In 1996 Major League Soccer kicked off it's inaugural season. Coming on the heels of the very successful (in terms of attendance and revenue) 1994 World Cup, Major League Soccer faced a big uphill battle. fighting for market share in a saturated (oversaturated?) sports market, and coming not long after the failure of the old North American Soccer League, there were a lot of people who predicted and maybe even hoped that professional soccer in the United States would fail.
To be sure, MLS went through its growing pains, but soccer is on the verge of a significant shift in support. ESPN's Roger Bennet profiled Rich Luker, a sports social scientist who runs the ESPN Sports Poll, who had this to say about soccer in America:
The U.S. soccer audience is also unique in Luker's eyes. "It is a true community. The only group that comes close are college sports fans or followers of the Grateful Dead. They embrace soccer as a communal lifestyle as opposed to a personal experience or a community that only exists on gameday."
However, Luker also believes soccer is underperforming. "It's a sport that should have been doing well a long time ago." The social scientist is well positioned to make that claim. He partnered with MLS back when it was planning the launch of the league in 1994. "We discovered 30 percent of American households contained someone playing soccer. The only game that comes close to that massive number is baseball."
Luker's analysis points to soccer being on the cusp of an explosion in this country, and there are many reasons. The first is that the growth and speed of online services and expansion of cable sports channels (which needed content) means that there are more soccer games, of differing levels available for fans. A soccer fan in the States now can find dozens of games on TV or online in a given weekend (often numbering over 100 games during some weeks), 52 weeks a year. So the easy ability to see the games is making inroads to fandom, allowing fans to build a connection to a favorite team, even on another continent. The easy availability of soccer viewing (not to mention its consistent timing) makes it easy for fans to enjoy their soccer and they can do it either by themselves or in the company of like-minded folk, the communal nature of soccer that Luker refers to.
But here is a more fundamental basis which I alluded to above--the Millennial Generation. There is a whole generation of boys and girls who not only play soccer, but also are fans who have had the opportunity to see live professional soccer in their own country. They have their own heroes now. Sure Messi, Ronaldo, and other famous players can be seen regularly on TV and occaisionally here in the United States, but they can also see Beckham, Dononvan, and others right here in the states. That is where MLS has made significant inroads. MLS' slow steady progression, coupled with an very public effort by NBC/Universal family of networks to boost the game has built a community the only way it can be done, slowly.
But the game is also building an even broader fan base outside of MLS. A good idea of the growth of the game from a fan and supporter viewpoint is found at lower levels of the game. Even at the college level, some schools are drawing significant crowds to games. Just this year, the University of California Santa Barbara drew over 13,000 fan for a single game. UCSB averages well over 3000 fans a game, as do other title contenders such as Maryland and Akron. For college games.
Even at the high school level, while nothing beats the social draw of the Friday night football game, soccer games are drawing more fans than just the parents and family of the players. Sure, crowds are measured in the low 100 fans, it is the fact that students are coming to support their team that makes a difference. It is the student fans that matter.
These students, aged 14-17, are the generation that will alter the soccer community in America. These teenagers have grown up in a country with its own developing league, with access to world soccer unmatched in previous years. Whether it is the fact that they are fans of DC United or Manchester United or Inter Milan, the access to the favorite teams means they learn more about the game. They have role models to emulate on the field. They learn the rules, the tactics, the style of play of their game and the come to follow their team. Just like the baby boomer generation followed the Yankees, the Dodgers or the Red Sox, modern teenagers no longer abandon the sport of soccer when they enter high school. Indeed many are embracing it because their non-playing schoolmates embrace it. The fact that these young men and women no longer feel the stigma of playing soccer as opposed to football or baseball, they are seen as true athletes and supported as such.
The Millennial Generation is the first in the United Statess that cannot remember a sports landscape without MLS. they will pass on their love of the game to the next generation, so that in 20-30 years, 40,000 fans at an MLS game will not be restricted to Seattle.