The 2014 World Cup in Brazil is over as far as the United States team is concerned. The extra time defeat at the hands (actually, the feet) of Belgian squad ended the dream. It has been a remarkable few weeks for soccer among Americans with incessant media hype and an avid public response to a sport that had previously been only an afterthought for most American sports fans. Even if "I believe that we will win!" was a worthy cheer, the fine young athletes who represented our country were not able to translate faith into reality.
The more interesting issue from the perspective of the business of sports is whether the soccer entrepreneurs of this country can convert this newly-uncovered affection for the world game into a viable addition to the American menu of major team sports -- football, baseball, basketball and hockey. Major League Soccer has 19 franchises spread nationwide with more on the way. While the quality of the game they play is not up to English Premier League standards, it certainly is exciting and attractive. Will MLS be able to command recognition as a major league? It will take some time for the verdict to be rendered.
The changing American demographics favor soccer's emergence as a major sporting activity. The dramatic increase in the Latino population and its foreseeable increase over the years to come do bode well for a sport that has particular appeal in Spanish-speaking communities. Younger viewers made up a disproportionate share of those who were passionate about the World Cup. One would hope they would not discard their affection for the sport in years to come.
For professional men's soccer in America to succeed, it will have to overcome the current saturation of the public's sports attention span. Most avid sports fans have their favorite game, although they do make room in the off-season for alternative sports. The NFL commands the allegiance of 35 percent of fans as their favorite sport according to a recent Harris poll. Major League Baseball is a distant second at 14 percent. The college brand of football (which I call "semi-professional" in my Sports Law class) is the favorite sport of 11 percent of fans, followed by auto racing (7 percent), the NBA (6 percent), the NHL (5 percent) and college basketball (3 percent). Professional soccer is the favorite sport of less than 3 percent of Americans and golf and tennis hardly register in the poll.
However, professional men's soccer does not have to become the favorite sport of Americans in order to command a place on the American sports scene. It will need to increase both its attendance at matches and its television viewership. It should receive a boost in that regard from the Brazil World Cup. Generations of youngsters have played the sport and constitute a ready-made audience for the future. Will all this occur?
Major League Soccer needs to tailor its business plan to tie it to the success in the World Cup before the sporting public forgets the experience we all just shared. (It is interesting that one win, one tie and two losses constitute "success.") The dozen or so members of the national team who play for European football clubs should be brought back home to play in the MLS. National team members who currently play in the MLS should be the focal point of publicity. These men now have established national stature, and they will be the magnets that will increase spectator interest even more than importing European stars, like David Beckham, who have passed their prime. As the NBA learned with Magic, Larry, Michael and Dr. J., fan interest in American sports can be built on a star system. Wouldn't you come out to see Tim Howard defend the goal?
Even with thoughtful marketing, however, American soccer has an enormous hill to climb to make it into the sports consciousness of the American public. Devotees may think that "belief" that they will "win" will be enough to insure success, but it won't. Soccer will still seem to many to be a foreign game with an acquired taste. The real test will come once all the clubs have left Brazil and the new English Premier League season begins on NBC. Will anyone still care about American soccer?