Soccer Glass Filling, But Not Simple to Reach

By Warren Mersereau

From a prospective sponsor's standpoint is the soccer "glass" half full or half empty? And, how does a prospective sponsor reach the glass anyway?

On the one hand, youth and college soccer have been pouring into the glass. From 1980 to 2006, the U.S. population increased 32%, while the Hispanic population in the U.S. increased 173%. Concurrently, registered youth players (U.S. Youth Soccer, AYSO) increased more than 300% and the number of NCAA men's and women's soccer programs increased 46% and 700% respectively. And, also a plus, outdoor professional soccer was re-established in the 1990s with the formation of MLS and USL.

However, interest in professional soccer has not increased as might be expected. At the apex of the NASL in 1980, there were 24 teams and a per game attendance average of 14,440. In 2006, the 12 MLS teams averaged 15,504 for their home games or only 7% more than their NASL counterparts a quarter of a century ago. While indications are that average MLS attendance in 2007 may increase to above 16,000, this will still be a decrease from the MLS average of 17,400 in 1996.

This simple analysis indicates that youth and college soccer participation have increased more rapidly than the U.S. population growth, while MLS attendance growth has been significantly less vibrant.

The overall result is positive. All across the country, more people are watching soccer than ever before. Each weekend in season 3.8 million registered youth soccer players (US Youth Soccer, AYSO) are probably attracting 5.7 million family members and friends to their games. Professional games and professional exhibitions are attracting thousands of fans. In college soccer, in 2000 at NCAA DI level, there were 22 men's programs and 11 women's programs averaging over 1,000 fans per game, and, by 2006, there were 33 men's programs and 20 women's programs averaging over 1,000 fans per game. Plus, there are now soccer specific television channels as well as other television channels providing soccer programming.

In terms of how the soccer community can benefit from these trends: 

Continue to be positive about the increased interest in soccer in the U.S.  Develop more programs to encourage youth soccer players and their families to become fans of higher level games at the college and professional levels. We cannot expect non-soccer people to become paying soccer fans before we significantly increase the soccer participants who are paying fans. 

Develop programs that make soccer a lifelong game for participants. In major soccer countries, adults keep playing. Germany, for instance, has almost twice as many registered adult players (men and women) as youth players. In the USA, this ratio is dramatically reversed. 

Put aside the rationale: "It took other professional sports leagues 50 years to become popular." It is a comparison that does not help. MLS investors are not looking to wait 50 years to be successful and neither are sponsors. 

Let's not refer to MLS becoming "the fourth major professional sport" based on average per game attendance. Again, it is a comparison that does not help. The NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL currently have twice as many teams in their leagues and they attract more fans on average per game than MLS. In addition, NCAA DI college football in 2006 had a per game average attendance of 45,800 (40 schools averaged over 50,000 per game and 100 schools averaged over 17,500 per game) and NCAA DI college basketball in 2006-2007 had 10 schools average over 16,000 per game and 45 schools average over 10,000 per game. 

The bottom line is that consumers do not allocate their sports and entertainment dollars between professional sports and amateur sports, between team sports and individual sports. Consumers allocate their dollars to see what they want to see. Again, we need to focus on convincing more soccer enthusiasts to allocate their dollars to attend soccer games.

In terms of how the soccer community can use soccer's growth trends to develop mutually beneficial relationships with potential sponsors:

Describe soccer's growth without resorting to hyperbole. 

For instance, let's remove references to SGMA 's claim of 17 million soccer players and the FIFA "Big Count 2006" claim of over 20 million soccer players from sponsorship solicitation presentations. 

Be up front and clear...

...that no soccer organization has an existing platform (e.g. direct mail, email, website, publications, television, advertising, events, etc.) that it can provide for use by a sponsor to reach a majority of the soccer community (players, parents, coaches) without substantial additional investment by the sponsor. Each soccer organization currently only reaches segments of the soccer community. 

Explain the complexity of the soccer market in the U.S

Including that to reach the various soccer constituencies will require careful targeting and probably multiple marketing, promotional, and public relations commitments involving different soccer organizations.

There is no doubt that the soccer glass is filling up. How full it is and, importantly, how large the glass will become, remains to be answered. Against this positive backdrop, potential soccer sponsors still face significant challenges in terms of reaching the soccer glass. In fact, rather than going for one "chug" it is better for sponsors to think about pouring the large glass into smaller glasses by market segment (youth, college, professional, region, male, female, etc.).

Warren Mersereau is the American counterpart to Mick Hoban (originally from England) and Juergen Klinsmann (originally from Germany) in SoccerSolutions (, a sports marketing consultancy focused on brand and business development for companies and organizations with an interest in soccer. Having served as head of global brand development for Umbro International and then head of global soccer and rugby marketing for adidas International, Warren has developed, evaluated, and implemented sponsorship relationships in thirty countries from the local youth club level to FIFA and the World Cup. You can reach him at


Dear Editor:

Paglia was right-on with his comments about the women's professional league (SBI, Oct. 17, 2007.)  I am a strong supporter of soccer and I would like for there to be a professional soccer league for women in the U.S. but like Paglia I doubt that the next start-up will be more successful than the last.


I don't have the answers but I do have many questions.  The big problem is there is not enough money to support a professional league.  The W-League and WPSL offer playing opportunities for the women but these teams are run on very low budgets because there is no money.  If fans do not pay to see W-league and WPSL games why would we think the same fans would pay more to see the same women play in a professional league. Media money is the only answer but that is tied to viewers and program sponsors.  Look at the MLS.  MLS is barely making it and after all these years they can not get a weekly national broadcast game on TV.


Looks bad for another attempt at women's professional soccer.


Bruce Gowan
Palm City, FL








Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications