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The power of Messi
by Paul Kennedy, October 24th, 2013 7:20PM
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TAGS:  mls, soccer business, television


By Paul Kennedy

One's first thought upon reading the report that Lionel Messi became the first soccer player to rank in the top 10 in the ESPN Sports Poll of Americans' favorite athletes is, what took so long? It would have said something if, after all these years of blanket coverage of soccer on the major networks, a soccer player did not rank so high. And in Messi's case, he is an iconic soccer figure like Pele and Diego Maradona, ranking as the dominant soccer player of his time.

The most impressive numbers in the ESPN Sports Poll conducted by Luker on Sports tracking sports fan interests on a monthly basis are Messi at No. 4 and a second soccer player, Cristiano Ronaldo, at No. 7 among sports fans ages 12-24.

This aligns with the results of the ESPN Sports Poll released last year in which pro soccer ranked second behind only the NFL as the favorite sport of Americans 12-24.

At the time, Messi and Ronaldo ranked 16-24 among all U.S. sports fans, so their climb to 7-21 shows the continued increase in their popularity even as a case could be made their play on the field has plateaued. Messi has been bothered with injuries, while Ronaldo's Real Madrid and Portugal have both struggled in the last year.

Two factors fuel this interest in popularity of pro soccer in general and these soccer stars in general: international soccer's heavy coverage on ESPN, Fox and beIN Sport and the Spanish-language networks and the popularity of the FIFA soccer video game.

(Lest you discount the impact of the FIFA series, check out the popularity of FIFA gaming on KickTV, the YouTube channel MLS launched with Google and YouTube in 2012 and now with almost 700,000 subscribers, many of the FIFA gamers.)

BOTTOM FEEDER. The week-in and week-out struggles of MLS to draw on television belies the increasing popularity of soccer. The recent Portland-Seattle match ESPN broadcast in prime time averaged only 189,000 viewers, making it the least watched program for the week of Oct. 7-13 on the network. Only two other programs averaged less than 300,000 viewers on ESPN: a college football repeat Thursday at 3 a.m. and ESPN Radio's Sunday NFL coverage -- six hours of two guys talking on the radio. The USA-Jamaica World Cup qualifier the same week averaged 913,000 viewers to rank 20th out of 141 ESPN programs.
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  1. James Froehlich
    commented on: October 24, 2013 at 8:06 p.m.
    First I heard about the ESPN survey listing soccer 2nd only to the NFL. Great news. If MLS wwants more viewers then they need to upgrade the product. That doesn't just mean bringing in more old "stars" nearing their "sell by" date. It means improved coaching to provide more enteertaining games. Caleb Porter has shown that you can have an entertaining team without breaking the bank. Instead of bringing in in big name players, maybe we should dump our coaches and bring in big name coaches.
  1. Alex Stroessner
    commented on: October 24, 2013 at 9:49 p.m.
    Sorry.. but respectfully, who cares? I'm not slighting Soccer or Messi... I'm disgusted at ESPN. ESPN doesn't promote soccer so why would a soccer enthusiast care how ESPN ranks soccer? Please remember your audience. Your article to bring up, finally, a soccer star ranks on ESPN's top 10.. WooHoo! but please put it in perspective to your audience. Keep it main stream and I mean internationally and Soccer America may have a chance. Oh.. and Messi as iconic as Pele or Maradona?? Let him bring a cup home first ok? Then maybe we can start comparing.. A few ballon de'Or's makes for a great soccer player. You can try and fathom how Marco, Cruyff and Platini feel. Bring home a couple cups? Now we're talking iconic.
  1. Brian Something
    commented on: October 24, 2013 at 10 p.m.
    The problem with MLS TV ratings is simply that regular season MLS games don't matter much. They play hundreds of games just to eliminate only half the teams. It's the same reason I don't watch regular season NHL, even though I watch the Stanley Cup playoffs religiously.

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