The Sweeper: American Soccer Fans – Do Some Conditions Apply?

Big Story

This hasn’t been the greatest week for marketing in Major League Soccer; the Sweeper has already joined Fake Sigi this past week with a look into what went (horribly) wrong with the launch of mlssoccer.com, as well as criticizing the not-very-well-thought-out marketing campaign to get more fans to come watch FC Dallas.  But is it possible that European club-following American soccer fans might never watch MLS games, either live or on TV, no matter how well MLS markets the game or how much the league improves? Could they be conditioned to dislike MLS despite a steady improvement in quality over the years, or the league’s attempts to attract better players despite a shoestring budget relative to other American sports?

That’s the view put forward this past week by Jason Davis at Match Fit USA.  He makes an analogy between American soccer fans and the character Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption:

Brooks left prison after years of being told when to eat, sleep, shower, etc., and couldn’t change himself to accept freedom. In my terribly imperfect analogy, Euro-focused soccer fans are Brooks, and might never be able to accept that MLS is a decent, competitive, and engaging league that is worth two hours of their time a week, no matter what the league or those of us who love it do to convince them.

As ever, the problem in discussing the myriad problems marketing soccer in America and Canada is the lack of definitive research on the tastes and habits of American soccer-lovers.  That hasn’t prevented the proliferation of countless views on how best to fill some of MLS’ more consistently poorly-attended stadiums, whether it’s focusing on MLS supporter culture, splashing as much clash as certain clubs can afford on “buying talent” to convince Euro fans, promoting the game to soccer moms and dads as a way to get their kids to see “the real thing,” or marketing to a growing Hispanic fan base.  Each of these approaches has been tried in MLS in one form or another with mixed results.

Often the league’s greatest successes have come as a complete surprise. Richard Peddie, the CEO of Toronto FC’s corporate investor/operator Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, famously said prior to TFC’s first season in 2007 he’d be content with 13 000-15 000 fans attending games at BMO Field, only to watch gobsmacked along with the rest of Toronto’s sports writing intelligentsia as season tickets sold out months ahead of kick off.  The renewal numbers remain at 95% despite the club’s inability to make the playoffs three years running.  In recent years, it is clear that some geographic markets perform better than others, regardless of results on the field.

But perhaps one of the best ways MLS can hope to draw more and more fans in the long term is simply by continuing to exist.  Despite the hemming and hawing about the lopsided attendances across the league, MLS is still only fourteen years old. Manchester United took half a century to become one of England’s most popular clubs, Liverpool slightly longer than that.  Real Madrid first came to the fore in world football in the mid 1950s with the advent of the European Cup, about half a century after it had been founded.  The enormous success enjoyed by the Big European clubs was often bestowed by history, luck, and a dedicated fan base, the sort of qualities only time can yield.

The idea of building a football league to capture the hearts and minds of American soccer fans overnight is a probably naive, like expecting the arrival of Jens Lehmann and Thierry Henry at Red Bull Arena to rejuvenate a less-than-stellar franchise (or expecting that a sold out Giant stadium means America was ready for countless soccer franchises).  It may take another fourteen, or twenty-eight years, for MLS to win over the Brooks’ of American soccer.

Quick Hits

  • Brian Philips monumental and much-missed Run of Play has returned, and it is beautiful.
  • The strange and wonderful world of QPR boss, Neil Warnock.
  • The Independent’s James Lawton argues the the recent spat of injuries to major internationals ahead of the World Cup indicates the debate has expanded beyond club versus country.

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