Has the US finally fallen in love with soccer?
After their World Cup success, attendances are up, clubs have reached out to fans and MLS results are even on ESPN
They were queuing 30-deep under a blazing Pasadena sun late on Wednesday night just for the chance to be photographed in front of a giant mural of the Manchester United team, and the crowd which watched the side a few hours later was 86,432. Louis van Gaal’s last game as coach of the Netherlands national team, in the World Cup’s third place play-off drew 18,000 less.
The allure of Manchester United was also such that 2,500 people paid $20 to sit beneath that big sun and watch the team practice on the day before the game. More evidence that the arrival this week across the United States of some of the sport’s biggest names – Real Madrid, As Roma, Manchester City and Liverpool are also playing coast to coast – has simply served to extend the euphoria that the USA’s World Cup campaign created.
We have been here before with the United States and soccer, of course. The country’s immense patriotism builds an immense following for anything Team USA, from the Winter Olympics curling team to Jurgen Klinsman’s side, and then the whole business is forgotten. “It’s like turning on a switch. The World Cup is fun while it lasts,” says Gabe Romero, one of thousands who gathered for the pre-match party in Pasadena. But it feels different this time. What happened in Brazil seems to have penetrated a deeper level of national consciousness.
The evidence is emerging in subtle ways, like the Major League Soccer results being included for the first time from this week in the legendary ticker which runs across the bottom of the screen on ESPN sports - the biggest sports TV network in this country. That is “a credibility moment,” says Tim Hinchey, president of the Colorado Rapids MLS team, here in the Midwest. Hinchey knows more than most about whether soccer can finally start to stick, given that Denver is second only to New York for the number of professional sports teams in one US city. Even the Denver Broncos pre-season training camp was being given wall-to–wall TV treatment on Wednesday.
The most significant sense of a step-change came six weeks ago, with the announcement of the new eight-year Major League Soccer TV deal with ESPN, FOX Sports and Univision, worth around $90m-a-year. The MLS rights were worth a mere $10m-a-year in the recent past, revealing just how far behind football, basketball and baseball soccer lagged, despite being the second most popular sport in American for 12-24-year-olds - ahead of basketball, baseball and the hugely lucrative college football. The great young American athletes recruited from the college draft - many from poor backgrounds - could thrive in any sport but they have chose then big three because that is where they will command the salaries. Now that equation has changed.
Some extraordinary steps have been made to get people switched on to MLS clubs. The Seattle Sounders, whose 44,000 average attendances are comfortably the biggest, announced two years ago that they would allow supporters to retain or fire the manager, Adrian Hanauer every two years. Not a strategy to delight the League Managers’ Association but some of the biggest US sponsors of soccer privately credit Seattle’s success with their extraordinary efforts with fan engagement. An absence of the huge sporting competitors and the rabid rivalry with Portland Timbers have also helped. Hanauer has survived so far, incidentally.
Galaxy’s 7-0 thrashing by Manchester United (Getty Images)
It is a more subtle story in Denver where the Rapids, one of the founder members of the MLS, find themselves competing with some giant local sporting franchises but are about to chalk up their 20 anniversary. Hinchey was Derby County’s commercial director before returning home to take up this position his work with Nigel Clough there which lies behind his work to make the Rapids’ one of the first clubs fully integrated with local youth clubs. That has created the supply line of players which have established Rapids’ reputation as a future talent factory, most recently Shane O’Neill, Dillon Serna and Marlon Hairston. Hinchey has also built a big reputation for the Rapids’ engagement with the sought-after millennials (18 to 33-year-olds) which everyone involved in building soccer audiences seems to talk about here. “We try to be sure of voice and wallet,” Hinchey says. The strategy works. The side sit level on points with LA Galaxy in the he MLS’s western conference, despite the West coast side’s far greater pulling power.
The Rapids do not command the resources to make international signings a part of their pulling power either, with the Uruguayan Vicent Sanchez and Panamanian Gabriel Torres hired for what they can do on the pitch, rather than their razzle dazzle. The MLS international invasion continues, with Frank Lampard’s first press conference as a New York City FC player this week following Kaka’s arrival at Orlando City.
Galaxy’s 7-0 thrashing by van Gaal’s side was a reality check for the standard of MLS. Galaxy were desperately poor. "The commercial side has got considerably better but now we need to catch up on the technical side,” says Galaxy manager Bruce Arena. “The level of players is getting a lot better." But his English striker Robbie Keane, signed from Tottenham Hotspur, is perhaps best placed to view the change across the three years he has been in Los Angeles. “The mentality of people has certainly changed and we’re getting full houses now,” he says. “We're also playing teams every week who want to win. And the games are close.”
A straw poll of supporters gathered to see United in Pasadena revealed how a sporting culture needs iconic moments to grow from. At least five of those who declared themselves United supporters dated it to watching the club win the treble in 1999, when United were the only English club whose games were screened by ESPN. United’s arrival in town has required the Rapids to reschedule their match with Chivas USA from tomorrow to tonight because there is no doubting who the bigger draw is. But the club’s season tickets sales and renewals for 2015 are way ahead of last season and the World Cup seen as a substantial reason for that. “Only the Superbowl has commanded a bigger TV audience in our entire sporting history than the USA games and the final of the World Cup,” says Hinchey. We know we will be building from that this time.”
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