Soccer not in America's Future says Jordan Kobritz
The downside to a World Cup year – the 2014 tournament is scheduled to begin in Brazil in little more than three weeks – is listening to pundits predict that soccer is America’s future number one sport. It isn’t.
That doesn’t mean the sport isn’t popular, on some levels. In a 2013 survey conducted by the National Federation of High School Associations, soccer was the fourth most popular and fastest growing sport among high school girls and fifth most popular among boys. However, figures compiled by the United States Soccer Federation, the governing body for all non-school based soccer leagues, show that youth soccer participation was flat between 2008 and 2012.
But participation at the amateur level doesn’t necessarily translate to popularity at the professional level. As popular as women’s soccer has been in the Olympics, professional women’s soccer, currently in its third iteration, has yet to gain a foothold in the U.S. And with the exception of college football and men’s basketball, professional sports are where the money is.
To be sure, the popularity of professional soccer in this country is growing, but that’s only true when measured against the low bar from which it started. Major League Soccer (MLS), which is only “major league” because it is the highest level of soccer played in this country – the EPL and other leagues in Europe play soccer at a higher level – is nothing more than a niche sport, and a minor one at that. MLS can’t hope to supplant the NHL, the fourth most popular team sport in this country, for decades let alone take aim on America’s number one sport.
Let’s start with attendance. While MLS’s average per game attendance last year compares favorably with that of the NHL – 18,564 vs. 17,661, respectively – MLS had only 19 teams to the NHL’s 30. But with fewer than half the number of games in a season – 34 vs. 82 – MLS’s overall attendance was six million vs. almost twenty-two million for the NHL. MLS will have to expand almost four-fold, to 70 teams, to match the NHL’s total attendance. Although the league expects to reach 24 teams by 2020, 70 is a stretch given the availability of markets.
TV contracts? MLS recently signed new television contracts that will generate $93 million per year through 2022. The NHL has national TV contracts with NBC and Rogers Communication totaling $7.2 billion or $700 million per year through 2024. That doesn’t include the value of NHL teams’ local broadcasting rights.
Salary levels? The salary cap in MLS is $3 million per team with an average salary of $160,000. The NHL team salary cap will rise to $71 million next year with an average salary of $2.4 million.
League revenue? MLS grossed $494 million last year. The NHL grossed $2.4 billion. The potential for revenue growth in the NHL is every bit as rosy, if not more so, than it is in MLS.
MLS can’t measure up to the NHL let alone the behemoth NFL. The NFL grossed $9.5 billion last year and expects to gross $25 billion within a decade. Americans are obsessed with football, as evidenced by ratings for the recent first year draft which drew a 6.8 on ESPN and a 1.9 on the NFL Network. Total viewership averaged over 12 million, fifteen times the best numbers for EPL games on NBC.
Sure, MLS is growing in popularity, but it’s still closer to the WNBA then it is to the four major league team sports, which doesn’t mean it won’t have a future in this country. The sport has pockets of loyal and rabid fans, especially in New York, Seattle, Kansas City and Portland. But the league’s future is tied to the growth of the Hispanic population in this country, 26.8 percent of who claim soccer as their number one sport. With the Hispanic population of 54 million expected to double by 2060, soccer will be a prime way for advertisers to reach a target market.
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, so maybe it’s us who have it wrong. But don’t try to convince me that soccer will overtake the NFL in a decade, as some “experts” predict. It won’t happen in my – and if you’re reading this, your – lifetime.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.© Copyright 2014 Tanna K, All rights Reserved. Written For: Tinytown Unleashed