Every day we convince ourselves we’re living in American soccer’s new watershed moment. We soccer writers enjoy taking the temperature of the sport in our country. The vainglorious commentary justifies our existence. “Hey look,” we all say. “Orlando[tooltip content="Congratulations on the MLS team, by the way."][/tooltip] pulled in 20,000 for their minor league championship game! Seattle filled their NFL stadium for an MLS regular season match! #USMNT is trending! The Gold Cup Final attracted more viewers than baseball and UFC!”
We believe we’ll eventually surpass baseball and hockey in America’s consciousness. There are even some notions we’ll topple gridiron football, but voicing that opinion on Reddit will earn you a deluge of downvotes, even on r/MLS[tooltip content="Incidentally, my favorite place on the internet."][/tooltip].
I think it will happen about 30 years from now in 2042, and I hope to defend that thought over the next three years through extensive research and interviews with people who know things.
I didn’t pick thirty years out of a hat. Thirty years is around the amount of time between when Bird and Magic “saved the NBA” in the early 80’s to today. Thirty years ago, basketball took a backseat to baseball, boxing, and (to a certain extent) horse racing. Today, it plays second fiddle only to gridiron.
Since the dawn of time, Ian was destined to love soccer.
I was born to like British things—from my favorite band when I was six (this British punk group named “Cock Sparrer”[tooltip content="No, I had no idea what this term meant. At some point in 2nd grade I got in trouble for belting out the lyrics to the classic song “Strip (You Know You Want to)” from the swings. Look, I was a supremely oblivious child."][/tooltip]) to Douglas Adams, to this one girl from London[tooltip content="She supported Arsenal, and if there’s anything I’ve learned over the last couple years, it’s to not get emotionally involved with Arsenal."][/tooltip]. I even started using an extra u in writing words like colour and favourite. Soccer was a natural fit. The US Men’s National Team played in its first World Cup in forty years a few months after I was born, a sign that I was destined to follow soccer–specifically American soccer.
MLS focused their earliest marketing efforts on kids like me[tooltip content="Aka soccer playing youths."][/tooltip]. When that proved unsustainable, MLS went through a long period of trying to entice attendance with big names like David Beckham, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and David Beckham[tooltip content="I guess they’re still kind of pushing the Beckham thing. For goodness’ sake they’re letting him put a team in Miami. You know, the city so fickle it left the greatest NBA Finals game of the 21st century with 30 seconds to go in the 4th quarter. Sorry, this is neither the time nor place to rant about this."][/tooltip].
It took the introduction of Toronto and Seattle to the league for MLS and Don Garber to realize that promoting a healthy supporters’ culture (one that, now that I was 18 years old, was eligible to take part in) just might be the path to long term success.
So in my head, Major League Soccer has been specifically marketing at me this whole time. And it’s worked. I am an unabashed MLS fanboy. Nothing would make me happier than to see the domestic league capture the hearts and minds of Americans every weekend like gridiron does today.
MLS or USMNT?
Maybe this MLS-focused approach is misguided. Shouldn’t the nation’s growing obsession with the national teams be satisfactory?
Perhaps, but the truth is America Enthusiasts will root for the US in just about anything. Most Americans (myself included) forget about swimming, track and field, gymnastics, and all the other C-list sports we happen to be good at until the Olympic flame burns. America is guaranteed to tune in for the track and field, gymnastics, and swimming events at the Olympics, but that does not mean track and field, gymnastics, and swimming have “made it” in America. It just means that we’re convinced there’s a high probability we will be witnessing the spectacular when we view those events.
And the World Cup is nothing if not spectacular. And while it’s certainly the pinnacle of soccer pageantry, it’s obviously not all the sport has going for it. Soccer players don’t train to peak every four years. They mean to peak every day. They play to win trophies and larger contracts year after year. Soccer is year-round. It is not meant solely for quadrennial consumption.
However, the one soccer event guaranteed to grab America’s attention is obviously the World Cup. I always sort of knew this, but it hit home when I discussed the Algeria moment with UNCG women’s soccer coach Steve Nugent.
“What was the problem with that moment?” he asked me.
“We had to wait ninety minutes for it?” I said, steeling myself for a treatise on why we should regularly beat teams like Algeria.
“We had to wait four years for it!”
He had a point. Soccer will not have made it in this country when the successes of the US Men’s National Team at the World Cup are celebrated. It will have made it when folks are showing up weekend after weekend to their local American soccer club.
The Premier League Effect
The Champions League will probably help. So too might the Premier League. NBC is promoting the latter incessantly, buying full color ads in New York newspapers and subways. America is being shown more English soccer than even England. And the results so far have been positive. The production is top notch, the soccer is enjoyable, and America seems to be watching.
Unlike every generation before it, the youth in America today will be able to watch soccer played at its highest level on a consistent basis. That sort of access is important, if underrated. I grew up watching DC United every weekend I could, and while they were the class of the league in the 90’s, they (as much as I hate to admit this) weren’t exactly world class.
Of course, the availability of the Premier League will influence more sectors in American soccer than just youth development. There’s fear that consistent access to soccer played at its highest level will depreciate demand for MLS, but I think those fears are unwarranted. NBC has the rights to both the EPL and many MLS games, using the EPL as a lead-in to MLS games on occasion. As a result, ratings for these games have returned to their high levels from last summer when they were preceded by the Olympics.
But there’s a larger issue at hand: the sense that Americans demand sport at only its highest level. While it is true that Olympic sports mentioned earlier like swimming and gymnastics follow this trend, a sport will be consumed at all levels if it reaches a large enough level of support. Football and basketball played at the college level represent by no means the pinnacle of their sport, yet the battles to acquire their playoff rights are among the most lucrative in America (behind the NFL but alongside Major League Baseball and the NBA).
Standing, Singing, Scarved Supporters
England, it turns out, is far away. Having never actually been to a game over there, I’ve only developed a passing interest in teams like Arsenal, Bolton, and Sunderland[tooltip content="Aside from the aforementioned Arsenal, these passing allegiances are fairly intuitive. Bolton has Stu Holden, beloved if oft-injured American midfielder, while Jozy Altidore is trying in vain to score at Sunderland."][/tooltip]. Imagine random American sports guy, we’ll call him Hank in Houston, deciding to turn on an EPL match because it’s promoted everywhere around him. Hank watches in awe as Luis Suarez dances around West Bromwich Albion or something and decides he should maybe follow the sport closer. So he Googles “soccer team in Houston” and lo and behold, there’s a Major League Soccer team in the area! And their stadium is conveniently located downtown! And they’re even in the playoffs!
Hank in Houston knows what playoffs are, so he starts getting excited about his local soccer team playing an important game and decides to buy two tickets. Hank in Houston also thought it was cool that the Liverpool fans sang this song in unison when the game was almost ever, so he looks up “singing soccer fans,” makes his way to “supporters’ section,” eventually finds the Texian Army and makes sure he buys tickets that are as close to them as possible.
Hank in Houston decides to bring his friend Steve to the game, which is convenient because Steve knows a bit about soccer, though he’s never been to an MLS game, either.
They arrive about an hour early to check out the atmosphere and they run into a nice guy from Austin. His name is Dan, and unlike Hank in Houston and Steve blending in with their new orange scarves, his scarf is brown.
When Hank in Houston gets around to mentioning that this is his and Steve’s first MLS game, Dan introduces them to the Free Beer Movement[tooltip content="FBM really is the coolest thing there is, and I’ve been trying to do my part. I’ve taken 11 people to their first American soccer game in the last 18 months and have converted all of them. I explained the whole concept of the Free Beer Movement to my mother and she was both excited about the free beer and wary that it sounded cultish. However cultish it sounds, it’s still more fun."][/tooltip] by buying them a beer from the nearest vendor.
Properly buzzed, Hank in Houston and Steve enjoy singing, chanting, and cheering as the hometown Dynamo stage a dramatic comeback to secure a 2-2 draw with the team that’s doing a little too much to advertise the fact they’re owned by an energy drink company. Hank in Houston and Steve, now lifelong fans, put down deposits on season tickets the next day. They might even check out the Indios when they head over to Juarez on business.
This is obviously the ideal scenario, but it happens more often than one might think. We marvel at the fan engagement in European sporting events, but we can have the same thing here. Supporters’ Groups are behind the lower league renaissance taking place along the second, third, and fourth divisions of American soccer. Orlando City’s Iron Lion Firm has pushed the relatively young club into the throes of MLS expansion talk to the point where announcement is inevitable. Groups around the country return in impressive numbers, from San Antonio to Minneapolis, from Indianapolis down through Raleigh and Atlanta to Tampa. It’s that professional lower division whose strength today didn’t exist in the old NASL days that people who don’t believe in soccer in America refer to.
Soccer is a breath of fresh air in an American sporting world where fans are admonished for standing too much, led in “Defense!” and “Let’s Go Team” chants by the PA system, and told by the Jumbotron to “get loud.” Frequent and lengthy timeouts suppress fan involvement and—especially in basketball—gameplay flow. That doesn’t necessarily take away that awesome feeling of high-fiving and hugging your section mates after a touchdown or a momentum-swinging tomahawk dunk, but it doesn’t really enhance the experience either.
Don’t get me wrong, I would still prefer seeing a gridiron football, baseball, or basketball game in person. Live sports are to me what live concerts are to my music hipster friend Ryan. That said, I feel a little spoiled by the pure experience of attending a soccer match and singing for 90 minutes with several hundred of your newest best friends. It’s difficult to go from that to a professional gridiron football match without experiencing a little cynicism.
The supporters’ experience is fast growing on Americans, and it has to do a lot with the fact that the supporters’ section is a community that gets together every week to drink beer and sing and wave flags and enjoy soccer.
Foundation and Empire
The highest MLS average attendance (Seattle with 43,975 in 2012) was a little over 5,000 shy of NFL’s lowest average attendance in 2011 (Cincinnati with 49,251), even though NFL attendance has actually been declining since 2007. More importantly, the NFL’s current TV contract is worth $20 billion. The next slate of contracts will be worth nearly $40 billion and will run until 2022. MLS’s current contracts—which expire in 2014—pay the league $27 million annually. If MLS were to somehow multiply by their media rights by a factor of 100, they would still be about 2 billion dollars shy of what the NFL makes annually. That’s a mountain of financial disparity to climb.
The NFL has never been more financially significant. It remains an immovable behemoth of American sporting and its demise will not likely be foretold by depreciations in TV ratings or game attendances over the next three years. A chain reaction that starts at a fundamental level, one we can measure and quantify over the next three years, will end up affecting the metrics upon which we measure popularity (media ratings/contracts, attendance, media mentions, etc.). The key is finding those fundamental levels.
Predicting the next 30 years of gridiron football and soccer in this country is slightly less daunting than predicting the demise of a 12,000-year old Galactic Empire. Psychohistoric muscles I didn’t even know I had will have to be flexed. But like the fall of the Galactic Empire, this will be a gradual process interspersed with a couple of “Seldon Crises,” individual moments in the Isaac Asimov Foundation Series that set off ramifications so significant they were felt across the entire quadrillion-person galaxy.
These Seldon Crises as they pertain to my hypothesis include, but are not limited to:
Besides the European Super League, it should be understood that most of these scenarios would improve the state of soccer in America. Of course, not even Seldon could determine Seldon Crises in advance. Like terrorism, we’ll know it when we see it. But if any of those do happen, MLS needs to position itself as the Foundation of the American Sporting Empire.
Someone Think of the Children
According to US Soccer, the amount of registered youth soccer players in the United States has held at about three million since 2000. While there does not exist one governing body for all of youth football, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest in a joint study estimated that about 3.5 million children play youth football today—a figure that, if accurate, is only 17 percent higher than soccer’s.
And that number is dwindling. While Midwestern states like Michigan are seeing their populations decrease in general, that does not make up for the near 7 percent annual decline in high school football participation in Michigan. Nationwide, the drop over the last four years might be as high as 35 percent, as reported by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (in children ages 6-12 between 2007 and 2011).
Many factors could be contributing to this decline, including specialization. Each sport is increasingly becoming a year-round, everyday activity—that is, they say, if you want your child to have a shot at being “the best” and “making it.” US Women’s National Team stars Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach disagree, the latter claiming that her early love of basketball contributed significantly to her prowess in the air. But the notion prevails, as enrollment in the five major youth sports[tooltip content="For guys it’s soccer, football, hockey, basketball, and baseball. Volleyball replaces football and likewise softball for baseball among gals."][/tooltip] has dwindled some across the board, especially at the high school or equivalent level.
That said, there’s one elephant swinging its trunk around, knocking over lamps, and smashing all the nice china in gridiron football’s rather luxurious room. It almost feels like cheating to type out the words “football has a concussion problem.” And there’s no way it’s not having an impact on the people who decide what sports children get to play.
Junior Seau, along with Brian Urlacher, defined linebacking as I was growing up. In 2012, he shot himself in the chest. That death was jarring, not least because my little brother played linebacker on his youth football teams. However, four months later, the 2012 NFL season and I watched with frustration as the Panthers could not rush for more than ten yards against the Bucs. Today, I’m giddy about the Panthers’ first winning record in five years.
But there’s a big difference between cheering on professional athletes you’ll probably never meet and wanting your child to become one of those athletes. Your emotional connection to the former group is fungible. Your connection to the latter group is not.
But the Athleticism
Soccer’s fluidity provides it an advantage over its counterpart. Gridiron football is almost objectively boring. Sixty minutes of game time are stretched out over three-plus hours. If you’re very lucky, those sixty minutes of game time will contain thirty minutes of action, and by very lucky I mean you’re watching Oregon or Clemson or the new Chip Kelly Philly offense or something. To paraphrase George Will, football is violence planned in committee meetings.
It is often suggested that gridiron is loved for that violence. Emphasizing safety deemphasizes violence and takes the soul from the game. And that is how gridiron will die, or so it goes.
I disagree. Violence is both an incidental and necessary component to what really makes the game spectacular: the remarkable displays of athleticism. There were portions of a recent Alabama-Texas A&M game that nearly lulled me to sleep because, well, I was tired and I had even fallen asleep during the Chelsea-Everton match earlier[tooltip content="I missed the only goal too. These things happen."][/tooltip]. But other moments drew me in. At one point, Johnny Manziel was almost sacked four times before launching a prayer of a ball he shouldn’t have thrown on 3rd down at midfield to a double covered Aggie for a first down.
Later, a deep Manziel throw was tipped by an Aggie receiver, caught by a Bama defender, and returned 70 yards for a touchdown. The interceptor’s unlikely gallop to the end zone included juking the shit out of Manziel and three other guys while his convoy rolled through the rest of the would-be tacklers.
That moment was more beautiful, more spectacular, and more athletic than if Van Brockhorst’s firecracker against Uruguay had ripped through the net toward a basketball rim where LeBron was waiting to do what he does with airborne sports balls and ten foot high cylinders.
Those moments of high athleticism permeate an intense and nearly quantifiable drama. By quantifiable, I’m talking about the calculating of a gridiron football fan during the dead space between plays. The heart rate soars as the favored team marches toward the winning field goal, where each yard gained equals a higher rate of victory. As that rate increases, so does the pressure. After all, no one wants to see their team blow the game.
The heart pumps vigorously on the other side too, as defeat approaches. Hope exists in the form of a turnover or a fumbled snap in the field goal attempt. Neither are particularly likely, and more often than not the team will lose. But when that “not” comes into play and the two opposing fans suddenly reverse positions, the feelings felt are as frustrating and elating as sport allows.
That cord cannot be cut. It is ingrained in the nature of gridiron football. The percentages may shift but the principle does not. No other sport offers that intense combination of athleticism and the quantified meaning behind the phrase ‘snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.’
So if this empirical, gladiatorial sport is to fall, the athleticism will have to disappear. A sport’s athleticism dwindles if the best athletes choose not to play it. That will happen if fewer children overall decide to take their talents to the gridiron.
Klosterman wrote that today’s sports fan has successfully separated the dastardly effects of America’s favorite game from their experience of watching it. At some point, those lines of consciousness—one understanding the risks of football and the other cheering for that week’s game—may have to cross to prove my hypothesis correct. But the line that cares for children’s safety intersects much sooner.
A Little Help from our European Friends
After gridiron football’s relative fall (remember, it doesn’t have to diminish greatly—just enough to leave room for soccer in America and MLS to take over), our domestic soccer league will still need a little more help. While it’s true that a popularity increase in soccer will positively affect MLS (rising tide lifts all boats etc.), it will still need to be among the top five leagues in the world to gain premier status in world football, and thus in America.
They could get there on their own, and they certainly intend to. While the salary cap has remained relatively static, additional rules such as the Designated Player rule, the Retention Funds rule, and the Homegrown Exception rule allow teams to pay well over the cap. Average salary in MLS has increased from about $100,000 six years ago to $140,000 in 2013. That number actually dropped from 2012 to 2013, although the departures of Mexican international Rafa Marquez[tooltip content="His last MLS game, where DC United beat the Red Bulls 1-0 in the 2nd leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, is one of my all-time favorites, and I have largely him to thank. New York almost went ahead in the 67th minute on a penalty that resulted from DC GK Bill Hamid tripping New York striker Kenny Cooper. Backup goalkeeper Joe Willis, after a made penalty was called back due to a Thierry Henry box incursion, saved the second penalty to keep it scoreless. However, DC were still a man down and the play was all in their half until Rafa Marquez committed a terrible late challenge and was sent off, evening the play."][/tooltip] and some guy named David.
The average salary of Non-Designated Players is roughly the same as the total average six years ago. The median salary has risen in that time to $75,000 from $50,000. Minimum salary has almost tripled in that time from $12,000 to $35,000, meaning all MLS players make enough to play soccer fulltime.
That’s great—the salary structure in MLS is trending upwards. But is that enough to really challenge the upper echelon of football leagues in the world? Serie A in Italy paid its players an average of $6.7 million in 2010-2011. Players in the Bundesliga in Germany made slightly less, averaging $4.4 million. It is obvious MLS wouldn’t be able to compete financially with the Premier League. But an MLS team would have a hard time competing with any team in League Football (the top 4 divisions of English football). In the 2006-2007 season, players in League 2 (the lowest rung of what is considered professional football in England) averaged $67,000 per year in salary, a number that has surely grown in the past six years and compares favorably to MLS.
That’s a factor of about 50 that MLS will have to make up over the next 30 years. Once again, an external factor will have to help MLS along.
Thankfully, we do not rely on the next-to-impossible prospect of popularity of soccer in Europe shrinking. Instead, we may be able to rely on the unstable financial structure of European football. Spanish football, the entity that has won the last three major championships and two of the last four Champions Leagues, is in so much debt trouble that the EU has threatened to force Spain (which itself is indebted to the EU) to dissolve clubs that were let off the tax hook.
As a result, several La Liga clubs lie on the brink of financial ruin, including Valencia, Deportivo de la Coruna, and Racing Santander. Spain isn’t the only problem. The venerable Scottish club Rangers were put through administration and relegated to 4th division Scottish football. The once-powerful Leeds United underwent similar turmoil in the mid 2000’s, eventually getting relegated to League 1 as a result. Even successful Premiership teams Chelsea and Manchester City operate in massive debt, albeit debt that can be easily paid thanks to their pecunious owners.
UEFA hopes to curb clubs’ spending above their means with the Financial Fair Play regulations set to begin in 2015. Clubs would be penalized under FFP for spending more on player acquisition and salary than they take in. In extreme cases, clubs would be ejected and barred from UEFA competitions until they can control their finances.
Since the regulations have yet to take effect, it is unclear what kind of impact this will have on the European football economy. Either the FFP regulations will be effective, forcing teams across Europe to spend less, or more teams like Rangers will go bankrupt, depriving the market of teams willing and able to spend. The global market hypothetically shrinks in both instances, opening up room for MLS to slide in and capture more quality players. The goal here obviously would be to get that degree in Economics I’ve always dreamt of. Or I could just consult people who know things about the global football market.
MLS: A Brave New World
But even if neither happens and the European market never depresses, MLS still has a chance, thanks in part to its unique structure. Unlike every non-Scandinavian European league, its schedule runs from March to November. Playoffs, as opposed to topping the regular season table (although there is an increasingly notorious prize and CONCACAF Champions League qualification for that), determine league championships.
Financially speaking, it has a salary cap, preventing clubs from outspending others into oblivion. The cap encourages league parity, ensuring there isn’t a static group of two to four title contenders every year (I’m looking at you, every top soccer league in existence). Americans love their parity and the hope that that their team can win the title this year.
There’s no relegation, so teams who finish last aren’t dealt a crippling financial blow that would keep them out of title contention for years, or potentially forever (I feel like it’s no accident that every single league in the world happens to both utilize relegation and be dominated by a select group of 2-4 teams).
MLS is a curiosity to players abroad. It represents a unique challenge—where the goal isn’t simply to win the league by finishing first or securing a top spot and winning entrance to Champions League[tooltip content="Although we do have our own Champions League. We even have our own single-elimination FA Cup-style knockout competition—the criminally underrated and under-promoted US Open Cup and no I’m not just saying that because my DC United’s won it this year."][/tooltip]. Instead, the challenge is to traverse a very different soccer landscape. The challenge is to help bolster that landscape.
Further there exists the chance to “diversify your brand (or whatever terrible marketing jargon you want to use).” Since soccer is only getting bigger here, the chance to ply one’s trade effectively offers impressive (if not quite Beckham-level) marketing opportunity. For example: imagine if a currently struggling in Manchester Chicharito were to follow former Mexico hero Cuauhtemoc Blanco to Chicago[tooltip content="Incidentally, this would also help correct an image problem from which the Fire management suffers. Chicharito to MLS isn’t ridiculous either. After completing the Clint Dempsey signing in August, Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer challenged other MLS owners to make a play at Chicharito."][/tooltip].
England is no doubt the best place to attain marketability in soccer, and the Premier League seems to be expanding their reach into a new corner of the globe every day. Still, it’s hard to earn that when you’re wearing one of those massive overcoats on the bench and watching Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie.
While the United States and MLS might not be the 2nd best option in the world to earn footballing notoriety, it does offer that tantalizing combination of guaranteed playing time and ever-increasing marketing potential[tooltip content="In writing these few paragraphs it dawns on me that I might have to up my marketing knowledge. Gross. Oh well."][/tooltip]. And let it not go unsaid: this is America. Everyone wants to make it in America.
The Final Paragraph
This will not be a simple matter of “X leads to Y, which leads to Z, which leads to MLS besting the NFL.” Everything in this equation affects everything else. Increased American soccer interest is fed by a departure of families and fans from gridiron football along with the growing awareness accomplished through higher profile players coming to the states and the rising supporters’ movement and so on and so forth. It’s complicated—but it’s possible. Ideally, 2042 America enjoys significant climate progress, a stronger middle class, and soccer backing up basketball as our favorite sport.