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Soccer/MLS continues steady popularity climb in the US

MLS (and soccer in general) is climbing the popularity ranks of US sports at an increasing rate.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images for MLS)
MLS (and soccer in general) is climbing the popularity ranks of US sports at an increasing rate. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images for MLS)
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I don't have to tell you how far MLS has come in its short existence (relative to most other soccer league around the world, age-wise). In just 16 years, the sport of soccer itself along with MLS has really taken off. Popularity is growing. Quality of play has vastly increased from the early days. Revenue, sponsorship, merchandising, and TV coverage are all up and readily available. New television deals are being signed. Big soccer names are choosing to come play in the US (even if it is at the twilight of their careers in some cases). Names like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Robbie Keane are just a few soccer superstars that now call MLS home. These players have shown that, while older, they still have some gas left in the tank. MLS is also increasingly being scouted now by European leagues. We all know how dominant Clint Dempsey has been the past couple of years at Fulham. An increasing amount of young players like George John and Tim Ream are now making moves to the EPL as well, when they are still at the relative beginning of their professional careers. And yet more players like Brek Shea and our very own Sean Johnson are heading across the pond for training stints with world renowned clubs, with futures in European leagues likely. This illustrates that the US is producing quality players and we are not the only ones noticing it. Despite this, it's hard to illustrate just how much MLS has accomplished in its short time without some statistical numbers

It's no secret that as the game grows in the US, it gets more popular. This popularity attracts better players, which raises the overall level of play. And that in turns attracts sponsors, owners, and investors to put money into the league and the sport in general. We are now seeing some of these things kick into overdrive with MLS, especially in the past handful of years. Most teams now boast their own soccer specific stadium (SSS), and almost all MLS teams even have a jersey sponsor to call their own like their European counterparts. Companies want to put money into soccer in the US and MLS, which wasn't so easy to say even 10 or 15 years ago.

I came across some interesting statistics the other day that really stuck with me and created my idea for this story. I think the stats do a good job of helping show just how much soccer is growing here in the States, and those reasons are driving forces behind some of the unprecedented growth the sport is currently enjoying. And that says even more when you consider the crowded sporting landscape that soccer/MLS face as a unique challenge here in the US. No other country in the world has as many major professional sports leagues as the US enjoys (in terms of revenue, popularity, merchandising, etc). While other countries certainly have professional leagues other than soccer, no where else in the world features huge conglomerates like the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL to compete against. That certainly makes the task of growing soccer in the US even more daunting than it already is. The challenge can seem at times insurmountable. The good news is that progress is being made. Follow me after the break as I share this interesting data with you...

Before I go any further, I do want to put something into perspective. While I am extremely happy at the strides US soccer and MLS are making, there is a long way to go. It would be naive to think MLS can overtake a conglomerate like the NFL (for example) anytime soon. The NFL has become so entrenched in the daily lives of Americans that it is pretty astounding (just like soccer is entrenched in most other countries in the world). It has taken the NFL decades and decades to get where they have. I expect them to be on top for quite awhile yet. But, nothing lasts forever. Just as baseball is still referred to as the "National Pastime", in recent decades it too has fallen behind the NFL in terms of being the most popular sport. While MLS is still in the fledgling stages compared to these leagues, the numbers back up the fact that it is growing and I firmly believe someday it will be up there with the MLB, NBA, NFL, etc. Hopefully by then it will also have quite a following worldwide.

One of the major keys to growing a sport is to not only raise involvement levels (the more people that play, the more the popularity spreads obviously) but also to find ways to continue to get new people interested. It's one thing to have the current generation interested in a sport, but to truly make it grow you need future generations of people to be interested in and adopt the sport. And, if you can repeat that, the success then multiplies. For example, if you get a child interested in a sport at a younger age, their love for the sport and their involvement levels are likely to be pretty high. It also stands to reason that their future children will take a keen interest in what their parents like. After all, isn't that how many of us grew to like the teams/sports we do now? Form our peers/parents? And that has been a huge key to growing soccer in the last 2 decades: getting kids involved and interested in the sport. This love that they learn early on ideally continues as they get older, passing down from them to their family and so on. Let's be honest, a sport isn't going to grow in popularity if no one is playing it. With that being said, it's time to dig into the data that really puts this growth into perspective.

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I came across a recent poll by ESPN that measures interest in the various US sports (youth interest obviously being a key statistic in the growth of soccer). While it doesn't list very young kids for obvious reasons (of which many are already playing soccer at a young age), it measures a supremely important statistical age group in the US: the 12-24 age group. For me, this is one of the most important groups you can measure. When you get talking about the 12-24 age group, one thing that sticks out to me is that this is a prime part of life when most people are forming opinions and views on things that will shape who they are. In terms of soccer, kids will be deciding what sport is popular, what their friends like, what sport they want to pursue in school or as a career if they are really good at it, and what teams they will follow and support down the road when they have the money and means to do so. Having soccer/MLS high up on your list at this critical stage is a good way to create a lifelong fan that will pass their love for the sport on. Here is the graphic from the above link to illustrate better what I am referring to:


As you can see, the poll shows some eye-opening numbers. Of all the 12-24 year old participants, soccer rated 2nd behind the NFL for favorite pro sport at 13.7%. Among Hispanics, it weighed in first easily at 26.8%. Additionally, the percent of US fans aged 12+ that described themselves as either avid MLS followers or avid international soccer followers came in at 7.0% and 9.1%, respectively. While you may wonder at first why international soccer was included, it is helpful when presenting this data. First, the fact that they are interested in soccer is a good thing, even if it is an international team. Second, many of these fans will end up following an MLS team as well, especially living here in the US with MLS at their direct disposal. Many of us fans here on HTIOT and all around the US follow an international team. However, depending on the team you follow and your personal means, traveling to see them is very costly and hard to do. Even watching them on TV can be hard if it is a smaller team or a team not in one of the world's biggest leagues (it's not very easy to catch a Stoke or Nottingham Forest game every weekend in the US). And that is where MLS comes in.

Even if they were born and bred an EPL fan, most fans will want a local team to watch, support, and have the ability to attend live games if they choose to. As the data above shows, the fact that avid MLS fans only trail avid international fans by a couple of percentage points is pretty stunning given the worldwide popularity of the EPL, especially here in the States. Let me put it this way in terms of the growth of MLS: think back to when you were 12 years old. Imagine this poll being taken then (for me that would be about 20 years ago). Soccer may not have even been on the list. And we certainly would not have had a MLS option at all because it didn't exist yet. That's a hell of a lot of growth for the league since 1996. Given the US popularity of teams like Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool, I would say being 2 percentage points behind is not too shabby at all.

Another good piece of data I found was actually from March of last year, but I didn't think about it as much when I first saw this story. I found it again as I did some research for this article and knew it would be good to include because it shows the progress of MLS compared to the aforementioned other major US professional sports leagues. According to these numbers, MLS is poised to take over (if it hasn't already overtaken) the NHL as the 4th most popular American sport. The article is measuring popularity by television numbers and average attendance. There are of course other factors too, but the point of the league is to grow and attract fans and viewers. And that's what is happening. It's pretty amazing for a league that played its first game in 1996, huh? To think the league is on par and exceeding attendance and TV numbers against a league that played its first game in 1917 is pretty astounding.

I also chose to use this article because it also does a great job of showing how much Hispanics play into the rise of soccer/MLS. Soccer is the most popular sport by far in most, if not all of the countries that Hispanic immigrants have moved from. They bring their love for the game of soccer to the US and want a local team to follow. This correlates with all MLS teams, like the Chicago Fire for example. There is a wonderful Hispanic community in Chicago that supports the Fire fiercely (just ask members of the supporters group Sector Latino for starters). This support is treasured by the fans and the club, but it also helps bring new fans to the team and helps the organization as a whole grow. And this gets passed down to each generation, helping not just the Fire, but MLS and soccer growth in the US in general.

Other than interest in the game, the other key ingredient I want to share is participation. It stands to reason that the most popular sports are usually the ones with the most participants. Check out this link for the statistics (it is from the National Federation of State High School Associations). They basically write the rules for a majority of high school sports and activities in the US. In terms of soccer, almost 750,000 high school students participated in soccer in the 2009-2010 year (747,955 to be exact). To put this in perspective with the NFHS data, here is where other popular US sports weigh in (for 2009-2010 and including boys and girls combined):

Baseball: 473,503

Basketball: 979,757

Football (traditional 11 man): 1,110,527

Golf: 228,628

Hockey: 44,729

Softball: 183,669

Tennis: 345,150

Track & Field (Indoor and Outdoor combined): 1,169,160

Volleyball: 454,452

Keep in mind that these numbers for soccer don't even include club teams, academies, youth soccer organizations, etc. The total number or participants is much higher than just the high school numbers of soccer players presented here. While other major US sports have club teams, pee-wee teams, etc., soccer likely has many more participants that play in a pay-to-play organization because they don't have a school that offers it. I grew up playing in a paid, youth soccer organization because my school was too small for a soccer team. This is one of the knocks that USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is trying to address with the youth system realignment attempt in the US: making soccer available to kids without the means to join a pay-to-play organization or to play for a school team. Unfortunately I couldn't find an accurate source on the actual numbers of soccer participants in all age groups/schools/clubs/organizations, but it's a safe bet the number is well above any other sport in terms of total participation by all people. I can think of many schools that don't have soccer teams near me. I can't think of any that don't have a football team. This helps create the pay-to-play environment that unfortunately excludes so many potential players.

Statistics like this are essential to show how many kids are playing soccer and how many future fans are currently involved with the sport. These numbers certainly show the interest is there and growing. Now we just need to make sure we keep these fans in the sport rather than what has happened for so long in the past. When kids have gotten older, they picked up other sports and soccer went by the wayside. That is clearly changing and if things continue on this course (and I don't see any reason why they can't), there will be a major shift in the US sports landscape in the next 2 or 3 decades. The key is keeping that love for the sport kindled as they grow older and keeping them involved.

I think the ESPN poll really shows the the pride all US soccer/MLS fans should have on what is being built here. This progress is spilling over into MLS and our very own Chicago Fire. Truly exciting things are in store for all of us in the future. Any of us that support the sport and the Fire should be excited at these prospects and the continued growth and change on its way. With the dawn of the 2012 MLS season upon us, hopefully this gives you a little more to be happy about as the 2012 Fire campaign nears kick off.