MLS's rise mirrors national trends

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."
13 comments about "MLS's rise mirrors national trends".
  1. Timothy Busch, August 5, 2014 at 8:03 p.m.

    Paul - A well written article covering a subject that I have been interested in for sometime. Over the past several years I have attended MLS games in Chicago, Philly, and Red Bull Stadium in New Jersey. None of which would described as in urban settings. All are some distance from the major city that is a part of their franchise name. There are no restaurants or bars for pre or postgame meals and or/celebration.

    Portland has done a great job with a small stadium in a downtown area. They have great fans that travel around the country to support their team. What Portland doesn't have is a stadium to host large events like Seattle and Vancouver. As a Seattle Sounders season
    ticket holder for the past five years, I am used to attending games with a minimum crowd of about 38,000. When we
    recently hosted the LA Galaxy we had 64,000 fans on a Sunday night. So yes I
    agree a number of major cities need to revisit the notion of an urban setting for a stadium, but I would submit they may also consider looking beyond a 20,000 facility for future growth of the game.

  2. James Madison, August 5, 2014 at 8:35 p.m.

    Nice article, Paul. In terms of what soccer says about a country, however, it would be instructive to learn whether the ever increasing interest in soccer is spread uniformly across the tea partyites and other political interest groups or whether it has increased more in some than in others.

  3. Bill Morrison, August 5, 2014 at 9:17 p.m.

    Well James, I'm a 'tea partyite' - although I would argue that the 'tea party' is a philosophy and not a party -who just happens to love soccer and has for the last 45 years or so; probably longer than most who read or post on this site.

    I got hooked on soccer when we moved to CT in the late 60s and to an area where soccer was THE sport in HS, there was no American football team. I've seen it grow to something I could only dream about in the 70s - from seeing Pele and the NY Cosmos play the Hartford Bicentennnials in a run-down Dillon stadium in 1975 to today where I can turn on my TV and watch soccer games from almost every corner of the world almost every day. I love it!

  4. An Animus, August 6, 2014 at 1:17 a.m.

    Sporting Park is nowhere near downtown Kansas City but it would be hard to argue with the years of sell-outs we've had. Find a spot with some restaurants, bars and some shopping that has easy freeway access and the rest will follow. (And interact with your fans the way Sporting KC has).

  5. Mark Hardt, August 6, 2014 at 8:54 a.m.

    Wow, I am 50 and watching soccer matches with 14 year olds. I think I was pre-millenial I started playing and watching the NASL, national team and MISL in the mid 70's. Meeting Pele outside a hospital in Akron, Ohio in 1977 cemented my love for soccer. I have been an outlier all my life. finally I fit in. So where did you get that nose ring? It reminds me of music. I was into punk rock from the first Rocket to Russia album by the Ramones. But the rest of the world caught up in the 90's when I found myself slam dancing with kids 20 years younger.

  6. Amos Annan, August 6, 2014 at 9:32 a.m.

    I represent what has taken place: I grew up on American sports and transitioned to soccer with my kids. I now watch and attend mostly soccer games and am bored by baseball.

  7. Tony Gee, August 6, 2014 at 10:30 a.m.

    Great article! Soccer is very definitely on its way up. This will be accelerated by the demise of American Football, at all levels but particularly at school and college levels. A recent survey showed that 55% of parents will not let their sons play football and the NFL cannot afford many more "concussion" settlements. Spectators will soon realize that it is more entertaining to watch 90 minutes of non-stop action in 105 minutes than (statistically proven) 16 minutes of frenetic activity in something like 4 hours.

  8. Greg Morris, August 6, 2014 at 11:22 a.m.

    Interesting piece Paul. An important element to remember is that the current demographic is always changing. You describe many of the things that millenials, as a whole, value currently. What makes our sooth-saying such a challenge is that what someone values in their 20's can be very different in their 40's. Furthermore, they will give rise to a generation that may very well reject the social structures of their parents. The pendulum never stops.

  9. Gus Keri, August 6, 2014 at 12:48 p.m.

    In my opinion, the two most important factors which helped soccer growth in this country are TV and social networking. All else follow. There are more than 20 TV channels broadcasting soccer from all over the world, some exclusively, throughout the week. let alone the tons of games that available on the internet. You can watch a game for your favorite team in Europe while chatting with bodies you have never met in Africa, Asia, South America or Australia. The Americans, the inventors of social networking, don't want to be left out of the party. MLS will reap the rewards very soon.

  10. Daniel Clifton, August 6, 2014 at 2:41 p.m.

    I have to agree with Tony Gee. I see a long term decline and eventual demise of American Football. The sport is dangerous to play. This will lead to more fans for MLS in growing numbers. All of the young people playing the sport over the last twenty years is resulting in a growing fan base.

  11. David Sirias, August 6, 2014 at 2:47 p.m.

    All good points from the author to the comments.
    Even Dallas Colorado and Chicago will be ok. Their locations are not ideal but a good product and good players will fill those stadiums most of the time. The problem is management . Chicago has bad and cheap management. Same with Colorado. A minimum salary floor and a new breed of ambitious owners in other cities should help. The Chivas problem will be solved soon hopefully-- either if MLS allows Sacramento Republic to take Chivas off its hands of it it gets an LA sugar daddy to make us can offer it can't refuse or created same completely new market from scratch , e.g. Inland Empire. MLS 's biggest problem is Kraft in NE . MLS no longer owes him after he helped keep the league afloat. That was a long time ago. Enough of allowing Kraft to kill the Boston media market. What should be a jewel franchise is simply Chivas without the stupid name and discriminatory hiring practices.... Time for the other owners to demand a sale to an owner that will get NE the facility and roster it's many soccer fans deserve. Fix NE and it's like a shot of testosterone for MLS growth ....

  12. Bruce Moorhead, August 6, 2014 at 4:03 p.m.

    Great article Paul. Timothy - agree completely about stadium size. I am upset with my S.J. Earthquakes settling for a 18,000 seat venue when they all should plan for at least 25,000 nowadays. James - as a Tea Partier I've got to say nothing makes me laugh more than people who think conservatives don't like soccer and liberals do. In my area (Sacramento) I often see just the opposite. Time to retire that false stereotype. We Republic fans would be glad to take the Chivas USA franchise from L.A.

  13. John Yunker, August 7, 2014 at 4:13 p.m.

    I do take exception with the constant idea that the soccer frenzy in Portland and Seattle are "new" phenomena. I attended many Sounders games and hardly missed a Timbers game in the late 70's early 80's. The first sellout of the Kingdome was a Sounders NASL game against the cosmos. The soccer crowd at Portland and Seattle, and the Rivalry are nothing new, and nothing even remotely new.

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