Look, I think you all know by now that I live here in the City of Brotherly love, and although the folks at City Hall have continued to ignore my requests and the numerous petitions to rename the City, Phillipdelphia, I still love it here.
I’m actually going to love it even more this spring and summer now that we finally have not one, but two professional soccer teams to root for.
Unfortunately, while the new teams in town continue to spread their branches and bury their roots deeper into the soccer rich environment here in the Delaware Valley, there are still those non believers who think soccer is a waste of time and won’t succeed here.
I’ve got news for you; it already has succeeded and in many cases at the youth level surpassed several other sports in participation numbers. Trust me when I tell you, there are more kids playing soccer year round in the tri-state area (Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) than any other youth sport.
As a matter of fact, the United States Youth Soccer Association boasts over three million players between the ages of five and 19, while the American Youth Soccer Organization has more than 300,000 players between the ages of four and 19.
Then factor in the USL (United Soccer League), which offers a number of youth leagues, including the Super-20 and Super Y-Leagues, amongst them a thousand teams and tens of thousands of players from the ages of 13 to 20. This makes soccer one of the most played sports by children in the United States.
Part of the reason for soccer’s increased popularity here in the United States over the last 10 years or so has a lot to do with the success of Major League Soccer (MLS).
I know, this is where you tell me that the North American Soccer League (NASL) back in the '70s and early '80s failed miserably, despite the presence of such big names as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Johan Neeskens, and Carlos Alberto, just to name a few.
By the way, those players all played for the same team, the New York Cosmos, who at the time were the Yankees of their respective league and the only NASL team to actually make a profit from the sport.
I get it, America was not ready for a professional soccer league at that period of time, but now the timing couldn’t be better, and there is plenty of evidence to support that theory.
For starters, the current MLS business model works. From the salary structure to the size of its stadiums, professional soccer is not only surviving, but thriving.
Granted, there is a bit of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that needs to be taken care of between the owners and the players' union, but the players have already said they don’t want to strike, and the league certainly can’t afford a lockout. For this reason, MLS will figure out a way to restructure and sign a new CBA.
As a matter of fact, MLS and the Players' Union have agreed to meet next week in Washington, D.C. to continue CBA negotiations through a mediator.
The other major factor that has helped MLS thrive is soccer specific stadiums. These venues are cozy confines that seat between 18-30 thousand fans, which allows for lower overhead and better cost control.
As a matter of fact, some MLS clubs became profitable for the first time in the mid 2000s, and Forbes magazine found that three clubs were already valued at $40 million or more, with the Los Angeles Galaxy worth about $100 million.
During the NASL era, teams played in NFL (national football league) sized stadiums. Heck, the Cosmos sold out 73,000 plus seats at Giants Stadium for their 1978 championship game. Unfortunately the Cosmos were the exception, not the norm when it came to game attendance. The overall average attendance of the entire league never reached 15,000 with some teams averaging even less than 5,000.
This much I do know; once the Philadelphia Union opens its new 18,500 seat PPL Park this June, their attendance will rank third here in the home of the Liberty Bell right behind the Eagles and Phillies and ahead of the Flyers and 76ers.
FYI, the Wachovia Center where the 76ers and Flyers play has a seating capacity in excess of 19,000 for both teams.
Oh and did I mention the television coverage? Today, the U.S. soccer fan has several different viewing options; Fox Soccer Channel, Gol TV, ESPN Deportes, and MLS Direct Kick just to name a few. Five years ago, the 24/7 soccer channel didn’t even exist here in the US.
Would you like me to continue?
How about the increased support for both the United States Men’s and Women’s National teams? As a matter of fact, when it came to fan participation at the last two Men’s World Cup Tournaments (2002, 2006), more tickets were purchased by Americans than any other nationality, despite the tournament being on foreign soil.
Speaking of foreign soil, there are currently over 50 American players scattered on soccer rosters all over the globe, most mainly in Europe.
The trend of American born players signed by European clubs actually started to heat up in the early '90s, thanks in part to the U.S. National teams' advancement into the 1994 World Cup round of 16, where they lost a tough 1-0 decision to eventual World Cup Champ Brazil.
At the 2002 World Cup in Seoul, South Korea the USMNT advanced to the round of 8, losing another 1-0 decision to that year's World Cup runner up, Germany. So the men have made some noise at this event, question is can they better their efforts in South Africa this summer?
Meanwhile, the success of the Women’s National team during the 1999 World Cup played here in the United States led directly to the creation of the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), the world's first women's soccer league in which all the players were paid professionals.
Founded in February 2000, the league began its first season in April 2001 with eight teams here in the United States. Unfortunately the league suspended operations on Sept. 15, 2003, following its third season. The league was not able to withstand cumulative losses that ventured into the neighborhood of $100 million.
Enter the fledgling WPS (Women’s Pro Soccer), a restructured women’s league hoping to learn from the failures of its predecessor. The business model of lower salaries, smaller stadiums, and a more entertaining product should help give the league more staying power, especially with the world’s best women players wanting to play here in America.
Now entering its second season, the WPS currently features eight teams: Atlanta, the Bay Area (San Francisco/Oakland), Boston, Chicago, New Jersey/New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. The average salary range is $20,000-$30,000, and soccer specific stadiums are already in the works.
So please, don’t tell me soccer can’t survive here in the United States. Oh, and to the gentleman I heard on the radio the other day who said he would rather watch Olympic Curling over soccer, I think it’s time to move out of your parent’s basement and get a new life. I’m just saying.
By the way, the rant you have just read is dedicated to all those soccer ignorant fans who always question why I write about the beautiful game.
Look, I grew up playing soccer as a kid in Europe, and I am involved as a coach on both the youth and adult level, and while I love me some NFL, NCAA Football, and NCAA hoops, I have never bought season tickets for any sport until the ones I recently purchased for the Philadelphia Union.
I was also very fortunate to have been offered the position of game day announcer for all Philadelphia Independence home games. Hey, I don’t discriminate. The men and women have my undivided attention this season.
Oh Yeah! Professional soccer can and will survive this time around. Stick that in your upper right hand corner.