FIFA, the MLS and Popularity

By Blaidd Drwg with AJ Coltrane

Recently, MLS president Don Garber responded to FIFA president Sepp Baltter’s criticism of the MLS. Basically, Blatter was critical of the MLS for not promoting soccer enough in the US. I can understand where the comments come from – the United States is a rich market that FIFA would love to get millions of dollars in revenue from and it hasn’t been able to since soccer is arguably the 5th most popular professional sport here, behind football, basketball, baseball and hockey.

While I am no fan of Blatter, he has a point. A few reasons why:

  • The U.S. initially dropped the ball on getting a league going – it took 2 years after the 1994 World Cup for the MLS to start play and they lost any momentum that might have been gained to increase popularity. The US has a large immigrant population that is a ready base for soccer fandom, and by waiting, these people went right back to watching the club teams from their respective countries and didn’t give the MLS much thought on its inception.

 

  • The league did very little to bring in names that most Americans recognized, even from their own national team. Most of the players from that 1994 World Cup team went back to Europe to play club soccer, leaving the league essentially with secondary national team players and college kids. Couple that with a strict salary cap and this contributed to some pretty lousy soccer.

 

  • There is no relegation system. The league won’t improve if there is no incentive to get better. You drop the bottom two teams every year and bring up the top 2 from the 1st Division and you will improve the league in a hurry.

Garber points to the league’s success based with the following:

The league has set attendance records in the past six years, as the average has increased from 15,504 in 2006 to 17,872 in 2011 and a record 18,807 in 2012.

That is a 21% increasing in attendance. Sound good, huh? Well, it is technically true, but not quite the way that Garber wants it to be. Between 2006 and 2008, the league’s average attendance increased from 15,504 to 16,460, or about 6%. Nothing spectacular, but not horrible either, about 2% annually. Then, in 2009, the league opened up an outpost in Seattle. With the Sounders drawing 30,000+ a game, the league attendance jumped 14% between 2009 and 20012. If you take the Sounders out of the equation, league attendance between 2008 and 2012 jumped just 6%. That is incredibly slow annualized growth for the league (around 1.5%) when you take out the rabid Sounders fans.

The other comment I took issue with that Garber made:

“If he were to come to a game — whether it be in Seattle, Portland, Toronto, LA, Philadelphia, New York or any of our MLS markets — I think he would be very pleasantly surprised to see the passion that exists in our fan base and the high level of soccer IQ that exists in our fan base,” Garber told mlssoccer.com.

The passion is a bit overstated. Yes, Seattle has turned out to be a fantastic soccer market and there are plenty of people here who are causal fans. The same situation exists to an extent in Vancouver and Portland. Outside of that, unless you are actually attending games in many of the other markets, the fan base is almost non-existent. I can tell you from the time that I have spent in NY, Boston, LA, SF and Toronto, soccer is an afterthought in those cities. Heck, in Boston, I would be willing to bet that MLS soccer ranks below college sports in terms of popularity. So, Mr. Garber, if you want to impress FIFA, take them to a game in Seattle. If you want them to think they are right about their comments, take them to a game anywhere else.

Coltrane, the Sounders supporter he is, has a different take on this:

My take on it is that the FIFA president was talking out of his ass. I feel that the MLS commissioner has a much better grasp of his marketplace than the FIFA president does. If I were the MLS commissioner, I would have been “surprised” too. Soccer growth in the US is not going to happen overnight, or even over the 20ish years that the MLS has had so far. Establishing the sport will take another generation or two — when I was growing up all the dads/coaches would just roll the ball out there because none of them had played. It’s now getting to the point where dads who played are bringing sons to games to share the game they love (and coaching the kids) – just like baseball or some of the other “established” sports. I got the feeling from the FIFA president quote that he felt that his “beautiful game” was just going to roll into the US and take over the sporting landscape, and he was shocked that it hasn’t happened yet, which is ridiculous.

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