Soccer’s got a brand problem

First of all, I’m a soccer fan. I’ve played the game – slowly and rather awkwardly – for more than 20 years and watched it with interest for about 10 years. It’s a sport, not unlike baseball, that takes a lot of experience to understand. I watch a little baseball but I don’t get anywhere near as much out of it as real baseball aficionados. And while I don’t know all the intricacies of soccer, I imagine I know a lot more about that game that the average American.

I know…that’s not saying much. Americans generally despise the game of soccer. They think it’s slow. They think it’s boring. They think it’s not worth their time. Some sports journalists and on-air personalities actually go out of their way to blaspheme the sport rather than simply ignore what they don’t understand.

Yes, soccer has a brand problem.

For the last 10 to 15 years, people have been forecasting that millions of youth players would grow up to be fans and soccer would boom in America. That never happened because the kids grew up and were told by the culture that soccer was foreign, it was uncool and boring. Even in my home town, the high school football coach has openly insulted players who even hint that they want to play soccer when they’re not in football season.

In the old days of the North American Soccer league (NASL) during the 1970s, the plan was to develop US-born players and personalities that would draw fans. Purists got impatient and started importing has-beens from around the world because they had a name, and fans abandoned ship. They even resorted to a minimum quota of American-born players on each team. American fans couldn’t pronounce that players’ names (even when they only had one name, ala Pele). David Litterer has assembled a nice history of the sport in America, and the U.S. Soccer Federation features an abbreviated timeline here.

About that time, I remember reading in sports magazines that the short shorts, the fit bods and the flowing manes on the young, good-looking players would attract women in droves. Again, it never happened.

Up until the last few years, the men’s national team would play friendlies (those are games that don’t count toward any league standings or tournaments) against Mexico in San Diego, against Poland in Chicago and against Ireland in Boston just to assure a good gate. Now that the team is getting combative – they’re ranked number 5 in the world the last time I looked – they play competitive games against Mexico and Costa Rica in the snow of Columbus, Ohio. And a growing audience is paying attention. During the 1994 World Cup, the American hosts – who many thought would fail miserably – drew an record average of 67,000 spectators per game!

The women’s national team has been the cream of the crop around the world for a decade, and it made media stars out of several of its regulars, including Mia Hamm, but the buzz has fizzled with the retirement of key players, and the women’s pro soccer league has folded when interest faded after winning the Women’s World Cup held in the US in 1999 and reaching the semi-finals on its home turf again in 2003.

And Major League Soccer (MLS) has only managed to get one weekly game on ESPN2, a few on the limited Fox Sports Channel and subscription packages with Dish Network or Direct TV. Starved for viewers, MLS fans on non-LA teams have to wait for the weekly game between the LA Galaxy and their home team because ESPN follows the team around like a homeless puppy. The league championship game pops up on ABC in the fall like a spring mushroom, with little to no promotion on the broadcast station. Only a few MLS teams play in soccer-specific stadia, the Home Depot Center in California, however, is a jewel.

With the steroid scandals in baseball, the inflated egos of the NBA, the NHL strike of last year, it would seem that soccer has a huge advantage right now to make some hay. And the men’s national team is going into next month’s World Cup finals in Germany with its highest ranking ever: fourth in the world.

I’m looking for answers: what’s it going to take for soccer to explode in this country? Does America simply expect a winner? Can American’s support a sport that we didn’t invent? (Think about it…even American football borrowed the name from soccer, known in the rest of the world as football.)

What will happen the men’s national team comes home from Germany with a nice piece of hardware? It looks good for a U.S. team loaded with talented young players like Landon Donovan (pictured), Brian Ching, DeMarcus Beasley who have earned a few caps (games played) in international competition, joining veterans Claudio Reyna, Kasey Keller and Eddie Pope to form the most talented and deep US Men’s National Team ever.

If they did win, how long would that keep the fickle America sports fan happy?

A wonder if John – a PR pro and soccer nut – has an idea on this subject?

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3 Responses to Soccer’s got a brand problem

  1. John Wagner says:

    >Mark:In the past, the main problem for U.S. soccer was that there was no link for youth players to the pros. Now that MLS appears to be on the upswing and is expanding into more markets, that is changing. Young players can follow professional soccer — both domestic and international — and transform from players into fans much like Little League baseball players do.It will just take time … lots of time. Too many American sports journalists expect these things to happen overnight, when in reality they take decades.I honestly believe that soccer has reached a tipping point in the U.S. and that it will only increase in visibility and popularity from here on out.I could write pages on this subject but I’ll let this stand for now!

  2. Mark true says:

    >Thanks, John. I hope you’re right. Further discussion on this topic offline makes me wonder if the schedule and American’s desire to win is what’s in the way as much as a long learning curve about how to enjoy the game. Even if the US wa to win the WC this June, could the buzz be sustained for 4 years? I think it would take a long winning streat to get the average Yank to love the sport…and we both know that long winning streaks in soccer don’t happen. I mean, Brazil doesn’t win the thing every time, even though they win it often.Tonight, at my soccer club board meeting, we discussed how many parents are fine with their kids playing soccer at U6, U8 and U12, because they can still play baseball or cheerlead, or whatver, but by the time they’re U14 and have to choose, few parents – at least in my area – are encouraging them to play soccer. That may be an isolated incident because our club has just been revived again in the past three years, but it’s one insider’s observation, and he knows this small community (pop. 3500 outside of Des Moines, Iowa)very well. By the way, I’d read those pages if you wrote them 🙂

  3. John Wagner says:

    >Mark … that’s an interesting observation about the parents in your area.I’m fortunate to live in a community where youth soccer is strong, so I don’t see that pull as much as you might. But I have noticed that the majority of dads aren’t the parent involved in soccer … it’s the mom who goes to games/practices. Dad only shows up occasionally.I know deep-down that if their child was playing baseball, that dad would be there for everything.

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