By Paul Kennedy
I got hooked on soccer many years ago because of my love of sports -- I was a big Mets fan dating back to their first season at the Polo Grounds -- and interest in world affairs.
Going as far back as I can remember, I read the New York Times, the paper Louis, our Hungarian handyman, would drop off at the house with the mail each morning, to see how the Mets were doing and devour the baseball statistics. There were, of course, other parts of the paper that the Times was good at and I later came to read, namely its international coverage. From that, over time, came my interest in soccer.
It's quite simple: if you want to know anything about a country, follow its soccer.
It was true when I started following soccer in the 1970s, and it is true today. What is different today is you can say the same thing about the United States. If you want to know where the United States is headed, follow soccer and follow MLS.
I was struck by these inexorable generational shifts listening to Mark Abbott, the MLS president, talk about how far the league has come -- he was its first employee in 1993 -- at a media breakfast Tuesday morning in Portland on the eve of its all-star game.
As far as MLS cities go, Portland is still an outlier. It would be very hard to find a city that has the same interest in soccer, its MLS club or even this week the All-Star Game. You just need to step outside in downtown Portland to be bombarded with soccer. Look to the right and you'll see a trolley covered over with an XBox promotion and a big photo of DeAndre Yedlin. Look over to the street to your left and the bus headed in the opposite direction has a big photo of Julian Green promoting T-Mobile, a Bayern sponsor. Head to the heart of Portland's downtown, and MLS and partner adidas has taken over Pioneer Square.
Portland with its massive public transportation and outdoor gathering spots is the future. Millennials are not so much fleeing the suburbs but they are choosing to sink their roots in cities that have lots to offer, among them good public transportation and parks. Millennials are driving less -- which is changing the dynamics of the auto industry -- but they are watching more soccer, as evidenced by the phenomenal ratings for the World Cup and turnouts at viewing events. Sure, TV market ratings for the World Cup were huge in big markets like New York, Boston and San Francisco, but some of the most fascinating numbers about the use of social media during the World Cup were the off-the-charts interest levels in big college towns, especially in regions that would not typically be considered soccer hotbeds, like in the South.
Abbott, recruited out of the law firm of Alan Rothenberg, the president of U.S. Soccer in the early 1990s, to work on the MLS business launch, says the growth of soccer since then has exceeded everyone's expectations. What no one could have imagined, he says, is the changing demographics.
"There are broad demographic shifts that are taking place in the United States and Canada and are helping drive the sport," he said about the Millennials. "They grew up with the sport in a very mainstream way and look at it very differently. Maybe they played, maybe they didn't. But they have a different relationship with the sport."
A significant part of that Millennial group, says Abbott, is comprised of the second driving factor in soccer's recent emergence as a powerhouse on the American sports scene: the increasing diversity of the United States. You see that among Latinos, whether they are first or second generation and whether they speak predominantly English or Spanish.
Soccer has always had a strong participant base in the ages 12-17, but what has changed in recent years is the strong interest for soccer over rival sports among teens when they are starting to make what Abbott termed "affinity decisions."
Soccer has relevance like it never had two decades ago, but significantly, Abbott says, MLS only has an opportunity to capitalize on the sport's new relevance because of its longevity and stability. "There is so much opportunity," he added. "But so much more to be done."
Just how fast the United States is changing is evident in the shifts in real estate markets. One of the concerns for MLS is whether some of the markets where soccer stadiums were conceived a decade ago fit into not just MLS's future but the future of our country -- markets like FC Dallas, Colorado and Chicago that all have stadiums located in the suburbs or exurbs.
Talking specifically about Dallas and Colorado, Abbott said their models put an emphasis on shaping the sports market with their huge soccer complexes and both clubs had made significant progress on the commercial front. But one wonders if they had it to do over again whether they'd make the same real-estate play.
Location means one thing for MLS these days: downtown. Orlando came out of nowhere to grab an expansion team in large part because of its downtown location for a soccer stadium, next to the Church Street entertainment district and sports arena. Abbott says a compelling part of Orlando's presentation was its potential to create "an unbelievable game-day experience."
But moving into urban areas isn't easy. The politics of getting a stadium deal are a lot tougher, and the availability of land is limited. Progress on MLS stadium projects in Miami, Washington and New York is slow.David Beckham's group tried and failed to secure land deals at two locations that Abbott said would have each been "tremendous." He expressed optimism for the Washington soccer stadium plans even if the opposition of members of the D.C. city council has been quite public. And Abbott had nothing new to report on New York City FC's efforts to find a permanent home.
"Each one is complicated," he said. "But the prize is worth the price if we can solve it."