It has a chance again in North America, this soccer thing. Last week, Major League Soccer and its Union again did what few other sports have been able to do, settle discussions without a work stoppage, and the Saturday night in bucolic Harrison, New Jersey (hard by the Passaic River and within spitting distance of one of America's largest Brazilian populations), the New York Red Bulls opened what has been described as America's premier professional soccer facility, Red Bull Arena, before a sellout crowd against Santos of Brazil. Those two key moments, within 24 hours, coupled with, the launch of a new franchise in Philadelphia, the continued growth of success stories in the Pacific Northwest and the World Cup, can maybe, just maybe position soccer for its growth to the next level in 2010 and beyond. So can soccer...MLS, youth soccer feeding in, and even WPS...finally, finally make the jump in 2010?
Here are some reasons for hope.
There has not been the great overpaid spend that has doomed many rising sports and leagues in the past, and that helped MLS get through very turbulent times in the past. Whether that changes when a new CBA works out we shall see, but for now cost containment on salaries has helped build the foundation for the future. The foundation was also built on years of grassroots growth by USA Soccer. While that has not translated into blockbuster attendance or TV yet, the group that has cultivated the youth play, players now maturing into ticket and product buyers, may finally start to see the uptick in conversion to the professional game in the next few years at a much higher level.
Brand integration and partner support has been very high. Those brands looking for ways to get into sport at the professional level without huge budgets may have been stifled in ways to integrate product. MLS has used jersey and grassroots sponsorships to get brands involved in cost efficient activation opportunities, setting a high level of ROI for sponsors and opening the doors for future growth.
Help arrives in the Northeast. The long dormant New York market (despite a run to the finals in '08) will get a breath of fresh air with the opening of the Red Bulls new stadium. Whether the team can cut through the clutter for the long term and how long the halo effect of the new stadium remains to be seen, but it gives the sport ammunition in the world's toughest market. Also, the potential growth of WPS with Sky Blue FC, the defending champion, having a permanent home at Rutgers University will help in some ways as well. However the biggest boost in the Northeast will be in Philly, where both men's and women's expansion teams begin play this year and a new stadium is on the horizon. If there is a way to muster joint promotions and partnerships to cover the corridor from Delaware to Connecticut with the gospel of professional soccer success, the sport could be sitting very pretty going forward. Tough to do, but opportunity abounds.
Replication of the Seattle story in the Pacific Northwest. Arguably the best launch of any sports franchise took place in Seattle last year with the Sounders. In the next two years, MLS gets to replicate and grow that success in Vancouver and Portland. The blueprint is there and hopefully that halo as well will expand.
The World Cup. More now than ever, America is a land where immigrant populations are soccer savvy. This summer's World Cup in South Africa, not a world away from most North American time zones, will be a great Petri dish for the selling of global soccer in this country, the effects of which could and should spill over to marketing and branding success for the sport. North American domestic TV, English and Spanish, put up big numbers for rights fees and will be testing 3D TV. Quality international "friendlies" will abound in MLS stadia, and soccer will have another window to shine and shows its wares to a casual sports fan like never before, on multiple platforms. Of course the success of the U.S. team will also help. Will brands use this platform to activate with MLS or the sport? That is TBD, but the opportunity is there for sure.
All of these factors point to solid optimism that soccer on the professional level can finally make the jump past 2010. The continued lagging problems with quality of play on a global scale still is a potential issue, but one which is steadily being overcome as America becomes more and more of a breeding ground for World class talent. It also seems like the casual fan is ready to really like, if not love, soccer on all levels now. Their kids play and enjoy it. They "get" the nuances of the game more. Their colleagues at work, especially in major cities, who are not native to this country, love it. They may have even sampled MLS or on a smaller scale, WPS, recently and enjoyed the experience. And they probably know that the World Cup is coming in the near distance, just like they knew the Winter Olympics were around the corner.
Will they bite and engage on the pro level? Maybe.However it will be more of a possibility now because of the great table that has been set over the past decade and beyond. How much they partake is TBD. Hopefully it is a very large and enjoyable meal, one now without the very displeasurable taste of a work stoppage and one that can last for quite a while.