Thursday, July 06, 2006

World Cup Mania in the United States

Over the last month, it has been really interesting to see how sports fans in the United States are dealing with the World Cup. On one end of the spectrum you have the diehard football fans who leave work to go watch the games, while on the other end you have sports fans who may check the score of a match if they are bored at work. Football, is without a doubt, the most popular sport in the world. Sports fans can argue all they want that the SuperBowl is the most watched sporting event, but it is not even close to how important World Cup matches are to other countries. Most countries completely shut down during the World Cup matches. If a country wins an important match, the government will order a national holiday the next day to celebrate.

If you are an international company, sponsoring events or advertisements during the World Cup is essential. The Olympics draws hundreds of millions of viewers, but countries that don't have winter sports may not be interested in watching the Games. Everyone plays soccer, everywhere.

What is it going to take to make soccer, and the MLS in particular, more popular in the U.S? Issues to review include fan interest, stadium concerns, media interest and the overall level of player competition.

Fan Interest:
In 1996, fans came out in droves to witness the first year of the League. According to a case study entitled, “Major League Soccer 1996-1998: Now, Later…Never?” it noted “At the league opener in San Jose, over 30,000 fans came to Spartan Stadium. In Los Angeles, the Galaxy drew 69,000 at their home opener at the Rose Bowl.”

In any sport, there is going to be a honeymoon period when people come out to view the new league. Everyone in MLS had high expectations for an increase in fan interest in season two, but the case study noted that isn’t what happened. “League-wide attendance dropped by 16%, from 17,416 in 1996 to 14,616 in 1997. The Galaxy, which drew a league-high 28,916 in its first season, fell 29% to a second-best 20,626 per game.”

Ten years later, MLS is still struggling to recruit more mainstream sports fans to attend their games. Fox Soccer Channel’s Jamie Trecker agrees that the League has problems appealing to general sports fans. “Most worrying is that they (MLS) seem to be unable to expand their core base. After ten years, MLS has been unable to convert significant numbers of youth soccer players into lifelong fans. Several GMs I talked to — including the L.A. Galaxy's Doug Hamilton, said their teams still depend on group sales to drive attendance. MLS gets little or no attention from the typical American sports fan, and the league seems unable — or unwilling — to market aggressively to them.”

Stadium Concerns:
When the League first started, the owners scheduled the games in American football stadiums. MLS needed to see if it had a viable product before building soccer-only stadiums, but they may have lost some fans in the first few years due to these playing conditions. The stadiums hold anywhere from 50 to 70,000 people and most teams would only have 18 to 20,000 thousand fans attend the matches. Fans want to be close to the action, and the way some football stadiums are constructed, fans do not have the opportunity to be as close as they would like.

Over time, MLS has built soccer-only stadiums for a large percentage of the teams. These new stadiums offer an ideal selling point to young fans and one of the major factors if MLS does succeed. Soccer Digest’s Michael Lewis noted, “Like it or not, the lack of soccer-specific stadiums is killing attendance. Teams can't always schedule games on weekends due to commitments these municipality-run stadiums have to other sporting events, concerts or other entertainment events. When the league moves into its most important part of the season - the homestretch of the regular season and playoffs - many teams can't always get prime weekend dates (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) and many times have to settle for mid-week dates.”

Media Interest:
Before MLS played its first game, from a fan’s perspective, there was a noticeable increase in the amount of media coverage the League received. Sports fans wanted to know about the League, its teams and its player. This excitement ended soon after the matches started. Some teams like the Los Angeles Galaxy or the D.C. United had a strong following and might have two writers covering important games. Otherwise, most of the media didn’t care.

From a sports fan perspective at this time, there is a not a lot of articles covering MLS or its players in mainstream publications including ESPN Magazine and Sports Illustrated. Those publications cover the league, but they do not receive a lot of profile or feature-type stories.

Last year, the New England Revolution played in the MLS championship game. The mainstream media coverage surrounding the event was extremely small. The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald only had one or two reporters covering the game. When the Celtics, Bruins, Patriots or Red Sox are in the playoffs, it is front-page news. I really wonder how many New Englanders knew about this important soccer match.

From a business standpoint, the lack of media interest is a huge, underlining problem for the league and, other than fan interest; it is the major reason why MLS has not grown as fast as they had hoped. The League wants the media to market its teams and players to the fans so they will be interested in coming to the games. The fans want the media to cover the games so if they miss a contest they can stay up to date on the results. The sponsors want their name to be mentioned within articles and television stories to increase their brand recognition and draw additional customers in the future. If the sponsors are not seeing a positive return-on-investment, they are going to end their relationship and thus would continue the downfall of MLS.

From a broadcast perspective, the television stations are having a tough time generating a profit and convincing sponsors to advertise with the League. During the first couple of years, I remember MLS was shown on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 pretty regularly to drum up interest. As ratings declined or stayed the same, the television stations pulled back the amount of games they showed. At this time, I do not know what days and times and on what stations the matches are shown.

MLS is at a crossroads in its quest to enhance the level of competition in the League. At this point, I view MLS as a minor-league to the European soccer teams. A lot of U.S. players compete in MLS for a couple of years and then are recruited and signed by teams abroad. A large percentage of U.S. sports fans want to become attached to one player over the life of their career and watch them play for one team.

The owners of MLS have voted to raise the salary cap for the players in the past, but they need to continue to raise that amount if they want to be able to keep U.S. born players in the League. From a business perspective, a company sometimes needs to spend money to make money. If they do not offer a competitive product, then soccer fans are not going to follow the matches or spend any money to attend the games. At this point, keeping the U.S. players in MLS is, by far, the most important issue and could make or break them depending on the outcome.

That is why soccer won't succeed in the U.S.


At 12:22 PM, Blogger Bob said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head with competition. It all starts with the product you're trying to sell. Bill Simmons on the World Cup:

1. I like watching anything that lets you say, "Hey, these guys are the absolute best of the best." That's why pro soccer will never catch on here: Nobody wants to watch a bunch of second-rate guys playing a sport that isn't that interesting in the first place. Fundamentally, it can't work. You have a better chance of uncovering a Star Jones-Al Reynolds sex tape.


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