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Soccer has continued to grow at the grassroots level without rest in the USA since the early 1970s. New participants arrive every year. Colleges have added mens and womens varsity teams faster than any other sport. The Womens World Cup in 1999 and the Mens World Cup in 1994 were hugely successful events in the U.S.
Soccer has the enviable demographics of suburban families, high income families, youthful participants, and more organized tournaments and leagues than any other sport. It is a game geared toward todays modern living. It is fast, unisex, inexpensive to play, and relatively injury free compared to other sports.
So, why has soccer not made it in the U.S.A? What problems have faced soccer since it started its run to popularity in the 70s? We will discuss professional soccer (the MLS) since, by any standard, the grassroots and college soccer are successful.
1- Soccer is still a young sport in the U.S.A. It only started as a mainline sport in 1968. The oldest participants of soccer today are barely 40. The sport has been visible for only 35 years. People forget football did not become big time until the Jets won the Super Bowl. In 1960, there were only twelve NFL teams and the Cleveland Browns vs the New York Giants was the big game. Football had been around for over 50 years by then. It takes more than one generation before the early participants start buying their own tickets. Remember, adults buy the tickets. The huge youth participation does not automatically create ticket sales.
2- Soccer is criticized as that foreign game. 200 nations play soccer as their #1 game and we are one of only a few nations who dont! Clearly, we, the USA, are the foreigners to this game. We do their own sports as one of only five nations who play baseball (and four are islands). And, only one nation plays football (U.S.). The World Cup in soccer is truly the only world championship, but Americans have refused to acknowledge the World Cup because the USA National Team had not yet become a consistent winner. (The USA started to win in 2002 World Cup). Foreign nations win The World Cup and play soccer.
3- Kids who play cannot go to games. Youth participation in leagues/tournaments is pervasive in the grass roots. Parents go with their kids (we were selling soccer moms at the NASL long before it became a political term). Kids play on Saturdays and Sundays. Unfortunately, professional soccer teams were always given the worst times to play in stadiums or be on TV. The 4 p.m. Saturday or Sunday time slot for soccer is the poorest time to play or be on TV. All soccer spectators, viewers and players were out participating in the grass roots. They did not buy tickets or watch TV. That was bad for the commercial viability of the sport (bad ratings). Professional Soccer has not yet achieved mostly evening games so participants can watch or go; youth soccer has actually cannabalized the MLS games.
4- The television industry has never been kind to soccer. Historically, it put games at times where ratings will not be highÉ 4pm on Saturday, (see above).The networks have used older cameramen. Most people over 40 have never played soccer and they rarely understand this game. We can only see what the cameraman gives us and if they dont follow the game very well, it does not seem exciting. (Watch an Italian league game or a German league game and its much better on TV). Soccer is very fast. You need to anticipate where the ball is going, not where it has been. The action is non-stop. Soccer requires good camera work to keep viewers interested and involved. Our cameramen do not know how to do that.
In addition, the MLS buys the time for its games and must sell the commercial time itself. It is a 24-hour job to sell time so other business areas must suffer (like a nationally approved plan for all teams to market the League). Selling time is what networks do. It is not what leagues do!
Plus, in the World Cup 2002, soccer got bad programming decisions. They cut away before the celebrations, sent only one American announcer team to the event, and had announcers working from the studio. They did not use a Telestrator, and did not augment the world feed. The TV media (except Univision) had a very hollow commitment to the World Cup 02. The MLS, it appears, has not stood up to the TV media. The print media ignores soccer too. (See the N.Y. Times except for George Vecsey).
5- TV has only recently started using American announcers like Ty Keough and Shep Messing. Both grew up in the American game and can call it correctly. TV had used announcers who had an accent and criticized us because we were not as good as players in Europe. That did two thingsÉit exacerbated the foreign game image and contributed to feelings that this U.S. game was no good. Neither image was positive for the commercial viability of the sport. (Even though the number of kids playing the game kept growingÉthey knew how much fun and challenging this sport was to play). The MLS needs to cultivate an American image. (Hockey did it while basketball needs to go international). Player diversity is American and will enhance an American image.
6- The grassroots youth programs are the greatest asset of soccer, but that has not translated into their support of a commercially viable professional league. There are too many personal fiefdoms. My League is my power base. (The overall support other sports receive from youth is better). I have never understood the shortsightedness of this approach. It is very difficult to get the complete soccer community to cooperate with each other. Each youth league is its own little power base that doesnt care about the neighboring town with its own power struggles. I wish they would open up, see the big picture, and cooperate for the good of the game and forget about power trips for individuals. Even soccer specialty shops only want NIKE, Adidas and the uniforms they make themselves for local teams. Rarely do they cooperate with soccer people/products from outside their community.
7- Youth Leagues were given huge discounts or free tickets in order to get them to go to games. Thats wrong. No sport should ever give their tickets away for free just to gain attendance. It creates the sense of desperation to fill seats and that image gets around. Those youthful participants should be the prime target for ticket sales and sponsorships. For instance, in the 1980 NASL, the Dallas Tornado had a front office of Lamar Hunt, Kent Kramer and Coach Al Miller. That was a dream front office! But the youth leagues in Dallas had ongoing disagreements with the team and would not buy tickets. It hurt pro soccer tremendously. Grass roots programs should go out of their way to support pro and college teams, not fight them.
8- The professional men are not as competitive as the women on an international scale.
9- The best American male players play in Europe. We had 13 world class players on our 02 World Cup national team who play in Europe. They make more money and they get better faster because the level of competition is higher. So we Americans do not see 13 of our own stars / celebrities on a constant basis. We are hero challenged in soccer. All sports have role models as a basic strength except soccer. There are 10 MLS teams todayÉif each one got two of these U.S. better players from Europe we would have more stars to watch, imitate and pay to see. The MLS needs to keep our own stars!
10- Professional soccer does not utilize one of its greatest strengthsÉthe unisex participation appeal. Rarely do the MLS mens teams create double-header games with WUSA womens teams to gain advantage of dual sex popularity. The MLS should do more of this. Soccer is a great game to play at all ages for both male and female; this creates sophisticated unisex fans. The US is still in the process of developing its own sophisticated fan base and should encourage it for both sexes. The Meadowlands sold out audience for the womens World Cup 99 is an untapped market! It is new, young, female oriented. I have never seen this target group at any other sports event. Soccer moms and their daughters are part of our culture now and they attend womens soccer games (at the grassroots and at the Meadowlands)!