In the minds of many American sports fans, soccer is in the back corner, tucked next to track and field and curling as sports to care about once every four years.
Alright, that's a major exaggeration. Right now, soccer is at the same level as NASCAR in the American sports landscape. There are a group of die-hard fans who follow the sport religiously, but it stays out of the limelight unless something amazing happens. Those who don't follow it have a basic understanding of the sport (e.g. "You put the ball in the back of the net" or "If you're not first, you're last"), but come up with ways to deride the sport and try and take away its legitimacy ("There's not enough goals" or "Drivers aren't athletes"). The niche MLS currently occupies is somewhat precarious, but it gives the league a platform upon which a broader national impact can be built. Both sports were about 4 percent of sports fans' primary sport in 2006.
Another issue many Americans take is with the prima donna reputation of soccer players and the perception that the sport is for "soft" people. The highlight reels are all about finesse plays, because nobody wants to see a goal that came from a long ball, took two deflections off of defenders and was put in when the goalkeeper had no chance to stop it. The perception of soccer as a "soft" sport stems from players flopping everywhere and faking injuries just to show up 30 seconds later back on the pitch in perfect condition. (Think of it as the "Cristiano Ronaldo Effect.")
Given soccer's current position as a purely niche sport, and the obstacles it has with reputation and history, it would seem improbable that the sport could climb up the ladder and be treated as a major sport in North America.
However, Major League Soccer and the sport in general do have a few things working in its favor for increasing their collective relevance in the United States.
The biggest thing the league has going for it is the impending National Football League and National Basketball Association labor stoppages. The stoppages could leave an opening in the American sports conscience, leaving fans who would otherwise be following those sports to seek out other entertainment. For instance, when the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike in 1994, other forms of entertainment saw huge increases in revenues, including movie rentals. The same principle would apply as sports fans look for another home, as other sports would function the same as any other entertainment source.
The primarily football and basketball fans who are lost, 48 percent of sports fans in 2006 according to Pew Research Center, would have a void in their lives that could easily be filled by Major League Soccer. It's fair to say that a vast majority of sports fans are fans of more than one sport, and with their schedules being freed up, there is potential for significant numbers of fans to explore soccer while their primary sports are not playing. These fans would find a soccer league with the highest level of play it has ever seen, which shows the convenience of the other sports' impending labor troubles for Major League Soccer.
The league also won't have to contend with these other sports filling the schedule, allowing the sport to potentially start and finish its season without having to go up against the NBA Playoffs and the start of the NFL regular season, respectively. Being able to attract fans' attention to the most important parts of the schedule is probably the easiest way to draw fans in. They would be able to either follow a team from start to finish or come into the season just as it reaches its dramatic climax. Showcasing the prominent parts of the schedule with less conflicts and more curious fans offers a huge potential for growth.
The other important thing soccer has going for it are the demographic trends of the United States populace. According to the aforementioned Pew study, which is admittedly somewhat dated but is still useful, people who are primarily soccer fans are 4 percent of American sports fans at large. This is the same figure as auto racing, and actually is ahead of ice hockey, which falls at 3 percent. The survey lists baseball as the third most popular sport, significantly ahead at 13 percent.
There are major caveats with each of these numbers that have to be taken into consideration. Baseball has the oldest demographic of any sport in the United States, according to a Sports Business Daily demographic study released in June 2010. Each of the three sports mentioned as nearest soccer in terms of popularity rate have demographics of more than 40 percent of fans being more than age 50, which is a harbinger for long-term popularity decline. Soccer, in turn, has the youngest watching crowd, with 37.8 percent of its fans being in the 18-34 age group. This points to a reliable fan base to build upon, as these fans still have a lot of life to live. No other sport's most significant watching group came from that demographic; the other categories were 35-49 and 50+.
For the statistics from ice hockey and soccer, one has to consider the Canadian impact for both sports, as the data for the percentage of sports fans is from American markets only. There is significantly more North American market share for hockey than the 3 percent figure lets on, based on its rampant popularity up north. Although not to the same level, one must also consider that Major League Soccer will soon have three franchises in the Great White North, most of any sport besides hockey.
The other pivotal demographic important to Major League Soccer's long-term growth is the huge number of Hispanic soccer fans. According to the SBD data, 23.2 percent of MLS fans are of Hispanic descent, while the next closest sport is the NFL, with a 13.9 percent Hispanic fan base. Not only is it significant that the league draws upon a diverse fan base, but Hispanics are the most rapidly growing demographic in the United States. If the league can simply ride that wave, it will see markedly increased growth.
The significance of the youth and Hispanic demographics to the future growth of Major League Soccer is huge. Because of the stability and growth of those demographics, the league has a group of dedicated fans from which to grow and build upon. Plus, the sport obviously has an appeal to those growing demographics, which the league can exploit to further its growth.
The obstacles to the league's growth in popularity alluded to earlier can largely be eliminated as well. Although the league does not have a ton of history, it is about to undertake its 15th season, which is enough to ingrain its name to the average fan. There is also enough history of soccer in the country, stemming from the NASL, to have older fans be aware of the sport's presence.
Major League Soccer is often regarded as one of the world's most physical leagues, which runs contrary to the sport's "soft" perception to Americans. Also working in the favor of the sport as a whole in the country is that the English Premier League, another noted physical league, is currently regarded as the best league in the world. If people take the time to watch the games, they will notice the "soft" reputation of the sport is far from reality in Major League Soccer and the sport in general.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention television and sponsorship contracts. The league's primary television contract with ESPN runs through 2014, and gives approximately one match per week to the network and its family and some playoff matches, as well as the All-Star Game and MLS Cup Final, which are on the flagship network. The league has a secondary one-year contract with Fox Soccer Channel, which has approximately the same game-per-week schedule, and some playoff matches. Other television rights deals are contracted on a team-by-team basis. The league's current contracts are adequate for its current market share, but as it looks to make a greater foothold in the sports market, a network with greater circulation than FSC, which is consigned to the highest tiers of premium sports programming.
Sponsorship is likely to lag somewhat behind the expansion of the league, as most businesses would be looking to get involved with a sport already seen as established instead of with one trying to expand its market share.
Given all of the opportunities and positives afforded to Major League Soccer, in the end it is up to the league to seize its opportunity to become a more prominent part of the American sports conscience. The league needs strong and intelligent leadership, first and foremost; this problem has tripped up other niche leagues poised to make a dent in the American market. The three most notable examples are the National Hockey League under Gary Bettman, undone by expansion and bad television contracts; NASCAR under Brian France, where the sport outstretched its bounds and ended up alienating its core consumers, and the former NASL, which was ruined by out-of-control spending.
As long as the league does its part, the sport will grow beyond its current niche in the long term, simply because of the demographics of American soccer fans. If the league catches a few breaks and has exceptional leadership, it can impact the market sooner and grow bigger and faster than it would in the status quo. However, a few questionable decisions or a few bad breaks could leave the league right where it is today.
It's all up to MLS commissioner Don Garber and the league's leadership to see where the sport ends up in the long term, but the potential is there for it to take up an increasing share of the American sports conscience.