It has been a bittersweet few years for international sport in the United States. For all the success of a Michael Phelps and an Apollo Ohno, there is the sting of baseball getting booted out of the summer Olympic Games or the disappointment in the rejection of Chicago 2016 or the lack of a host city for any Olympiad for the foreseeable future.
Success is always there for America, but it has not been the overwhelming and glowing success across the board of past years. However later this week many of those feelings can be exorcised when FIFA awards the 2022 World Cup to a host nation, of which the United States has been deemed the favorite.
So for the challenged times we are in, with all the distractions that people have in their everyday lives, why is this important and why is it any better now than when the U.S. last hosted the World in 1994?
First and foremost is the growth of Major League Soccer, not just as a professional sport but as a viable business entity since the last World Cup. While many professional sports dealt with contraction, collusion and shrinking profits, MLS in recent years held firm and in many ways grew as a viable international sports property. There was cost control, salary control, the deep pockets of a handful of visionary owners and an across the board desire to grow and mature slow and steady, thus avoiding the mercurial rises and falls of other sports properties looking to emerge in challenging times. The successful launch of growing brands, not just teams, in cities like Toronto, Philadelphia and Seattle set the bar high for any franchise launch in any sport in North America, with expansion cities in Montreal, Vancouver and Portland waiting in the wings to replicate those models. MLS has been a great litmus test for brand activation, seamlessly incorporating jersey sponsors into the sales process while finding ways for nontraditional brands to activate with a young and vibrant audience.
While many sports still look for ways to consistently engage a growing Hispanic audience, MLS made it a priority, always finding ways to speak directly to North America's fastest-growing demographic, a demo which already has a base understanding of the game from wherever they hail. While some other sports struggle to understand the proper way to use social media, MLS has found proper cost efficient ways to engage with their fans online, promoting a growing and engaging product to a growing audience that makes sense. They also took a big step into the world of fantasy sports, creating the first year-round game for that growing audience with industry leader Big Lead Sports.
The league has even found ways to address and find solutions for employment issues in various cities, founding the MLS National Sales Center, an academy to train and recruit front-office staffers at all levels. Students devise and expand ticket sales strategies, and work on sales campaigns on behalf of MLS, its clubs and its properties. It is a very unique in-house program that can probably be expanded away from sales and into other areas of sports business, creating a home grown, league certified and consistent talent pool for everything from groundskeepers to accountants if need be.
Then there is the biggest difference from the last time World Cup came a-knockin': The grassroots. Few sports have taken the painstaking road to cultivate young people and have them slowly and steadily become the passionate consumer that MLS has in the past decade plus. Young people who played the game now aspire to be its stars on its home turf, and have spent time studying and understanding its nuances, an element which did not exist at this mature level in 1994. Factor in the extensive brand building campaigns teams have done, the mix of the new immigrant who craves the game, and a good smattering of buzz from imported stars like David Beckham and Thierry Henry, and the casual and passionate fan base is stronger than ever. Also now in play more than ever is player development, and the ability for fans of the game to know and appreciate a higher level of professional play from Americans than existed a little over a decade ago. While the recently completed MLS Cup in Toronto lacked the star power to pull in good TV ratings, it did showcase some solid young American talent that down the line will also fortify the case for soccer on the professional level continuing to grow.
Will Thursday's announcement, if it is a positive one for the USA, change everything overnight? No.
There are still wide gaps in talent and salary levels between MLS and the rest of the world, and the top Americans showcased during the most recent World Cup returned to their clubs across Europe this summer and fall, slowing the exposure level (but not the enthusiasm) for the best American talent in the States. The long hinted move of the schedule from late summer, through winter and into early spring, like exists in other parts of the world at the top level, will also be a challenge but could also be a blessing for higher level talent development and affinity to MLS play by global fans of the sport. Sponsors who have engaged at the grassroots and on site have to continue to embrace the television product as well, not something that is easy to do for a game that still has its issues in the tube for the American casual fan.
There is also the issue that 2022 is not tomorrow. Its light years away for a public that needs and wants everything today. However it is a measuring stick to point to and a brand development number to take aim at, and it will be a cause for celebration.
The bottom line is that America loves the big stage, and there is no bigger stage than the World cup, no matter when it is. Who knows, if Thursday becomes a landmark day, maybe that re-opens the door for other world class events to return to the States, and helps boost an economy and a pride level that had been waning, but now thankfully may again be on the uptake.
A big event is always good for what ails you, so why not now and why not the World Cup? The stage is certainly set, let's see where the votes fall.