SBJ/November 28-December 4, 2011/Opinion

Why soccer will (or won’t) be the No. 3 U.S. sport by 2015

Do you know what I really don’t like about the Internet? The Internet never forgets, and that is good and bad.

From a factual perspective, it is a good thing that the Internet won’t forget that FIFA announced that Fox had outbid ESPN/ABC for the TV rights for the 2018/22 FIFA World Cup on Oct. 21, 2010. However, when it comes to speculation, the Internet can be very unforgiving.

Let’s travel forward in time and play out two scenarios:

Scenario No. 1: It is January 2015, and soccer is the No. 3 professional sport in the U.S. Out of curiosity, you have searched, “Why wasn’t soccer more popular in the U.S.?” The column you are reading now will pop up, and after reading it you will probably think, “Well, that was all pretty obvious.”

Or …

Scenario No. 2: It is January 2015, and soccer is still the next big thing (and possibly always will be). Out of curiosity, you searched, “Why isn’t soccer more popular in the U.S.?” And this column will pop up and you will probably think, “What was this guy thinking?!?”

So why do I think that scenario No. 1 could actually happen?

Let’s start by answering the often asked, rarely answered question, “Why isn’t professional soccer more popular in the U.S.?”

The No. 1 historical reason why soccer has not become more popular in the U.S. is media coverage (or rather the lack there of), and specifically the lack of network television media coverage. However, the events of the past few weeks have led me to believe that the media landscape is shifting and that soccer really could become the No. 3 professional sport in the U.S. within the next three years.

The reason for my belief in soccer’s potentially meteoric rise is the sport’s newfound potential to overcome three key historically daunting obstacles:

1. There is no regularly scheduled network presence for soccer on TV.

Earlier this year Fox announced that it would air a select number of English Premier League games on its network against the nationally broadcast live NFL games on NBC. The first two games have both averaged more than 1.5 million viewers.

If this impressive trend continues, Fox could create a regularly scheduled EPL game of the week to create an appointment-viewing network event for soccer fans. That would be the catalyst for professional soccer to grow in interest, popularity and to start to be taken seriously.

2. Americans just don’t understand soccer and won’t watch a sport with so little scoring.

We have already passed the tipping point in terms of participation. Every year that passes, we see a larger and larger proportion of “soccer dads” (and soccer moms) who played soccer as kids, a key difference from the youth soccer boom decades of the ’80s and ’90s. These parents/fans understand the nuances of the sport, and a regularly scheduled, world-class soccer match on network TV has a great chance to become a weekly, scheduled family viewing occasion.

Further, the continued growth in popularity of Major League Soccer, fueled by the creation of soccer-specific stadiums and enthusiastic expansion markets, has positioned the game attendance as a great family soccer experience.

3. Americans will never embrace a sport where we don’t have the best players in the world.

If Fox (or another network) creates appointment viewing with a regularly scheduled weekly EPL game, viewers will be able to watch many of the world’s best players (the guys who everyone watches at the World Cup). Then I believe that Americans will watch and embrace a “foreign” league or leagues.

Taking into account all of these market factors, plus the increasing proportion of Americans of Hispanic heritage within the U.S. population, there is reason to believe that this really could be the point at which soccer actually does become the next big thing.

Is that enough to take soccer to No. 3 in three years? Probably not.

So, what else needs to happen to ensure that soccer could take that quantum leap?

• The majority of the world’s best players must continue to play in the EPL and not chase millions to play in the Middle East or Russia.

• If, as part of the new TV contract in 2013, EPL shifts its schedule to play an evening game on the weekend, then the network could show a live game in the afternoon every week.

• Continued successful expansion of the MLS franchises. MLS averaged 17,870 fans per game in the 2011 season — more than the NBA or the NHL.

• Team USA has a great 2014 World Cup.

So, if all those things happen, soccer will be the No. 3 professional sport in the U.S. by the end of 2014, and you heard it here first!

(P.S. If you are reading this column in January 2015, I really hope that you have just entered “Why wasn’t soccer more popular in the U.S.?” into your search engine.) n

Simon Wardle (simon.wardle@octagon.com) is the chief strategy officer of Octagon Worldwide. The opinions expressed in this article are his and his alone, reflective of an optimistic soccer fan and not necessarily those of Octagon Inc.


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