“Well soccer, see you in four years.”
This was the sentiment by thousands across America, as tears rolled down Tim Howard’s face in the aftermath of his country’s heroic loss to Belgium.
The USA entered the World Cup with few expecting them to qualify from the group. But over the last four games, Jurgen Klinsmann’s team has captured the imagination of the country. For two weeks, the country has gone soccer-mad.
When the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, it was widely anticipated that this would bring the sport to the fore in the country. It did not quite have this effect, but it was a big step on the road to where they are today. With the founding of Major League Soccer, popularity for the sport grew.
Add a victory in the Women’s World Cup in 1999, and a quarter-final appearance in Japan/South Korea in 2002 and things were taking off. Finishing bottom of their group in 2006 was a setback, and four years later, a case of deja-vu saw them being eliminated by Ghana for the second tournament in succession, this time in the round of sixteen.
Enter Jurgen Klinsmann. The German legend won the World Cup in 1990, before coaching Germany to the semi-final in 2006 on home soil. For all the good work that Bob Bradley has done, Klinsmann is a top name, and has really raised the profile of the US national team.
The group of death was negotiated, and the controversial dropping of Landon Donovan was quickly forgotten. Millions around the country tuned in to see if Clint Dempsey and co. could reach the last eight. Alas it was not to be, and perhaps as the nation returns to watching Baseball, and awaits the start of the NFL season, the impact the 23 men in Brazil have made may have a lasting impression.
As the dust settles, the question is posed. Will soccer well and truly take off in the US?
Soccer’s perception is something which it has struggled with since arriving in America. People of the USA have little time for the diving, low-scoring, and frequent draws associated with soccer. It is also largely a sport for females. Men have American Football, women have soccer. The consensus that it is a ‘sissy sport’ is widespread, up against the likes of American Football and Ice Hockey.
Keith Bleyer, Root Sports Announcer for the MLS team Portland Timbers, and speaking to Pundit Arena, rubbished this notion.
“Is this a serious question? All I would ask is that a person who has that opinion watch just one of these World Cup matches or a game in MLS and then tell me there is no physical contact, no full body strength required and no stamina required. American football players would be asking for a pair of shoulder pads and breaks every 15 seconds if they first tried to play a club game as a teenager.”
But the sport has just as many pros as cons for Americans, especially for youngsters taking up the game, and it is on the rise. In 2012, over 3 million American youths played competitive soccer, continuing on the upward curve, which stood at just 1.5 million in 1990. Statistics show that there is now at least one soccer player in 30% of households in the US.
The late Jock Stein once famously said,
“Football without fans is nothing.”
Big support spawns more interest. The American Outlaws, the USA’s answer to ‘Jackie’s Army’, have helped add a fun atmosphere to this movement. This can only have a positive impact on the system.
Soccer is a cheap sport to play, and with the growing number of Hispanics in the the country, it is growing fast. In fact, it is estimated that by 2043, Hispanics will be the majority race in the America.
One glaring distinction in the demography of soccer players in the United States to virtually all other countries, is that it is a middle class sport. In a 2009 survey, of the 13,000 soccer players asked, 71% had an annual household income of over $50,000, and 33% over $100,000. But is this holding the sport back?
Bleyer highlights how this can be a problem.
“Some youth soccer experiences (club and other elite levels) are becoming too expensive for certain groups of people with a love and talent for the game.”
Greg Yelverton, FAI Football Development Officer, who spent four years on a scholarship at the University of North Carolina, before acting as assistant manager to the team for a year, feels that this problem can be solved by tracing back to the roots.
“In America, parents like to invest in their kids’ sporting lives. Scholarships to colleges are huge as the tuition fees can be vast.
“Most [soccer] clubs have full-time members of staff on board to help coach and recruit coaches, who are paid for the season from u8-u18, and design a coaching curriculum for their teams. The only way clubs can sustain this is by charging a membership for each child.
“This is the culture in American soccer that there is a cost to be involved in soccer, unlike Ireland where parents drop kids off to training and give them €2 for the referee for a home game.”
But he points out how clubs have sponsorships to help youths out with these fees, and perhaps going forward, disadvantaged areas can run their own leagues with smaller fees.
“The blueprint is there in other countries. A privileged childhood is not a prerequisite to a successful soccer career.”
Another problem is that America is not suited to soccer is the culture of college sports. Soccer players destined for greatness can compete at the top level by the age of 20, so are snapped up by professional clubs at a young age. This goes against the grain in America, where varsity level is the goal before even dreaming about anything further. Soccer is neither a superior nor an inferior system, merely different, but something which America must adapt to.
Major League Soccer
Founded in 1996, the MLS has grown and grown. While it started out at a low standard and being hosted in empty NFL stadia, its reputation has hugely developed. Now it boasts purpose-built stadia with large crowds, while it also attracts big names. With new teams set to join in New York, Orlando, Atlanta and Miami, it is a sign of the times as the sport’s stock rises.
However, in January 2002, two teams in Florida were contracted. It was a major blow to the league, but it was a warning about rapid expansion for the future.
Yelverton is positive about the coming years.
“There are gap areas in America that soccer can grow and I am sure the MLS are very well aware of this, Miami for Example has been identified by David Beckham and the MLS with its huge Hispanic population who are crazy about soccer.”
However, Bleyer is more cautious, but nonetheless optimistic.
“The league is now strong and attractive enough to expand and do so by requiring a lot from any potential franchise. For as long as MLS keeps itself as a league controlled entity with a salary cap, I’m not worried about too much expansion. Of course, having a salary cap is not the way its done throughout the rest of the soccer world.”
But major clubs around Europe are struggling under financial pressure and the newly introduced Financial Fair Play Rules, the MLS may benefit.
Building a large support base is key for the MLS. Converting the millions who tuned into the World Cup is the goal. MLS has tremendous growth potential. 33 million Americans described themselves as avid soccer fans, but only 7.2 million are avid MLS fans. The league needs to close that gap, and raise the profile of US soccer in the process.
Bleyer describes this as frustrating.
“Those 33 million people most likely are from very diverse ethnic backgrounds and might be more drawn to Liga MX in Mexico or one of the top European leagues. But there is room for the MLS too, isn’t there? The more MLS pursues and signs top players in their prime, especially Americans like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, the more attention it will draw to itself.”
Of course, there is huge competition to overcome from other sports if the United States are to embrace soccer. Although Baseball, ‘America’s game’, is waning, American Football is more popular than ever. The most popular sport in America is Professional Football. Many may be surprised to note that ahead of Pro Baseball and Pro Basketball, College Football take the number two spot.
American Football is the standard bearer which the MLS and United States Soccer Federation must aim for. One surprising aspect is that football, the sport that requires the most expensive equipment, is played more by people with low incomes than soccer, a sport where you only need a ball. So what is football doing right? A student can play football for free at his school. He can ride a bus to trainings and games. They give away or loan out the equipment. The school provides all of the expensive protective gear and training equipment.
In its nature, American Football can be easy to take up. The specific positions ensure that a player can take up the sport at a high level without much experience. At this year’s NFL Scouting Combine there were a number of fantastic athletes who had never played a snap of American Football until they entered college. These men all switched from other sports and some secured big deals on draft day. Has anyone ever heard of someone who has never played the game before walking on to a college soccer team and then going pro? Therefore, American Football has the ability to poach top athletes from other sports.
On the flip side, Soccer may be more attractive to children, as it holds their attention easier than long, drawn-out Baseball or Football games. The rules are simple to grasp, so a child may take to the Beautiful Game before any of its counterparts.
MLS games are also relatively cheap in contrast to the NFL. Soccer is family friendly. Prices are reasonable. Try taking you whole family to an NFL game on a Sunday without spending a fortune; a potential $240 for tickets, $40 for parking, and $80 for food. This can be a huge advantage in the coming years.
Another large advantage over other sports is that there is a National Team which the country can get behind. Although the country unites for every four years to get behind their Hockey and Basketball teams in the Olympic Games, Soccer offers a frequent alternative for a patriotic nation.
However, there is a long way to go. MLS audience numbers pale in comparison to its counterparts. MLS averages just 0.32 million viewers for the playoffs, while the NBA Playoffs averaged 17.7 million. The market leader however, was the NFL with a whopping 108.7 million.
For soccer to grow, it needs exposure. But there have been a number of issues in America which have arisen due to the nature of sports broadcasting in America. Firstly, advertisement is a massive area in American sport. By its nature, soccer does not facilitate advertisements like American Football or Basketball.
Forty-five minute halves with no breaks offer less advertising opportunities, and this in turn puts the big TV stations off broadcasting the sport. It does not warrant rising the price of the half-time ads as the games are not popular enough, barring the big World Cup ties.
Bleyer feels that there are viable alternatives.
“In-match advertising is the answer here, with on-screen ‘bugs’ and announcer reads. You can still sell time around each end of the broadcast and at halftime, but yes, broadcasters and the advertisers need to be more creative with soccer.”
Secondly, the fact that the sport’s premier club teams play in Europe, time difference ensures top class soccer is not live on tv at American prime-time.
“Actually, European broadcasts, when living on the east coast of America, aren’t bad. People get up on a weekend at 8am and a match is about to begin. It’s actually giving rise to some interesting excuses for bars and their patrons, isn’t it? There is usually another match or two each weekend that airs around 1pm or 2pm EST. Starting next year MLS will be televising matches on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday night, and that should provide more opportunities for viewers to catch a rising league that deserves more attention.”
Yelverton has praised the investment by FOX Sports in the market.
“The fact that there is now a soccer specific channel, FOX Soccer, has helped immensely.”
The 2014 World Cup has brought soccer to the next level in America. Perhaps the nation will not be so gripped for another four years, but by the time the Russia World Cup swings around, soccer may have a stronger foothold in America.
Yelverton is pragmatic, yet optimistic about the future.
“I can’t see it taking over but I can see it growing and growing, to see where soccer was when I first went to the US in 2002 to now, the growth is amazing. In fact it’s hard to believe, The youth soccer structure they have now to help develop US national teams at all levels is credit to the joint-up thinking of the US Soccer Federation, The US Soccer Development Academy league they run now is going to pay huge dividends for the national teams in the future.”
Asked if Soccer can take over, Bleyer has more faith.
“In a word, yes. Not as soon as some people like to say every time the World Cup rolls around, but not as late as others think. Remember, the USA and MLS are literally centuries behind the rest of the world when it comes to soccer. It will take much less than another century for soccer to take over.”
Soccer domination in the States may be only one generation away.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.