Will soccer ever make it to the “big time” in the United States? This question has been asked over and over again since the US hosted the ’94 World Cup and the formation of MLS shortly thereafter. This has also been phrased as “when” or “why soccer will never” become a major sport in the US.
Several signs say that soccer should already be granted “major sport” status. The 2011 season saw more people attend MLS games than the NBA was able to draw during their 2010-2011 season. MLS is now up to 19 teams, adding teams over the last couple of seasons, while there have been whispers of contraction around the NHL. These numbers are impressive, but there is another side to the story. Does the average American sports fan even know that MLS is in the heart of its season right now? Did anyone really notice when the US Men’s team failed to qualify for the Olympics? I don’t know if the best way to frame the soccer conversation is if/when/or why not, but I know the state and future of US soccer can be broken down into two pieces: Product and Passion.
Let’s start with the “Product” side of the equation. Most Americans judge US soccer by the performance (or the product) of the US National Team. Yes, we need to be better at the international level and this will certainly help grow soccer in the US, but the true “Product” of US Soccer is MLS. Think of it this way, if you wanted to truly sell someone on basketball would you point them to the Olympics or toward the NBA Playoffs? Of course the NBA is a higher quality of basketball than the Olympics. We forget that international soccer, just like basketball or hockey, is simply a match-up of All-Star teams. Club teams are the well oiled machines and best products of the soccer world and the top leagues in Europe produce the best soccer in the world. This really puts the onus on MLS. Improving the league’s quality of play is crucial if soccer is going to take the next step forward. Imagine a day when the top MLS teams can truly compete with the top European clubs- that is when the average American sports fan will truly pay attention. Considering Manchester United beat the MLS All-Stars 4-0 last summer we have a long way to go.
For me, the harder part of the equation is building “Passion.” How can someone make me care about the Red Bulls as much as I do about the Mets? I would love to answer this, but can’t find a simple solution. This is totally separate from “Product.” As long at there is some connection, American’s will root for a second tier product. Just think of how deeply American sports fans care about college football when the NFL produces higher quality football. It is also not about individual success. I can’t count the number of hours I have spent watching and cheering hard for terrible Islanders’ teams over the last decade, but my passion has not faded. What can be done to get me just as excited about a sub-par soccer team? This is what MLS needs to figure out.
Rounding this off, since I have offered no solutions, I just want to make a note to the growing number of self anointed fans of European club teams. You cannot call yourself a plan if you can’t explain to me how a team qualifies for the Champions League.