Sports  The future of soccer in North America

The media's role in the rising popularity of soccer

The popular perception of a soccer match is its representation on television. To quote Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message.”

North America has had a relationship with soccer that can best be described as indifference to the point of derision. The sport is a distant fifth behind the popularity of the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL. Big name soccer stars in the twilights of their careers – such as Pelé, George Best, and Lothar Matthaus – graced the American soccer league in its infancy, but the sport has never truly managed to take off in the eyes of the media and the public. The fans didn’t understand it, and the media felt it was a no-hoper with a lack of commercial breaks and a paucity of advertising opportunities. But all that is starting to change.

Why has soccer grown so quickly in the last few years? There are two reasons: demand for coverage of the game seems to be on the rise, and the quality of the play itself is improving

All the baby boomers that played soccer during their high school years in the seventies and eighties have grown up and maintained their interest in the game. They have passed that love onto their kids, and are now demanding more soccer on TV.

The internet and sports networks have tapped into this demand: TV stations such as Fox and ESPN have soccer specific channels, while GolTV provides commentary in both English and Spanish. These networks provide weekly coverage of the English, Spanish, and Italian leagues, as well as international matches.

A further look at ESPN’s coverage of soccer in the early part of the last decade shows a marked difference compared to recent broadcasts. Commentators could previously be heard using unnatural ice hockey and basketball references in an attempt to engage American audiences, but only succeeded in making soccer a slower and more inept version of these other sports.

In recent international competitions, however, ESPN finally got on the ball with commentary done by experienced English commentators, no ads covering half the screen, and live uninterrupted coverage the whole way through. The effect of their new approach was marked: the viewership in the U.S. for the 2010 World Cup Final was equal to that of the deciding game of the 2010 World Series – both drawing just over 15 million viewers.

This increase in demand has led to the second part of the answer: the quality of soccer. North America’s Major League Soccer (MLS), which was started in the mid-nineties, has finally found its feet as an independent soccer league. Building soccer-friendly stadiums, nurturing young talent, and promoting the franchise brand has meant that the league is now able to attract some of the best and most marketable players in the world (Step forward Mr. David Beckham!).

The league has also expanded significantly, and has twenty teams planned for the 2012 season – as many as the English and Spanish leagues. With such a prominent platform, players have been able to take their talents to Europe with American soccer stars such as Clint Dempsey, Brad Friedel, Freddie Adu, and Jozy Altidore appearing regularly on TV broadcasts of European league games. Their experience in some of the best leagues in the world has contributed to the success of the national team with America making the quarter finals of the 2002 World Cup and reaching the second round in 2010.

Another factor is the growing numbers of American businessmen who now own European clubs. This has led to top teams from England and Spain coming to America during the off-season for exhibition matches, thus granting American viewers the chance to see the best players in action.

Perhaps the world’s most important change is that American soccer administrators have shown the ability to adapt. The issue of adapting to the American market, while maintaining the sport’s originality was the biggest obstacle to gaining a foothold.

Corporate sponsorships on the front of shirts have also been allowed, thus generating more money for the league. David Beck-ham has been a case in point: the arrival of a global superstar and Hollywood poster boy has been perfectly timed to give a further boost to the game’s already burgeoning popularity. It has enabled the MLS to enter the mainstream media, and allowed soccer players a share of the limelight usually reserved for point guards and quarterbacks.

The MLS still has a long way to go when compared to the Big Four, but considering it is currently the most played youth sport in North America, the future looks very bright.