With the UEFA Euro 2012 wrapped up with Spain’s 4-0 win over Italy on Sunday and excitement still fresh, avid soccer fans ask: Can soccer thrive in the United States? While Major League Soccer (MLS) has taken steps to promote it, what’s still missing from the equation? What does MLS need to do to grow its audience and bring the international sport home?
The 2010 World Cup was a watershed moment for Americans on the soccer field. Never before had so many Americans cried “goal!” than when Landon Donovan scored the 91st-minute goal beating Algeria, advancing the U.S. team to the second round. But what happened after that? Where did the excitement go? Did it translate to a bump for MLS? Were Americans filling up seats at soccer games like never before? Furthermore, could more Americans actually name more than five players? The short answer: yes, a little.
There is room for hope, and numbers indicate that soccer’s popularity in the U.S. is growing more quickly than ever, but MLS still needs a boost. Here’s what it can do to grow its audience:
-Get a celebrity. No, I don’t mean David Beckham. I mean a real-life American soccer player who can play the celebrity card. Donovan is a nice, charitable player, but he’s a terrible celebrity. For as much fodder as Tom Brady and LeBron James give us, even casual football and basketball fans know who they are—and shouldn’t MLS try to capture casual fans (and eventually turn them into avid fans)?
-Pay players…a lot more. It’s hard to recruit premier athletes to the game if they can get paid three times more playing basketball, baseball or football. Granted, player salaries are dependent on myriad factors, but MLS needs to get serious about pay.
– Keep youth engaged. Soccer is popular in the under-18 crowd; but MLS needs to keep young athletes engaged to recruit them here in the U.S., not send them off to play for another country.
– Keep the friendlies coming. This summer is going to be huge in terms of soccer, as European leagues invade stadiums across the U.S. This is good exposure for MLS, and ticket sales should fare well for the summer matches. MLS needs to harness Europe’s appetite for American fans and translate that into American soccer fans.
American companies are getting in on soccer’s popularity. Delta signed a sponsorship deal with London’s Chelsea Football Club, becoming the first U.S. airline to partner with a top-ranked English Premier League soccer team. Others should follow, as the 2014 World Cup (hosted in the Americas!) creeps up and soccer fever rises here in the U.S.
Soccer is a beautiful, skillful sport that requires some patience. It’s going to be a slow boil to reach the levels of fame of the NBA and NFL and their high-scoring games, but it is possible for MLS to make a major impact and win over the hearts of American sports fans.
Follow her at @mpittsm