.com for the UEFA products is nothing more than a cost-containment exercise.

        Turner Sports COO Matthew Hong is too cheap to pay production cost for a Champions League “B” match (to air on HLN, TBS,or TNT) or for the entire Europa League.

        By putting that stuff behind the paywall, Turner can simply route the Input Media world feeds straight through.

        (Hong can be dirt cheap, as we have seen on NBA TV. Hong sat 4 big guys including Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkeley behind a desk designed for 2 talking heads at the NBA Final. I couldn’t believe how small that desk was when I saw it in person as it was rolled out of the Turner compound at the Oracle Arena parking lot into the arena. )

        Univision Deportes Network and UniMas will kill Turner in the ratings for the UEFA CL (and UDN and UniMas will be your ONLY choice for the Europa League on TV), and Turner frankly doesn’t care about the ratings as long as every Multiple-Systems Operator (MSO) pays the 6-cents-a-month fee increase for truTV.

        (DISH Network boss “Cheap” Charlie Ergen appears the only one who can keep Turner from making money on the UEFA Champions League. If DISH were to balk at paying the 6-cents-a-month increase for truTV, then Turner will lose at least $10 million/season.)

        Expect truTV’s studio to be run “on the cheap” as well.

        The studio pundit for UEFA on truTV will be Carlos Bocanegra. He is a LOCK. Bocanegra lives in Atlanta and has experience playing for Fulham in the Premier League. His defacto audition was his studio appearance on beIN Sports USA for the Honduras-USA match, and he passed with flying colors.

        The only question is who will be the host of UEFA on truTV. Will Matt Hong go “dirt cheap” and hire Atlanta United FC host Brittany Arnold (who faces a steep learning curve)? Or is Matt Hong willing to spend the extra $30,000/season necessary to hire a CNN International World Sport anchor with actual experience covering UEFA Champions League as a journalist? There are 3 to choose from: Kate Riley, Patrick Snell, and Don Riddell. Riley would be the logical choice among the 3 as she is the youngest (age 32) and she is the only one among the 3 who has the ability to draw the male 12-24 and 18-34 demographic.

  14. HotKarl

    September 27, 2017 at 2:49 pm

    The biggest barrier for a potential American soccer fan to overcome is the lack of cohesive media coverage. NBC isn’t going to talk Champion’s League, Bundesliga, La Liga, MLS or USMNT anytime soon. FOX isn’t going to talk EPL (and isn’t going to talk Champion’s League after this year’s final), and ESPN isn’t going to talk about what’s not on their network.

    The “Superleague” is the most obvious solution to all of this to attract an audience that only knows the structure of American sports of regular season, then playoffs culminating in a championship of that year. The big Euro clubs obviously don’t care about the US audience as their top priority, but it will eventually be inevitable to move towards an 18 or 20 team league across Europe that has all matches played in exclusive windows.

    • Kris Klassen

      September 27, 2017 at 11:01 pm

      Super league is inevitable. High school football gets more coverage where I live in a city of 600,000. I love what Atlanta has going on

    • R.O

      September 30, 2017 at 1:28 pm

      Add to that, beinsports only talk about LaLiga, Serie A and Ligue 1 on their talk shows, i.e. Locker Room and rarely show highlights from the leagues they don’t cover. That’s what I really liked about Goltv. They showed highlights from leagues around the world and even had a weekly half-hour show on central-American soccer with news & highlights. The old FoxSoccer Report with Bobby McMahon also covered all the major leagues around the world with highlights. Miss those shows.

  15. Oliver Tse

    September 27, 2017 at 11:44 am

    Atlanta United also took advantage of the Atlanta Braves 1) moving from inner-city Turner Field to Suntrust Park outside the Perimeter Highway, and 2) shutting out the working class by making EVERY SEAT between 1st base and 3rd base into a “club seat”.

    Arthur Blank, who knows something about “customer service” and “value”, when after the consumers that the Braves don’t want with cheap tickets and cheap food at an inner-city venue.

    Even when Atlanta United makes a big mistake, such as the way GM Darren Eales hired BBC Radio “legend” Alan Green to do play-by-play on impulse without doing research, Atlanta United officials went to work to correct the mistake. In particular, Alan Green put in the necessary hard work away from the camera in the past 3 months to fix himself by learning how to call a match on TV.

    • The Auditor

      September 27, 2017 at 2:00 pm

      So let me get this straight –

      -Being the new game in town
      -Scoring the second most goals in the league to date and exceeding on-field expectations
      – On track to make the playoffs
      -Playing a portion of the season in a brand new billion+ $ building

      None of that has anything to do with Atlanta’s success – but the BROADCASTERS are a key point? Are you serious?

      • ZVSSWQQQAA

        September 27, 2017 at 6:17 pm

        In case you are new here, you are replying to someone who lives a make believe life as a soccer insider, he has written paragraph long entries about Plexiglas desks and having lunch with commentators. The guy is weird as hell and has nothing to do with broadcasting or commentating, he has been going on for years on soccer forums and other sites and has been laughed at in all of them, he’s a joke in the poker world as well.

    • Cantona

      September 27, 2017 at 10:47 pm

      Have no idea what the hell this idiot is talking about ..

      Cantona—

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