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Volume 22 No. 31
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Soccer’s growing reach

You’ve heard it before, but has soccer’s time finally arrived in the U.S.?

They were standing five deep along the bar, shoulder to shoulder from wall to wall, spilling out the open front door and into the courtyard, where another screen provided a viewing spot for those who hadn’t secured space inside.

It is like this on many a Saturday at Hooligans, a soccer bar at the center of Charlotte’s business district. The regulars begin filing in not long after dawn, most of them gathered for the first of the English Premier League games, but some also interested in the goings on from Germany, Spain or Italy.

This day brought something special. One of the world’s more popular clubs, Arsenal, won the fabled FA Cup in dramatic fashion, with the perfect finish of an artful, back-heel pass 19 minutes into extra time. As the crowd inside erupted, a man in an FC Barcelona jersey craned to see inside.

“This is why I love soccer,” he said with the accent you get when your father is Mexican, your mother Colombian,

A fan cheers on the Philadelphia Union.
Photo by: Icon/SMI
and you have spent a decade in the U.S.

“As you should,” said the guy standing next to him, who comes regularly to see the best soccer, regardless of who might be on.

When time expired, the celebration began, a couple dozen Arsenal supporters jumping and hugging. One came from the bar to the courtyard with a bottle of champagne he’d been stashing. Another walked out with both arms held high, holding an FA Cup replica he’d made out of cardboard and foil. They passed the trophy around, posing for photos with it.

There was a British accent here, a Caribbean lilt there. A guy from Belgium, who backs Arsenal because its captain is Belgian. But mostly, these were Americans, born and raised.

For decades, you have heard that this was coming.

All those toe-heads who came dashing out the minivan doors and onto the soccer fields, a million of them and then 2 million and then three, would grow up and then they’d take this country, leaving their parents’ favorite sports in a pile alongside their LPs and eight-tracks and cassettes.

Rich Luker, the father of the oft-quoted ESPN Sports Poll, was doing baseline research for the founders of Major League Soccer in the mid ’90s before they launched the league. He thought that if they found that 30 percent of Americans were fans of soccer, or if 5 percent were avid fans, they had a sport that could sustain a business and have enough reach to grow.

What he found was far more striking. In 1995, 30 percent of U.S. households reported that someone in the home played organized soccer. This wasn’t a casual connection. Families were committing time and money to the sport.

“That 30 percent was a massive number,” said Luker, founder of the polling and research company Luker on Trends. “Our anticipation was that this was going to be a layup.”

Turns out it wasn’t.

Soccer moms did not beget soccer fans, at least not at a sufficient rate to propel the wave that the sport’s evangelists projected. Interest rose with each World Cup, and then it went dormant, similarly to the way track and field or skiing ebb and flow with the Olympics cycle.

Soccer looked as it had for years: A game children played at a very young age, but soon abandoned, never to return.

Then, five or so years ago, Luker noticed a percolation he hadn’t seen before. In focus groups, young adults began speaking knowledgeably about soccer. More recently, the sport has been bubbling up in surveys, as it had not before.

As many of the teens he surveyed said they were avid fans of MLS as said they were baseball fans. Global soccer icons Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo are among the 10 most popular athletes not only among teens, but on up to age 34. FC Barcelona is among the top 10 teams, regardless of sport.

A recent poll of engaged soccer fans from across the U.S., conducted for SportsBusiness Journal by Turnkey Sports and Entertainment, revealed a base of fans who follow the game far more broadly than they are typically thought to, following both the men’s and women’s national teams, as well as the top international leagues and MLS (see charts).

“What we see among these engaged fans is that you are a fan of the sport and you consume all available soccer content; you don’t pick and choose,” said Nikolay Panchev, vice president of consumer research at Turnkey. “There are going to be small segments which are the snobbish EPL fan who thinks EPL is the top and we will watch only EPL. But this segment is getting smaller and smaller. Mostly, you have soccer fans, and they will follow soccer in general. And that base is growing for many reasons.”

Consider how the landscape for soccer has changed in the last five years:

Games from the best leagues in the world are promoted more heavily than ever and distributed more widely than ever in both English and Spanish.

The emergence of social media allows fans to find each other more readily, and connect to a sport more deeply, regardless of whether others around them share their affinity.

The FIFA video game is ragingly popular among teens and 20-somethings, increasing their familiarity with players and clubs from around the world.

MLS clubs have doubled down on the soccer-specific stadiums they’ve built by fostering a supporters culture that provides an experience that better replicates that which fans find in Europe, Mexico and South America.

About 53 million Hispanics now represent 17 percent of the U.S. population. Those whose heritage lies in Mexico and Central and South America consistently report a close, cultural connection to the sport.

“You have all these things triggering at the same time,” Luker said. “The consciousness of it. A generation of young players who played soccer. Ready access to the rest of the world.

“Now, 18 years in, that’s the end of the first generation, there is enough connective tissue in the consciousness of kids, and more importantly young parents …

“We’re poised. I really believe we’re poised.”

Seeding the playing field

It has been 40 years since the first of a series of events that we will point to here as the germination of U.S. soccer. That’s when Kyle Rote Jr., the son of a famed New York Giants receiver, crossed over into the broader sporting landscape.

Rote led the North American Soccer League in scoring in 1973. This, hardly anyone noticed. What he did that mattered played out the following winter on ABC, where he competed in a made-for-TV event called “The Superstars.” Rote beat out a host of better known athletes, including Pete Rose, O.J. Simpson and John Havlicek. He would win the competition twice more in the next three years.

When Rote Jr. won his first “Superstars,” there were 103,432 children and teens playing soccer in the United States, according to data compiled by U.S. Youth Soccer. A year later, Pelé arrived. Three years after that, the New York Cosmos reached their zenith, attracting an average of 47,856 per game.

Something important was happening.

By 1980, participation in soccer had grown eightfold, to 810,000. It increased another 400,000 in the next five years, and 400,000 more in the five years after that. In 1994, the U.S. hosted the World Cup, setting ticket sales records that still stand today. A year later, participation was up to 2.4 million. In 2000, it eclipsed 3 million.
There were all these kids playing. All these screaming fans at the World Cup.

The narrative surged. Clearly, soccer was the next big thing.

Only it wasn’t. At least not at that point.

All those kids playing? Most still had their baby teeth. Today, soccer is the most-played sport among 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds, according to the most recent participation study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (see chart). But by the time they’re 10, more kids are playing basketball. By 12, soccer is in a dead heat with baseball. By 14, both soccer and baseball trail football.

David Downs’ connections to soccer are long and deep. He was president of Univision Sports, executive director of the U.S. bid committee for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and, briefly, commissioner of NASL. He also coaches youth soccer.

Downs sees a significant difference between the way today’s youth players follow the game as compared to those who came before them, not only because they can watch more games but because the FIFA video game exposes them to such a breadth of leagues and players.

It’s good to have millions of kids educated and it does make them better adult fans,” Downs said. “But the hard part was not getting them to play. It was getting them to consume it as a fan. And now that’s easy. There isn’t a goal scored anywhere in the world that you can’t see if you’re so inclined.”

Turnkey’s survey showed no connection between playing youth soccer and high avidity as fans, Panchev said. It did show a strong one between playing currently and high avidity.

“A key emotional connection is the fact that you played the sport growing up,” said Simon Wardle, chief strategy officer at sports marketing agency Octagon, which will manage at least 500 client events in connection with the upcoming World Cup. “But because soccer is not in the top three sports, from a media perspective, it is struggling for air space. When you don’t have media coverage to drive the conversation and make it an ingrained part of society, that’s when the sport struggles. That’s the reason why soccer has always been the next big thing in America and never quite made it.”

Here’s the first, and perhaps most important, shift. Soccer isn’t just on television; it’s all over television. Wake up early on a Saturday or Sunday morning and go searching for live sports. What do you find? Soccer from Europe, particularly the EPL.

First on Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN and beginning this past season on NBC and NBC Sports Network, which streamed every EPL game live at no charge, English football has established a beachhead on weekend mornings from the fall through the spring.

NBC and NBCSN together averaged 438,000 viewers per match, doubling the combined average of Fox and ESPN from last season. The cumulative TV tune-in of 31.5 million for the season more than doubled last year’s total of 13.3 million. Fifteen games averaged more than 750,000 viewers.

They’ve almost created this perfect storm of appointment viewing on Saturday and Sunday morning,” Wardle said. “All these kids who are playing on the weekend are getting up and watching games. Ten or 20 years ago parents wouldn’t have had any interest because they didn’t play. But now you have all these dads and mums who grew up with it and are engaged and will sit down with the kids and watch Chelsea or Arsenal or Liverpool. That is key.”

That connection is one of the more likely ways for a child to be socialized into a sport, sociologists have found in studies over the years. Others are playing the sport, encountering it through media, and having friends who play or are fans.

“If your family today is socializing you into the sport by not only taking you to your own games but also the games are playing on a Saturday in the house, that’s different historically from what most kids experienced before,” said Galen Trail, a Seattle University sport management professor who also serves as a consultant to teams and events.
“One would expect from social identity theory that you’ll become more of a fan. But then it gets back to whether you enjoy the experience. That can be a motivator or a constraint.”

Drawn by fan experience

Increased coverage is only part of the equation. Because fans of team sports typically are tribal by nature, they need access not only to the sport, but to other fans. This is why social media has been such an important accelerant for soccer.

Latch onto FC Barcelona or Arsenal or Manchester United or Bayern Munich this morning and by this afternoon you can connect with thousands of like-minded fans on Twitter and elsewhere on the Web, both locally and globally.

“One of the factors that seems to increase every time we look at which factors are contributing to why fans are fans is the talk and socializing factor,” Wardle said. “Social media allows that talk and socializing to not just be a phone call or in a sports bar. It allows you to engage with Fulham fans on the other side of the world or friends you know are going to be watching the game. The ways in which you can engage with family and friends and fellow fans and even the players themselves on Twitter is clearly helping fuel that love of the game.”

So have significant changes in the experience fans find when they attend a game.

MLS clubs have built a dozen soccer-specific stadiums since 1999, with eight of them opening since 2007 and two

more scheduled to come on next year.

That was important to the fans surveyed by Turnkey, about 90 percent of whom said they went to a pro or college match in the last year and half of whom went to three matches or more. While 80 percent were avid soccer fans (at least 4 on a scale of 5), they also said they were avid fans of football (85 percent), basketball (79 percent) and baseball (73 percent). Only one-third said soccer was their favorite sport.

Yet 54 percent who said football was their favorite sport preferred going to soccer matches. That number was slightly more than 60 percent among those who favored baseball or basketball.

They cited match-day atmosphere, camaraderie among fans and a family-friendly environment as the three leading factors.

“As important as building the venue is what happened in those venues: The rise of the supporter movement here in the United States,” said MLS Chief Marketing Officer Howard Handler, who joined the league in 2012 after stints at Madison Square Garden, EMI Music, Virgin Mobile and the NFL. “There’s a rhythm and a feel and an experience that is soccer, and it started in MLS with D.C. United and then Toronto FC. The chanting, the singing, the march, the drumming — it all kind of brought to life an experience that was very different from these PA-driven experiences, where music is blasted at you and they’re firing T-shirt guns. The fans created part of the experience, and in many ways created an alternative movement for people in their 20s and 30s who wanted something that they could call their own.

“All those kids running around the stadium, practically still wearing their cleats, they’re still part of it. But the 20-something and 30-something multicultural element is really the heartbeat.”

Trail saw the impact of that stadium experience when studying season-ticket holders of the Seattle Sounders.

Buyers in that first year most often bought because they felt an attachment to their city, and also because they wanted to support MLS. They typically were not avid fans of soccer in general. Those people — the aficionados who were watching matches from around the globe and reading about tactics and transfers — wanted no part of Sounders season tickets.

But in the second season, Trail saw a significant shift among Sounders buyers.

“Watching the Sounders the first year caused a bunch to buy the second year,” Trail said. “And these people were totally different in their behaviors. They followed the game internationally. But they didn’t see the product of the Sounders being of sufficient quality to follow the first year. After seeing it a little bit, and seeing the crowd, they became interested sufficiently to buy season tickets. They’re the ones who follow the EPL and are in the soccer bars. Now they follow the Sounders as well.”

The Turnkey survey showed interest in a broad range of soccer properties, both domestic and abroad. More than 90 percent were at least casual followers of both the U.S. men’s team and the EPL. More than 80 percent were at least casual followers of MLS, the U.S. women’s team, the Champions League, La Liga and Serie A. On average, fans followed eight properties at least casually.

Before he was a sport management professor, Bill Sutton ran a YMCA. He remembers the boom in participation among kids, and all the soccer program slots that he filled as a result of it. Like many, he was surprised it didn’t translate into TV ratings and attendance. He predicts this World Cup will ignite broad interest in the U.S. again, but that this time it will be sustainable.

“I think this is very different from what we were seeing before,” said Sutton, founding director of the sport and entertainment management graduate program at South Florida. “The parents that were driving them around back then were like me. I’d look at my watch the entire time. I went. But I wasn’t really into it. I wanted them to like my sports. Now, it’s one of their parents’ sports, too.

“Soccer has had a number of false starts here. They were thinking people were ready for it and they weren’t quite ready. They’re more ready for it now than I’ve ever seen.”