The World Cup is over and soccer fans are already looking gleefully towards 2018. The buzz around soccer's potential in America has arguably never been louder. Team USA’s young talent showed on-field promise, while media networks garnered record ratings and revenue. The success of this year's tournament has some believing that soccer is poised to rival America’s major sports.
Others see it as a short-lived phenomenon that springs up every four years and will quickly fizzle out once again when football returns next month. Regardless of which side of the pitch you're on, the bull and bear cases of soccer becoming a viable major sport in the U.S. is a valid debate. We've laid out some of the major catalysts and obstacles below.
The Bull Case for Soccer
U.S as Possible Host Nation in 2022 or 2026
Despite a blistering 100-degree summer climate and soccer team ranked 100th in the world, Qatar, the world’s wealthiest nation per capita, is set to host the World Cup in 2022. However, recent corruption charges could derail these plans, sending the World Cup elsewhere. The U.S. lurks in the background with its eyes on swooping in as the host nation.
New York attorney Michael Garcia is investigating the charges and said that a vast majority of documents pertinent to the case, “has been available to us for some time.” Garcia is set to release his findings this month.
Should the World Cup be stripped from Qatar, the U.S. would surely become the replacement. The USA boasts immense existing infrastructure, a relatively moderate summer climate, enormous revenue potential, and a growing affinity for the sport. After the USA’s 2014 World Cup success, the timing could to host the tournament in 2022 could not be better. USA soccer officials are also mulling a 2026 bid.
Record Ratings, Attendance Tell the Story
The USA-Portugal match on June 25 was the most-watched USA soccer game of all-time, scoring a 9.7 U.S. household rating. The game’s viewership was truly massive, drawing more viewers than the NBA finals, the World Series, and the average 2013 Monday Night Football game.
Ratings decreased after the USA’s elimination but spiked once again for the Final. Germany’s 1-0 win over Argentina also scored a 9.7 and was the highest-rated match since the USA’s host year in 1994. These ratings imply that International soccer is officially relevant in the United States; the biggest games garner even more American attention than long-time traditions like the World Series and Monday Night Football.
Meanwhile, MLS attendance is up over 100% since 2006, primarily driven by America’s growing Hispanic population. Based on ratings and attendance alone, soccer can easily be classified as America’s fastest growing sport.
Soccer's Massive Economic Incentives
The value of live sports is currently in the midst of a tremendous boom. Media contracts across all major sports have risen into the multi-billion dollar range, driving Disney's (DIS) ESPN to a $50 billion valuation. Media networks compete with one another for live content, the crown jewel of sports media.
Soccer is not immune from this trend, with Manchester United scoring a $1.3 billion 10 year uniform deal from Adidas ($ADDYY). Meanwhile, FIFA announced that they earned $4.5 billion in revenue from broadcasters, sponsors, hospitality, and licensing from this year’s World Cup.
With all this said, there’s a ton of money at stake if soccer ever becomes huge in the U.S. Media networks are desperate to acquire more live content and sponsors are prepared to dish out multi-billion dollar contracts. Such financial potential means that it may be in the best interest of Nike (NKE) , ESPN, the MLS, and other media networks to propel USA soccer into the international spotlight. They clearly have the financial power and influence to accomplish this.
The Bear Case for "Football"
MLS is Weak, Dry of Talent
Americans are manic over soccer right now – rightfully so after a strong showing in Brazil and a promising squad of young players. But Americans need to realize that this was the World Cup. If soccer is going to become a top tier sport, Americans will need to have their soccer appetite satisfied during the four years between tournaments. The MLS just doesn’t cut it.
Calling the MLS’s talent “sparce” is a gross understatement. The league’s international superstars include washed-up Thierry Henry, Australian striker Tim Cahill, and other foreign players like Argentina’s Diego Valeri, who failed to earn a spot on Argentina’s World Cup roster. Meanwhile, South American countries are aggressively expanding their leagues, while European clubs have the resources to dish out $100 million+ contracts.
With all this said, competition for talent and relevance is higher than ever. For soccer to become a permanent spectacle in the U.S., the MLS needs to become globally relevant. Even with the USA’s huge potential population of fans and existing media infrastructure, achieving relevance will be no easy feat. There’s simply not enough money in the MLS to steal players away from Europe.
Soccer Remains an Afterthought
Football season is less than two months away. Once the season kicks off, the adrenaline rush surrounding USA soccer will subside and football will once again reign supreme – just as it always does.
The World Cup was a nice distraction from an undeniable truth – the American NFL obsession is here to stay. People can only commit so much of their lives to various sports. Soccer is the be-all and end-all in Europe, so perhaps Americans have their hands full with NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and the NCAA.
Will American Soccer Ever Reach Its Potential?
The 2014 World Cup established that soccer as a major sport in the U.S. has a lot of potential, but there are clearly several insurmountable obstacles blocking its road to prominence. The biggest issue is the concentration of talent in Europe. The MLS needs to become relevant for soccer to sustain a mainstream American following.
Soccer may one day become a top-tier sport in America, but it won’t be this decade. Fans and sponsors should have their eyes on 2022 or 2026, when America will hopefully become a host nation and can pour resources into the sport. Until then, USA soccer will continue to amass nationwide excitement, while the MLS will continue to grow at a solid pace – just not enough to propel soccer into the next realm of popularity.
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