If winning Sports League of the Year at the Sports Business Awards was not enough validation of Major League Soccer’s ascendancy, more measurable recognition of soccer’s foothold in the US sporting landscape comes in the form of ESPN’s Annual Report confirming the sport as the second most popular amongst 12-24-year-olds.
And the report is quite definitive: American Football holds the number one sport for popularity; soccer has now become the firm number two.
No doubt wide perceptions that soccer lags behind America’s four leading sports (baseball, basketball, hockey and American football) will continue to be held, but its’ gaining ground can’t be disputed, and notably amongst a crucial demographic: the next generation of fans.
Further change on the way.
These poll figures aren’t simply rhetoric; 2015 saw the league mark some other considerable milestones.
It became the standout leader among Hispanics of the same age; the country witnessed the women’s national side hoist the Women’s World Cup (attracting a domestic audience of a 27m in the process); and at a grassroots level, soccer-playing in high schools grew more than any other sport.
On top of this, attendance figures further attest to the surge: average attendances at MLS games have grown by 56% since 2001, and in the past five years, they have risen by 29% (for context, more people now go to MLS games than they do to NBA or NHL games).
The league is in the midst of a virtuous circle of serendipitous contribution as all of this activity has been buoyed by availability of soccer on TV. Domestic MLS fixtures were tied in with English Premier League games by broadcasters in a smart move resulting in the growth in TV audiences (and apparently there is now more live soccer available on American TV than in any other country).
But, the real number…
Is the revenue.
And MLS is still a minnow in comparison to the big four: MLS generates a tenth of what the NBA does (and to put that into context, just half the revenue of Japanese baseball).
Now that the sport of soccer is becoming part of the sporting fabric, and social conversation, of America, there are others more commercial areas they need to improve…
On a bigger stage.
The latest effort to cement the sport into the mainstream consciousness comes while the league is on hiatus, as the historic Copa America Centenario – marking the 100th anniversary of the tournament – is hosted by the United States for the first time in the tournaments’ 100-year history (also marking the first time it has been held anywhere other than in South America).
So while there is still some way for the MLS to go before they can compete regularly with the big four leagues, it is most certainly moving in the right direction, and with the US reaching the quarter finals, even more attention will be directed at the sport. Imagine if they pick up silverware… Imagine?
So where next?
The agenda of this league has been an open and transparent one from its beginnings: to cement itself – the world’s game, soccer – into the mainstream. And in just over two decades of trying (asking, persuading, convincing…), they are starting to reap their recognition.
Their current standing is one that could not have been predicted five years ago, and one that it is not short of phenomenal; this is the first generation of advocates seeing a United States with a professional soccer league.
And with the league set to grow from 20 to 24 teams over the next two seasons, it is about nurturing the growth of their young, eclectic fan-base from the bottom up. With MLS part of their generational DNA – it is only a matter of time before America churns out a homegrown international soccer superstar of their own. Only time will tell if the league can keep him there.
But for now, as long as the league can continue to attract stars from around the world, there is no reason to believe the trend for MLS will be anything but up.