LeBlanc: Is Soccer The Next Big Sport In U.S.?
Over the last month, the World Cup has flexed its muscle by proving once again why soccer is the most popular sport in the world. Every four years, the beautiful game even seems to capture the hearts of American fans, and when the World Cup finishes this weekend in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, we shall once again be left with the same question - where exactly does soccer stand in the American landscape? So, I’ve decided to take on this recurring question. The great debate about soccer is one that doesn’t seem to go away. Soccer has its critics, its unwavering supporters, its total non-believers and its unrelenting dreamers. That said, when you take all the evidence into account, you start to see substantial clues that help us see where things are truly heading.
The avid soccer fans who are always trying to convince everyone that soccer is growing in the United States always offer this argument…TV ratings!
So let’s take a look at the information I pieced together thanks to the power of Google.
The U.S. vs. Ghana match televised by ESPN registered a 7.0 overnight rating. What does that number mean? That match ranks as the second-highest group stage match ever watched in the United States, notwithstanding the 1.4 million fans viewed the game on the WatchESPN platform. We also shouldn’t forget that Univision (the Spanish rightsholder to the FIFA World Cup in the United States) had 4.8 million tune in for that match. Even without the Univision numbers, ESPN had a larger audience for the U.S. victory over Ghana than it had for ABC’s airing of Game 5 of the NBA Finals. In total, the match had nearly 16 million people watching.
Those viewership records lasted less than a week. When the U.S. vs. Portugal match aired on June 22, more than 25 million tuned in for the heart-wrenching 2-2 draw, which kicked off at 6 p.m. With ease, that telecast beat the NBA Finals (15.5 million), the 2013 World Series (14.9 million) and the NHL playoffs (five million). ESPN noted that the match was the most-watched event outside of the NFL, and was on par with the audience for the BCS Championship (25.7 million) game this past January.
What’s more remarkable, the numbers don’t take into account viewing parties, such as groups gathering in homes, bars and city centers. For example, crowds of more than 10,000 fans gathered inside the Power & Light District in Kansas City to watch each U.S. World Cup match. ESPN estimates that you can add another five million viewers to the numbers. Those watch parties took place all over the country, in nearly every major city, and scenes like the above video became the norm during the United States’ run to the round of 16 knockout stage.
The numbers for the Germany match and the Belgium match were also impressive, despite less than favorable broadcast times. Both matches again outperformed the aforementioned. Demand for the Germany match through streaming measures was more than what ESPN could handle with the WatchESPN app. With 1.4 million users trying to stream the match online, ESPN hit record numbers, and simply could not keep up as the app crashed under the demand for the combined matches between the U.S./Germany and Portugal/Ghana.
With all that said, the non-soccer enthusiast is always quick to let you know, “It’s the World Cup, it’s every four years, it’s not going to last.”
OK. That’s fine, and it’s hard to disagree. The argument is always that “the World Cup has the best players on the planet, and the American fan base will tune in just to see what the buzz is about. But beyond that, no one is going to care about soccer in this country.”
Actually, that sentiment is a fledgling one at best. Major League Soccer, the professional soccer league in the United States with 19 teams from New York to Los Angeles is in its 19th season. The league will be expanding to 23 teams over the next few years with New York City adding a second franchise, Orlando, Atlanta (owned by Atlanta Falcon’s owner Arthur Blank), and Miami all joining. This still young league is clearly thriving and has some of the biggest, brightest and wealthiest owners of franchises in professional sports, including some NFL owners. Clearly, these owners are seeing the value of the sports growth in the United States. Surely, the most popular billionaire American sports owners would have an idea if this soccer thing were here to stay, right?
Here’s a list of some noteworthy American MLS franchise and/or professional soccer team owners:
That’s a pretty impressive sampling of owners involved in soccer, right? One would think that would give some insight in to things to come? If these guys are going to get behind soccer, perhaps, they’re on to something?
Well, let’s ask the next question then…how does soccer in the U.S. measure up, because no one cares about the MLS?
Once again, people really aren’t well versed enough to make that statement any more. It simply isn’t fact. Let’s take a look at the attendance numbers in MLS versus the other major sports. The NFL is untouchable in the United States, as evidence by its 2013 numbers. The NFL averaged approximately 68,000 fans per game. Next is MLB, which has 30 teams and averaged approximately 30,000 fans per game in 2013. In 2013, the NHL averaged a bit more than the NBA at just more than 17,500 fans per game, as the NBA average attendance was approximately 17,000 fans per game.
Where does that put Major League Soccer? In 2013 MLS ranked ahead of the NBA and NHL in attendance, averaging approximately 18,500 fans per game, solidly establishing itself among the hierarchy in American sports. Whether we like it or not, whether the World Cup infuses the non-fan or not, whether we are willing to believe the facts or not, soccer is no longer the game that we keep hearing is going to break through the American sports landscape because, it already has.
So what does this mean to the NCAA collegiate game?
This is where things may get a little complicated. The collegiate soccer game, on the men’s and women’s side, has produced remarkable results despite a structure that limits its ability to thrive. Unlike college football, basketball, baseball and hockey, the collegiate soccer model comes under massive amounts of scrutiny, in particular on the men’s side because of its inability to move forward in the same facets that soccer has in every other area. Yes, soccer is the most popular youth sport in America. Yes, world soccer is broadcast more in the United States than in any other country on the planet. Yes, the World Cup has proven that soccer has mass appeal. Yes, Major League Soccer is growing and expanding. Why is college soccer struggling to grow, and more importantly, evolve to the same popularity that the sport currently has?
That answer lies in many areas. Unlike the women’s game, the men’s game has critical structural issues that keep it from truly maximizing its potential. The U.S. Women’s National Team is renowned for being the best in the world, so why can’t the men be just as good? When you dive deeper into the issues, you can see where the men’s game potentially comes up short. There are some important factors to consider: in 2013, the men’s game had just 203 Division I programs as compared to 327 in the women’s game. This is despite nearly identical participation levels at the youth, and high school level. The SEC and Big 12 do not even sponsor men’s college soccer at the conference level. Thus, some of the biggest schools in the country are left without programs, namely Florida, Oklahoma and Texas.
Notwithstanding, even the conferences that do sponsor men’s soccer aren’t even close to full participation from their membership as only nine of the 14 Big Ten institutions sponsor men’s soccer, and only five of the 12 Pac-12 institutions field men’s teams. From the “Power 5” conferences alone, only 29 of the 65 institutions support men’s soccer, in comparison to 63 of those same 65 institutions supporting women’s soccer (only Georgia Tech from the ACC and Kansas State from the Big 12 do not support women’s programs).
When you combine that information with the understanding that there is just a 9.9 scholarship maximum per Division I men’s soccer program, compared to 14 scholarships per program in the women’s game, the development issues on the men’s side starts to become a bit clearer. When kids hit the 18-22 year old age bracket, essentially the collegiate years, the opportunities for those players to continue their sport development hits a significant roadblock. The “pay to play” model isn’t the best for developing talent, but the collegiate soccer structure, unlike football (85 full scholarships) and basketball (13 full scholarships) doesn’t allow for the sport to flourish, especially as opportunities in number of schools, and in financial support, serve as major obstacles. Simply put, college soccer simply can’t reach as many kids as it needs to.
To counter those obstacles, and in an attempt to parlay the growth of the sport in the U.S. into growth at the NCAA level, the Division I coaches have devised a plan that would revolutionize the way soccer is administered at the collegiate level. Essentially, the coaches have prepared a proposal that would see the collegiate season run during the entire academic year. Since the dawn of time, the NCAA adopted a high school model that sees the sport played in the fall. The season is crammed into four months from mid-August through mid-December. With respect to the adage of student-athlete, the coaches have devised a plan that would allow for the first half of the season to run from September to mid-November, and restart from the end of February through the first weekend in June. There wouldn’t be any more games, as the total number of games played would remain the same, but the competition schedule would occur over an extended period of time. What exactly are the benefits for the student-athletes with this proposal?
So where do we go from here? Hopefully, university presidents and athletic directors are willing to look at this as an opportunity to positively make changes. The NCAA is chartering unprecedented waters these days, and this proposal for collegiate soccer affords them the opportunity to positively impact the structure for their entire membership, and not just for the benefit of their football schools. Considering the fact that this proposal will successfully address the needs of student-athlete health and academic benefits, one would think that most people would consider this a “no-brainer”. However, history has taught us better, and in this instance, I could only hope that common sense will win out. The potential for growth has existed for the college game for decades, but in most instances, people are averse to change. This change has untapped, and untested potential growth. Could the collegiate game potentially become a revenue source for institutions? Why not? UC Santa Barbara has had crowds of more than 15,000 for their games. Could increased visibility eventually lead to programs like Florida State, Georgia and Tennessee fielding men’s soccer programs? Why not? If institutions like their in-state neighbors of Florida Gulf Coast, Georgia State and East Tennessee State can field programs, the “Power 5” big boys certainly can too.
And finally, could this growth in the collegiate game eventually re-establish itself as the preeminent breeding ground for soccer development in the United States? With what I’ve seen over the last month during the World Cup, combined with what MLS is doing for the American player. The simple answer is that college soccer has the potential to become not just the best environment for post-high school higher education in the United States, but it also could become the best model for young adults in the world.
How’s that for an unwavering and unrelenting soccer dreamer?
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