The other day, Alexi Lalas threw out a tweet (“If you live in the U.S., can you call yourself a “soccer fan” even if you don’t support @MLS?“), ESPN’s Roger Bennett wrote-up a piece addressing the question, and the internet exploded.
Or something like that, anyway. Since then, a discussion has raged on whether there is an obligation for American soccer fans to support MLS’ growth as it attempts to become one of the top ten leagues in the world by 2022, in the words of Commissioner Don Garber.
Bennett summed up the viewpoints:
Both the deluge of responses and their emotional depth may be attributed to the fact that this debate occurred at a transitional time in modern supporter culture. Traditionally, fandom was all about rooting for the local team but this simple reality has been obliterated in football’s hyper-commercial modern era. As the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United battle to become global brands, that sense of place has been consciously uprooted, something I glimpsed last year while meeting with Liverpool’s marketing strategists. They talked about plans to erase the stigma surrounding so-called “plastic fans” by enabling supporters in Jakarta to feel as close to the club as Liverpudlians, developing “subscriber content” in every language that could be paid for in any currency.
Just how widely Americans follow teams around the world via television is well-illustrated in the below infographic by Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing:
These viewers are generating serious dollars as soccer becomes a valued television property on American television – the apogee of this is the World Cup, with FIFA’s package of broadcast rights sold for $1 billion to FOX and Telemundo for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups (in 1982, Univision paid $1 million for World Cup rights).
NBC is shelling out $250 million to broadcast the English Premier League on television over three years starting in the 2013-14 season, while in contrast, it’s paying a reported $10 million annually to feature Major League Soccer games through 2014.
Or as Don Garber bluntly put it recently: “Respect for Major League Soccer is greater abroad than it is among the soccer community in the United States.”
I’m not going to address here what Major League Soccer can do to grow its appeal and get to the kind of ratings that’ll earn it the television deals leading it to raise the budgets needed to attract the kind of talent that’ll ensure “Eurosnobs” in New York City will eat their words and start watching one of their two local MLS teams packed with the world’s top talent they’ll have to choose from by 2022 (that’s if everything goes to plan for Don Garber, of course).
Consider the question of how that can be achieved by MLS – a chicken-and-egg conundrum if ever there was one – the Macro level for this debate (I’m also only addressing men’s pro soccer here, and I’ll also concede that things get messy talking about the future of “American soccer” when MLS spans Canada as well – apologies to friends north of the border).
What I want to talk about today is the Micro level. This question is also prompted by Bennett’s article, where he quotes broadcaster Phil Schoen, who asks: “MLS only has 19 teams. Is that sufficient to carry a nation? You have to ask, does it give people in Detroit enough of a reason to care?”
The answer, currently, is no. And even if MLS expands, it’ll likely top out somewhere between 22 and 30 teams over the next decade or two. That’s still not going to give people in Tulsa or Jacksonville a local reason to care about the top American soccer league. What they need is something else.
Numbering A Soccer Nation
The United States and Canada comprise a land mass that is vaster than any other league tries to cover (if you’re wondering, the combined land mass of the US and Canada is 2,530,031 sq km bigger than Russia’s). Population-wise, it’s only third behind China and India as, well, hardly anyone (relatively) lives in Canada – but still, there are 348,396,819 people in the United States and Canada, and there are 19 Major League Soccer teams.
That’s one team per 18,336,675 inhabitants.
The population of London, meanwhile, is 8,174,100. There are six Premier League clubs in London, which is one team for every 1,362,350 inhabitants.
Of course, there are more than six professional clubs in London: if we count all the teams down to League Two, the lowest fully professional tier in English soccer (its fourth tier), we find another eight teams, reducing our per-inhabitant number to one pro club per 583,864 people.
If the US and Canada had one MLS team per 583,864 people, there would be 597 teams in Major League Soccer (balance schedule THAT!).
It seems quite unlikely MLS will ever expand to 597 teams, even by 3022. Even though soccer is growing rapidly in the US and Canada – it’s the number two sport for Americans in the critical coming 12-24 age bracket (according to Luker Trends), and the exploding Hispanic population is of course soccer-friendly – it will always have to compete with the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL for pro sports eyeballs and dollars in a way that teams in London don’t, beyond the smaller minorities avid about cricket, rugby and lawn bowls.
So let’s say we sheer that number down to 1/5 to accommodate soccer as lower-tier among the Big Five sports come 2022, perhaps on the level of the NHL, which soccer isn’t too far behind even now by some measures. That would mean there would be 119 MLS teams, or one for every 2,927,704 Americans. By contrast, across England as a whole, there’s one team in its fully professional leagues for every 576,228 inhabitants.
Where is this going? Good question, as all these numbers are a bit of a silly way to get to my point: American pro soccer needs more than MLS to achieve the footprint required to cover a nation (or two) this large, even if soccer only becomes one fifth as popular in the US and Canada as it is in England (to talk in extraordinarily rough terms).
What it needs is something not mentioned in Roger Bennett’s piece on supporting American soccer: viable, lasting pro teams in large cities that are not part of MLS, and may never be.
Currently, the next level below MLS is the second incarnation of the North American Soccer League (NASL), which has eight teams in the 2013 season (with 12 expected for 2014), and the third level is USL Pro, with 13 teams this year.
The question to address is: how can these leagues thrive in terms of growing both their average attendances and footprints nationwide, and what could thriving realistically look like over the next decade?
The World’s Game, American Teams
Currently, the US and Canada have 40 pro soccer teams in the men’s game in MLS, NASL and USL Pro, or one for every 8,709,920 inhabitants. I think there will be an aggressive phase of expansion including but also below MLS that will give us perhaps double the number of pro teams that we have now within a decade – with attendances notably higher in the top, second and third tiers than we have at present. We need more local professional soccer to tap into a soccer fanbase following the global game worldwide, but it’s above and beyond what MLS will ever want to do in terms of expansion to turn them from armchair followers to active supporters.
There is certainly room for pro soccer to grow.
As of 2011, there were over 100 metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada with populations exceeding 500,000, which we might say is a decent ballpark figure to consider being able to support a team with an average attendance at least on par with a League Two team in England, the lowest fully professional level – which in the 2011-12 season was 4,434. Many of these areas of half a million people could potentially support third tier pro teams in the US with crowds in the 3,000-6,000 region, just above semi-pro level.
There are over 70 metropolitan areas in the US and Canada with populations over 750,000 and 50 areas with over one million inhabitants each. These would be the target cities for second tier teams with English League One levels of support – the average attendance in 2012-13 there was 8,754. Most those teams were supported by catchment areas around 100,000, so we’re trying to do the same thing on this side of the Atlantic with ten times the population.
MLS, as the top tier, draws from the upper end of those metropolitan areas with two million or more inhabitants. It already has teams in eight of the top ten metropolitan areas of the US and Canada, missing only Atlanta and Miami at present. Both of those are very strong candidates to join MLS within the next decade. These conurbations have the potential to provide both the numbers of fans MLS teams need (15,000-25,000 average attendances) but more importantly for commercial reasons, the sponsor and regional television appeal necessary for MLS to some day compete with the best leagues in the world in financial revenue. They also often have large Hispanic populations, the most lucrative market for soccer on television in North America, a demographic MLS badly needs to increase its appeal to.
There are 33 metropolitan areas in the US and Canada with populations over two million each. These are where MLS will expand to by 2022, cities that can generate the commercial cash to fund Messi’s arrival in Miami in 2017. MLS will choose areas that are prospering, which means we’ll see more teams arrive in the South rather than the Midwest. That will also help balance out the league’s geographical footprint (it’s also of course possible a handful of megalopolises can feasibly support both an MLS team and a lower tier team distanced away appropriately). But that footprint still leaves large numbers of significant cities without pro soccer: the second and third tiers need to expand into the rest of the country.
A Bohemian Footprint
Even if MLS expands to 25 or 30 teams, that still leaves around 80 metropolitan areas with populations over 500,000 for pro soccer teams outside MLS to potentially be established in, and every passing year brings each more fans of the global game, as we’ve seen by the growth of the sport at all levels in the 2000s.
Importantly, a growing number of these fans are in the 18-35 age demographic that can allow a pro soccer team to thrive by generating passionate support not seen in other “minor league” sports while also providing an appealing fanbase to sponsors (this is the demographic that spends money like it’s not retiring tomorrow). Those adult fans who grew up playing soccer and now follow the pro game worldwide are key not just for the raw numbers, but for the supporter groups that form from them and can give the game an organic, thrilling atmosphere all ages of fans find uniquely appealing to soccer among US pro sports.
It is in some of these cities where MLS is absent that pro soccer teams can draw 5,000-10,000 fans a game and be sustainable in building outposts of local fandom across the nation. They will watch the game in new soccer specific stadiums like the NASL San Antonio Scorpions’ 8,000 capacity Toyota Field or USL Pro’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds 3,500 capacity Highmark Stadium, both opening this year. Like the recent flowering of MLS’ soccer-specific-stadia, new appropriately sized facilities means lower level pro soccer won’t be second best in wrongly sized or confusingly marked venues.
There is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that now MLS has established itself as a permanent presence and one that demands a local market of millions and financial backing in the hundreds of millions, that smaller pro teams elsewhere can tap into the appetite soccer fans – yes, those people who watch the Premier League and encourage NBC to stake $250 million to broadcast soccer games at 9 am on a Saturday – have to support a local team in person even if it’s not in MLS (and even without promotion/relegation…which I’m not getting into here, sorry.)
A key for expanding the footprint of soccer lies not only with MLS both expanding and growing its appeal on television (the Macro level) and in up to a dozen new large cities, but on lower leagues finding the investors, identities and lasting community presences in two dozen cities that are big enough to support a pro team themselves.
Some of these teams may one day aspire to join MLS: cities that are currently in the lower leagues but have markets of MLS size might well do so, such as Orlando (USL Pro) and San Antonio (NASL), both in the top 30 metropolitan populations, and both with strong shows of support for their pro teams recently (they led their leagues with, respectively, 6,606 and 9,176 average attendances in 2012).
Other cities that are in the top 30 are unlikely to head to MLS anytime soon. Detroit, for example, isn’t a city on the make, despite its metropolitan area still numbering in the millions. Yet to go back to Phil Schoen’s question, Detroit can care about American soccer, even if it doesn’t have MLS.
Detroit has an amateur NPSL team – fourth tier – that started up last season, one that has gone to considerable lengths to tie itself to the city’s soccer community and civic identity. By doing so, it has generated a passionate fanbase that shows people do care about local soccer in Detroit. As MLive wrote last year about the success of Detroit City FC’s inaugural season:
The fans of “Le Rouge,” Detroit City’s nickname, start the game off with a march to the stadium, flags unfurled, scarves held high, drums banging and singing in full voice, and this doesn’t stop when they get to the stadium. In fact, it never stops throughout the game. There are no box seats, no waiters bringing food to the privileged few. That’s not what the supporters of DCFC are about.
There may not be an investor group willing to spend $100 million+ to expand to MLS and build a 20,000 capacity stadium in Detroit and frankly, MLS might not want to be in Detroit at this point. But could an investor group put in $10 million, build a 10,000 capacity stadium and break even in the NASL by tapping into that kind of passion? If smart choices were made, yes.
I am seeing this same momentum first-hand in another Midwestern city that may or may not be right for MLS: Indianapolis. Long off the radar of American soccer (it didn’t have an NASL team the first time around, and has only rarely been mentioned in MLS expansion circles), Indianapolis is the 35th biggest metropolitan area in the United States: still comprising almost two million people, but what would be the second smallest MLS market by metropolitan population.
Yet in seven weeks since Indy Pro Soccer announced it would join the NASL in 2014, a staff of one - Peter Wilt - has taken what is now closing in on 3,000 season ticket deposits for a team with no name, no crest, no players and not even a sales hotline number.
I’ve been assisting Peter with the team’s marketing efforts, and the ease with which the Indy team without an identity has tapped into the demand for pro soccer has been almost absurd. Of course, that ease has also depended on real effort connecting to Indiana’s diverse soccer bases, from the young generation of EPL followers to the large youth soccer community and to ethnic groups (“market to millennials, sell to everyone” are Peter’s words). Peter and the owner, Ersal Ozdemir, have put in a ton of work on the ground in Indy to ensure the team is embedded in the city’s growing soccer culture, building on the word of mouth generated by a supporters group that existed before Indy Pro Soccer, the Brickyard Battalion.
Indy Pro Soccer is successfully appealing to those people who watch soccer on TV in the growing numbers illustrated by the chart above, and who are at the heart of the debate kicked off by Alexi Lalas. Below is a graph of the teams Indy Pro Soccer fans listed as currently supporting in a question that was part of the club’s Name the Team survey:
As you can see, most of those signing up to support pro soccer in Indy are the type who pack Indy’s Chatham Tap for Premier League or other Euro league games, or who have been travelling the three hours either east or west to watch MLS in Chicago or Columbus.
Those fans will support American soccer if an attractive local option is presented, in smaller numbers than if it was MLS, but – at least by the evidence of Indianapolis, a not particularly outlandish place – enough to make a pro soccer team a viable business proposition.
A Sustainable Second Tier
Can this be replicated in other places? There are over 30 metropolitan areas in the US and Canada with over 1,000,000 inhabitants without an MLS team to support. Many of these could embrace pro soccer at a level approaching that seen this year in Indianapolis and last year in San Antonio (who averaged over 9,000 fans in their first season), potentially attracting an average attendance of 5,000-10,000. With strong sponsorship sales as often the only pro soccer team in their city, staffs in the 10-20 range, grassroots and cost-effective digital marketing efforts and ongoing reasonable player budgets, that type of attendance can help a club break even in a two or three years for an investor.
Could ten of those cities support a second-tier team by 2022, creating a solid 20 team nationwide league with greater popularity that would help double pro soccer’s footprint today?
I think so. Population size alone isn’t the only indicator of likely success, of course, but it’s a starting point. A savvy investor would do a lot more groundwork on any given city than the simplistic schema presented here, looking deeper at demographic details like population ages and incomes, transit, stadia options, the youth soccer base and the level of local competition from other sports – Indianapolis, for example, has a (successful and popular) minor league baseball team, rather than MLB, as a summer competitor, though it does of course have serious support for auto racing as well.
Image courtesy Indy Pro Soccer
There are many cities like Indianapolis and San Antonio that a second tier team could be sustainable in, without necessarily being a fit for MLS, while smaller crowds in smaller cities could also work sustainably at the third tier. Oddly enough, that’s perversely shown by the stubborn survival of the stepchild of American pro soccer in places MLS has yet to land. Milwaukee and Baltimore have since the 1980s both been supporting professional soccer teams: just ones that happen to be playing indoors. The fact is the appeal of indoor is waning fast: if the debate now is about getting the Manchester United fan to support MLS, getting him to support MISL is far-further-fetched (I say that sadly, as a former staffer in the MISL and a fan of the fast-paced game on its own terms).
EPL or La Liga fans in Milwaukee or Syracuse or Wichita who grew up playing soccer are likely waiting for an outdoor professional soccer team to emerge that they see as a serious proposition to support. You won’t get all of them. But you can get enough of them if you give them a chance to build on their own organic passion for the game.
Those fans want a team to support without a silly name and logo, playing roughly the same game they have played and see on television every weekend, a club connected to their community that they are proud to wave a scarf and bang a drum and build a tifo display for. By doing that, their collective presence – often coalescing in supporters groups – helps make it an exciting proposition for kids and families to fill the rest of the stands.
There are thousands of these soccer fans in American and Canadian cities and some of them – like the Brickyard Battalion did in Indianapolis or the Crocketteers did in San Antonio – got off their couches and helped bring pro soccer to their cities without waiting for MLS to wave a magic wand. In Baltimore, they’re already embracing the pretty damn cool PDL Bohemians, just as Detroit’s fans are embracing their NPSL team. If amateur soccer can generate that interest, pro soccer would drive it to another level – if each league, under the oversight of US Soccer, remains focused on being stable and sustainable, tapping carefully into the right places to grow the game over the next decade.
Regardless of the details of any given place, what’s important to note here is that local passion doesn’t have to develop only in support of MLS, which will likely never grow a reach large enough to cover two nations with over 100 cities boasting populations exceeding 500,000 each. It is in a couple of dozen of those cities outside the largest MLS-centered metropolises that the footprint of American soccer can perhaps double at the Micro level in the next decade, and how we get people in Detroit or Milwaukee or Indianapolis to “care about American soccer.”