There is little doubt that the popularity of world football is rapidly growing in America. That growth can be measured in hard numbers like youth participation, attendance at matches and television viewership as well as in anecdotal evidence like the prevalence of Barcelona uniforms and Manchester United warm-ups being worn by America’s youth.
Still, there is work to be done.
Here are five ways the game’s popularity in America can continue to grow.
MLS Needs a Better TV Deal
After establishing record viewership in 2012, Major League Soccer saw a dip in its ratings in 2013. Most weeks, the league only has two games nationally televised—one on ESPN and one on NBC Sports Network.
However, because the league does not have flex-scheduling in which a network gets to select which game it is showing, many of the games shown on television, especially late in the season, have little appeal to the average fan.
One example of this in 2013 was D.C. United, which suffered through an abysmal season, only winning three games. Despite this, United was regularly featured on the national game of the week because when the television schedule was originally determined in the offseason, it was widely expected D.C. would be a prominent team this season.
But, because they were struggling and nowhere near the MLS playoff picture, these type of games drew little interest from the casual fan.
In the National Football League, the networks have the ability to select the games they broadcast in the final third of the season. If MLS wants to continue to help grow the game in America, it needs to put its best product on display, especially late in the season. That means flex-scheduling.
MLS Needs to Adjust West Coast Start Times
Another problem that Major League Soccer experienced this season was the late Sunday kickoff times of its two most exciting franchises, the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders.
Seattle and Portland are two of the best teams to showcase on television because of the high quality of play, nationally recognized stars and raucous fanbases.
However, many of the games in Seattle and Portland kick off at 10 or 11 p.m. ET on Sunday evenings, thereby eliminating a large segment of potential fans who won’t stay up that late to watch the match. It might be unfair to ask Portland and Seattle to move up their kickoff times simply to satisfy the East Coast audience, but a 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT) kickoff does not seem unreasonable.
Another solution would be to move the games to Saturday night when people would be willing to stay up a little later. Asking East Coast fans to stay up until midnight or 1 a.m. on Sunday night to watch two of the premier franchises in the league is just too much.
Live the Principles of the Free Beer Movement
The principle of the Free Beer Movement is simple. It aims to expose a “soccer newbie” to the game by buying them a beer. In their words,
Free beer is the lure, but American soccer is the message. When you buy a soccer newbie a beer you're committing yourself to helping build soccer in America. You're committing yourself to helping educate these soccer newbies in the ways of soccer. You're helping build a future for the sport in this country.
The people that accompany you to the bar or to the stadium or simply hang out in your living room are all potential soccer fans and if, through your generosity, something is sparked in them to become fans then the sport has just grown ever so slightly. And you've done your little part for soccer in America.
Most of us can recall a time that we have done this, albeit probably unintentionally.
I helped convert my father-in-law, by no means a “soccer person,” simply by putting games on the television. Because I happened to be watching, he got to see Abby Wambach’s 122nd-minute header against Brazil in the 2011 World Cup and see Manchester City steal the English Premier League title out from under Manchester United on Sergio Aguero’s 94th-minute winner in 2012.
Those type of moments transcend the game and are likely to convert anyone watching.
NBC Needs to Showcase the Best EPL Game Each Week
Like MLS’ issue with flex-scheduling, NBC has done a poor job with its new EPL contract showcasing the best the league has to offer. While NBC Sports’ EPL coverage overall has been excellent, the games it has chosen to broadcast nationally are nowhere near the best available.
In the third week of the EPL season, it featured Sunderland vs. Crystal Palace when Tottenham vs. Arsenal and Manchester United vs. Liverpool were on its cable channel NBC Sports Network. During Week 5, for the first time in the 2013 season, no game was available on the broadcast channel despite the fact that Manchester United vs. Manchester City played that weekend on the cable channel.
In Week 6, no game was shown, despite Chelsea playing Tottenham. In Week 8, Manchester City vs. West Ham was shown, despite the fact that Liverpool played Newcastle that week. In Week 9, there was no game shown, but Chelsea vs. Manchester City was available.
Week 11 featured West Ham vs. Norwich, not Manchester United vs. Arsenal. This upcoming week will be West Brom vs. Newcastle, despite the fact that Manchester United plays Tottenham.
The reach of NBC Sports Network is limited—the reach of NBC’s main broadcast channel is nearly limitless. Why not show the best game available and draw more viewers? It seems like that would make sense considering the advertising dollars involved, and it would help grow the game in the process.
Don’t Be a Soccer Snob
For years, soccer has been a sub-culture in America.
As such, we have all, to an extent, been snobbish about who we allow into our “weird” little world. Some of us will answer questions from non-fanatics with disdain in our voice or speak in lingo that they can’t understand.
A lot of this type of snobbery was apparent when Fox put Gus Johnson in charge of their Champions League announcing and he was widely lambasted on Twitter and in the blogosphere.
Since soccer fans have been part of an underclass of sports fans in America for so long, some of this has developed as a defensive mechanism against the cries of soccer being too girlish, too wimpy or too European for Americans to truly embrace. But it’s time we all stop and recognize that as soccer grows into a major sport in America, more and more mainstream sports fans will come into the fold.
And we need to welcome them.
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