Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Revisiting Soccer in America

So wayyyy back in June of 2011, I made a post about soccer in America.  It still has the most comments of any post I’ve made, meaning it has more than 2.

In that post, I talked about how to make soccer more relevant in America, which is has grown in popularity, with last Sunday’s (the 22nd of June) game between the US and Portugal getting comparable ratings in the country to a World Series or NBA Finals game.  That’s a huge step in the right direction, and, discounting the likely sizable amount of Portugal supporters, means that those people are all rooting for, or at least interested in, the US Men’s National team, as opposed to Mexico, Brazil, England, etc.  That’s also huge.  For the longest time American interest in the sport was relegated to immigrant communities watching their country’s teams (there’s a reason Univision is showing the World Cup in Spanish guys).  Now Americans are interested in the heroics of Clint Dempsy and not (insert superstar from country of origin here).

So I’ll go back and discuss, in opposite order, the arguments I made 3 years ago.  If you haven’t read that post, you should do so now.  I’ll wait...

Most soccer balls don't have feet of their own, you provide them.

Let’s begin

  • Win

Well, that’s a simple argument.  Obviously American soccer’s success buoys the success of the sport, and the country’s top tier league, Major League Soccer (MLS).  The US is doing acceptably in this year’s World Cup, guaranteed not to finish last in arguably the hardest group in the tournament (some very very pessimistic writers before the tournament legitimately predicted 0 points for the Americans).  The USMNT has a better than average chance to qualify for the knockout round in consecutive tournaments for the first time ever, and on the whole are competing well against top tier competition.  Will this bring more people to MLS games? I’ll look at that later.

  • Implement a promotion/relegation system.

I still think this is a good idea, if only to allow the top tier to grow in a more organic manner (there’s literally no way that Chivas USA is one of the 19 best teams in the US and Canada).  Obviously the US/Canada federations would need to come to an agreement on the differing leagues outside tiers 1 and 2,  but the big problem is that the MLS’ league structure doesn’t allow for teams to leave and join easily (expansion is a lengthy process, and no team has gone out of the league and survived).  Is it a good idea? I think so. Will it work, maybe?

  • Keep the best domestic players in the MLS/more domestic players

Well the more domestic players idea is just plain silly.  Some of the best players in the MLS are American, like reigning MLS MVP, and Chicago native, Mike McGee.  The simplest explanation is that there have been a lot of very high profile foreign players in the league in its first decade, but the talent pool has widened.  There’s certainly foreigners in the MLS, but that’s to be expected of any top level soccer league in a wealthy country.  As far as keeping the best American players in the States, the USSF and MLS have done an improved job of getting the best players to sign with teams in the US (or Canada in Michael Bradley’s case).  10 of the 23 players in the US’ World Cup squad play in the MLS, and 5 of the starting 11 for the Portugal game are MLS players.  It’s not 100%, like other squads, but for a country where the top league has a salary cap, it’s better than expected.

  • Keep the March-November schedule

This is probably the biggest component of increasing the MLS’ popularity.  As I said before, a spring to fall schedule, as opposed to a fall to spring one, gives the MLS huge benefits.  In the summer, the busiest part of a regular MLS season (this season the league is taking a break during the World Cup, but that’s only every four years) there’s only two leagues to compete against, the MLB, which is admittedly popular, and NASCAR, a pretty regional sport, which only has 1 top level competition a week.  Yes the World Series and Daytona 500 pull good ratings (9.3 for the 2014 Daytona race, and between 12.5 and 19 million for the 2013 World Series), however the US fall to spring sports schedule is swamped.  College football, college basketball, NBA basketball, the NHL, and oh yeah, the NFL, which 2, soon to be 3, MLS teams share venues with.  There’s no chance that an MLS team gets first pick of dates, meaning that Sundays, and some Thursdays, Saturdays, and Mondays, are pretty much out from Labor Day on until February.

Then there’s the weather issue, which has been the largest problem.  Even with a break in December, playing soccer (in shorts no less) in November, January, February, and in some places, March, in cities like Denver, Vancouver, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, etc, is unthinkable. 

This is Colorado in March.

 Luckily the weather issue has gotten the MLS to effectively kill the idea each time it comes up (about every year) ( ( . I’m not going to lie, I was a Fire season ticket holder in 2013, and a couple early season games I was like “do I really want to go out in about freezing weather, and take the train for an hour? ...nah”.  Hell, the Bundesliga, Germany’s top league, and arguably one of the best in the world, has raised a discussion of moving their schedule to the summer, because of the weather.

Then there’s another aspect I had not considered.  I’ll call it “the World Cup Bump”.  Obviously I don’t have hard numbers to back it up, but interest in soccer rises dramatically during the World Cup.  Makes sense, it’s by far the biggest soccer tournament and probably one of the biggest team sports competitions internationally.  How often is the top story on SportsCenter about soccer? Other than the World Cup (at least this one, I suspect they’ll casually forget its existence in 2018 when the competition moves to Fox), pretty rarely.  Do European leagues need the competition to increase popularity of the sport? No, but the Americans do.  A bump in popularity from a large scale international competition in a sport is a very common occurrence.  After the Olympics, interest in sports like track and field, swimming, and, in the winter, ice hockey, jump before settling back down to their pre-Olympic levels.  If the MLS can harness that bump in popularity and get more eyes on TVs, or, better yet, in seats, to watch their sport, it could get thousands if not millions of people more interested in their product, thereby getting more money for the league and its teams, allowing for them to buy better players in the international market, raising the quality of play.  Obviously, a deep US run would cause that bump to turn into an enormous spike,  before likely lowering, but hopefully lowering to a higher level than before the competition.

In all, despite what crotchety old naysayers will have you believe, soccer fan become popular in the US.  The American sports market is a large enough pie that, even if the MLS never gets as large a chunk as, say, the Premier League gets of the English pie (probably Shepard’s), it’ll still be more than enough to make it a viable international league.

Though seriously someone needs to do something about the flopping.  It’s highly annoying.  Oh, and the time wasting, that’s annoying too.  And give Luis Suarez a mouthguard.  Not to protect his teeth, to protect everyone else from them.
And y'all thought I was joking

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