U.S. summer of soccer: Is growth sustainable?
I was first struck by the makeup of the crowd. Walking around Charlotte’s city center on a late Saturday afternoon before a Liverpool-AC Milan match, I couldn’t help but notice the number of young people — schoolchildren, young teens and mid-teens, some with their parents, others together in groups — making their way to Bank of America Stadium.
Executive Editor Abraham Madkour and staff writer Tripp Mickle analyze the "summer of soccer," what it means for the sport in the U.S. and what it could mean for Major League Soccer.
I had heard ticket sales for the Liverpool-AC Milan match, part of the Guinness International Champions Cup promoted by Relevent Sports, were strong, but count me among those surprised and impressed by the turnout and enthusiasm. The announced attendance just under 70,000 wasn’t a farce, because while there were pockets of empty sections in the far reaches of the upper level, for the most part the stadium was filled. With Liverpool, you have an immense global following, and that was obvious by how engaged the fan base was. They showed up, ready to play and party.
As I took in the surroundings, I was sent a news alert that stated nearly 110,000 fans had jammed Michigan Stadium on the same day for the Manchester United-Real Madrid match. The attendance figures build on the same feeling I experienced around the World Cup earlier this summer. To me, interest in soccer in the U.S. feels different — bigger and stronger. The ICC was able to draft off the World Cup’s momentum. And while not all the matches were big hits like in Michigan and Charlotte — there were noticeable soft spots and disappointing turnouts in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia — being around those passionate fans on that Saturday got me thinking more about soccer’s place in the U.S. sports landscape, as I am fascinated by the growth I perceive around the sport.
But do others feel the same way? I reached out to a number of executives last week to get their perspective on the ICC and the summer of soccer in the United States.
> Darren Marshall, executive vice president and partner at rEvolution: “It certainly shows fans’ appreciation for the top level of the global game, but those fans also know it’s a potential once-in-a-lifetime chance to see those teams play near them, which adds to the draw. Whether this translates into higher attendance at MLS games is the key question. You could use the analogy of the NFL games in London, which sell out within hours since they’re the only chance European fans have to see the game at the highest level, but the NFL is still rightly nervous about assuming that would translate into support for a franchise there.”
> Derek Aframe, executive vice president at Octagon: “A trend I expect to see based on the success of these events this summer is the furthering interest of elite European clubs to build their brand and monetize their content with Americans. The next phase for them might be to consider playing official regular-season matches abroad, the way the NFL, MLB and the NBA have helped build a global audience through this initiative.”
>Scott Rosner, associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative: “It’s more about the incremental gains that soccer has had in the U.S. rather than any monumental leaps forward. The American soccer fan is more sophisticated than ever due to an organic development of the fan base over a multigenerational period. There is obviously real demand for the biggest clubs on their summer tours, but there is some substantial value to the scarcity of the product and novelty of playing games in unique facilities, such as Michigan Stadium. So while fans might support the ‘circus’ when it comes to town for a very limited engagement, will they support a more extensive offering?”
> Pilson Communications President Neal Pilson noted the increased knowledge in global soccer by the American public “will clearly benefit” MLS. “But growth for MLS will continue to be slow since it must compete for attention and for top athletes with team sports that have a much longer history in the U.S. and much stronger economics, principally baseball, football, basketball and hockey,” he said. “When MLS games regularly play in 50,000-seat stadia with world-class athletes in their prime and generate TV ratings and sponsor dollars comparable to the established sports, we will know it has arrived. I would say they have another generation to go [20 years], which is not a long time when you look at the 100-year history of other team sports.”
>Bill Sutton, University of South Florida and Bill Sutton & Associates: “Soccer has positioned itself much like Under Armour and, in another era, Pepsi — the choice of a new generation; your sport, not your father’s. It’s the world’s game, which is more important to a generation that is more accepting of diversity and embracing differences than previous generations of Americans. The friendlies are more event-centric and stand out from other sport offerings on the calendar. … Americans appreciate excellence. The EPL and Champions League offer that.”
> Mike Trager, chairman of The Trager Group, admits he looks at the numbers “a bit differently,” saying, “Although the Champions Cup seems to be a successful venture for the organizers, there was no United States team in the tournament this year. What is driving the popularity of soccer here seems to be the occasional matches between international football powers residing outside of our country. There does seem to be a thirst here to see the world’s best. The real measure of success in this country will lie in the growth of our U.S.-based professional leagues and our ability to compete at the highest levels of the sport. The ultimate test will be the continued growth of a dedicated fan base in more than just a few cities.”
> Media consultant Ben Grossman: “This summer’s attendance figures are just more drumbeats of momentum of the consistent and inevitable growth of soccer into a major player on the U.S. sports marketplace that had already been happening for years. My 6- and 8-year-old sons, who wear San Jose Earthquakes jerseys to school and can’t wait for the Champions League draw later this month, don’t look at soccer as any less of a big sport than football or baseball.”
> Michael Neuman, managing partner of Scout Sports & Entertainment, which advised Geico on its ICC sponsorship: “The attendance record does not come as a surprise. Give ICC credit: They know what they are doing. A combination of strong matchups [and] in carefully selected markets were key ingredients to what drove record attendance. Along the way, they had to make tough decisions to move certain matches out of venues that weren’t selling tickets and into others. However, this year’s showing is proof that interest here for quality soccer has grown tremendously. The success of this tour will fuel growth in future tours and the expansion of brand reputation for overseas soccer clubs seeking to carve out a wider swatch of fandom here on American soil. The real test is, how this will translate into higher attendance and ratings for MLS.”
> Glenn Wong, professor, sports management, University of Massachusetts: “European soccer is looking at marketing and growth potential in the United States the same way the U.S. views London for the NFL and China, India and Brazil for the NBA and other leagues. While the United States does not currently have the same sheer number of soccer fans as some other countries, it has potential: passionate sports fans with significant disposable income and corporations that will spend money on sponsorships.”
As for the related trend lines he’s watching, Wong said: “How can MLS capitalize on this interest? If soccer booms in the United States, what sport(s), if any, will be adversely impacted?”
So there are some consistent themes of baby steps along the way for a sport whose potential is often highly touted but frequently chided for under-delivering. There’s been massive interest in the international game, but still skepticism around its U.S. sustainabilty. You tell me: Is soccer as a business proposition in the U.S. a stock you’re buying?
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.