Football – or soccer, as it is known in the US – has long been the poor relation of American sport. Lacking the primetime exposure and television audiences that tune into American football, baseball or basketball, it has grown steadily as a participation sport but has lagged behind its rivals in commercial terms.
That is changing. Broadcaster NBC is using the English Premier League as a centrepiece: on a recent Sunday, CNBC, the business channel, broadcast live morning coverage of Liverpool’s defeat by Crystal Palace.
Major League Soccer (MLS), the domestic league competition, is growing in attendances and attracting new fans, investors and sponsors, while the men’s and women’s national teams are generating impressive television audiences that compare well with rival US sports.
Football’s popularity with younger viewers and people of Hispanic background gives it a demographic advantage in the US, says Darren Marshall, a partner with Revolution, a sports marketing agency. “The Hispanic population is growing significantly, which gives soccer a demographic wave to ride on. It can become a big niche sport, especially among young adults, who are important to advertisers.”
Premier League coverage is popular with 18-30-year-olds, he adds. “It’s become cool and trendy. When the baseball season is over, these fans follow their home town soccer team.”
The structure of MLS differs greatly from that of European leagues. Ownership of teams is centralised: investors can bid to operate a franchise. “The league has a great deal of control, so it has been able to reduce some of the risk [of running a team],” says Scott Bukstein, assistant director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida.
“I believe it is positioned for exponential growth because of the number of avid soccer enthusiasts,” he says.
Soccer, he adds, “is a fast-paced sport with an outstanding level of fan engagement and it has been able to keep costs down on the team side, in respect to player salaries”. MLS trails other US sports in earnings potential: NBA basketball players earn about $5m a year, compared with $100,000 in the MLS.
The league has, however, become a more attractive commercial proposition for potential owners. The cost of securing a franchise used to be $5m-$10m but is now $70m, Bukstein says. He cites four teams – Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City and Los Angeles Galaxy – as leaders in building viable businesses and engaging with fans.
The league continues to attract top international stars: Brazil’s Kaka and former Spanish international David Villa are among the players who have moved to the US this year.
But despite the sport’s growth, work needs to be done to convert fair-weather fans into diehard supporters. “Unfortunately, US interest in the men’s national team peaks with the onset of the World Cup [and] declines thereafter,” says John Vrooman, an economics professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
“As a result, US fan interest cycles in sync with the major international competitions and is never fully internalised in our domestic leagues.” The breakthrough in US soccer, he adds, “is still probably a generation away”.
The US football audience is split into two groups, explains Marshall: passionate fans and event fans. “Event fans will get behind the national team during the World Cup and then probably not watch another match for four years,” he says.
Could a US team win the World Cup? “Unlikely,” says Marshall. He points to the money that flows to promising young athletes in other US sports – and the university scholarships that often lead to professional careers and contracts.
“In Spain or England, the future Messis and Rooneys go straight into clubs via academies. In the US, they play three or four other sports. With soccer, you’re left with the athletes who can’t get an American football or basketball scholarship.”
Still, there are reasons to be optimistic, says Vrooman. “In spite of all the challenges facing domestic club competition and league development in the US, it is entirely possible – if not likely given the nature of the tournament process – that the US will contend for a World Cup by Qatar 2022.”