Jul 23, 2010

Soccer in America.  It has long been the red-headed step child in the world of American sports, taking a back seat to American football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and the like.  But, after a decent world cup showing by the U.S. squad, the creation of a new marketing star, and more European players immigrating to the MLS, is now finally the time for soccer in America?

Well, maybe.

Numbers-wise, soccer looked very impressive during the month long World Cup,

An estimated 111.6 million U.S. viewers watched at least six minutes of the 2010 World Cup on English or Spanish language networks, according to an analysis by The Nielsen Company. The figure is a 22% increase from the reach of 91.4 million U.S. viewers during the 2006 World Cup.

…All told, 38% of U.S. viewers – and 50% of all U.S. households – tuned in for at least six minutes of this year’s tournament.

Nielsen’s research also found that 57% of the total audience reached by World Cup telecasts was male and 43% was female. Almost half (49%) of the total audience fell between the ages of 18 and 49. (via Nielsen)

Soccer has also managed to create a marketable star in Landon Donovan.  He had already generated a considerable buzz with his World Cup exploits, and once he returned to the MLS? Ratings didn’t only increase, they soared.  Furthermore, although you can argue their star power, the MLS does have some marketable foreign players that have made the move to America (ala David Beckham and Thierry Henry).

A couple of marketable stars and an extremely high, albeit short, increased interest in your sport.  Maybe not the perfect building blocks to a strong soccer foundation in the states, but they are building blocks…right?  And lets not forget the X-factor…the other sports.  The NFL and NBA are in the middle of serious labor issues, and although stoppages are less likely in the NHL and MLB, they have expiring collective bargaining agreements in 2011.  If football is in the middle of a lockout and baseball is arguing over things like HGH testing, and basketball’s talks stall…could we see a summer of soccer next year?  Granted, it is a huge “if”…but, what if?

Even without the 4-sport meltdown, soccer’s popularity is currently in uncharted territory.  Have we ever seen a player that is as marketable as Donovan is right now (Mia Hamm?)?   And we’ve already seen that ratings are the highest ever…All of that makes the MLS television ratings that much more confusing.

MLS’ average attendance jumped 7.7% to 16,627 fans per game through the first 117 matches this season.

Meanwhile, MLS ratings on ESPN2 were flat through 14 telecasts, but viewership was down 1.6% from 255,000 viewers through the same period in ’09 to 251,000 this season. That decline comes “despite ESPN and the league’s decision to shift back” to a schedule which primarily consists of Thursday primetime telecasts. Telefutura, which broadcasts Sunday MLS games, averaged 93,000 viewers through eight games. Also, ratings remained flat on Fox Soccer Channel, but the network “failed to attract more than 100,000 viewers for a single one of the 16 broadcast games” (via Sports Business Journal, subscription required)

So, an increase in person, but a drop off on television?  Its like people stopped watching television and decided to go to the games in person!  Sure, there have been some other events that could explain the TV drop off; the World Cup, “The Decision”, baseball games featuring Steven Strasburg…maybe people just got their temporary fill of soccer? Yet and still, are all of those singular events enough to explain a ratings drop off over numerous telecasts?

Not really.

So where does that put soccer in America? Its certainly hard to argue MLS growth if the MLS can’t even become a viable television product; all of the big money is in television contracts, not in gate receipts.  And sure, Henry will provide a momentary ratings boost, the same way Donovan did, but that growth doesn’t seem to be permanent, much like the buzz from the World Cup.  And to everyone arguing that a move to Versus would fix the problem, things like production value or announcers could remedy the problem to an extent, but its also not hard to imagine beautifully produced broadcasts still going unwatched.

What does it take for soccer to truly catch on?

…and if it doesn’t catch on now, does it catch on ever?

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