According to ESPNfc.com this could become our new reality. In a recent online article by Roger Bennett, Major League Soccer (MLS) is currently tied with Major League Baseball (MLB) at 18% popularity for children 12- to 17- year-olds. This may seem shocking, but this isn’t a new trend. ESPN and other sports analysts (SGMA) have been tracking soccer’s popularity in the United States for a while now, and have shown that there has been a steady increase in interest since the creation of MLS in 1996.
Although analysts have been following this trend, the cause of this increase in popularity is still murky. Luker on Trends who manages the poll by tracking 1,500 American’s per month and their interests in 31 different sports gave several suggestions for why the MLS is steadily increasing in popularity. To begin, Luker on Trends proposes that this increase is occurring because of the number of major celebrity pro-soccer players, like David Beckham, playing in the MLS, as well as the popularity of EA Sports’ FIFA (franchise). In addition, more soccer (e.g. MLS, English Premier League, NCAA) is being broadcasted on more widely available television stations. This coverage, helps increase viewership not only in the United States but also worldwide. As people see more of the MLS around the world, they can recognize the talent, and adopt teams into their own fandom.
However, Luker on Trends failed to address the effects of the expansion of youth soccer in the United States on MLS popularity. In a 2011, a survey by SGMA found there are 14,075,000 people playing soccer in the United States, of those 71% are under the age of 25. This is a huge percent of the population that is moving into the prime age for sport media consumption.
This trigger is possibly due to the increase in youth playing soccer specifically from suburban towns across the United States. In the 2011 study by SGMA of the soccer participants, more than half had an average annual income of $25,000 -$99,999. Making a majority of the players from a middle class socio-economic background.
What is particularly interesting about the suburban population attracted to playing soccer has adapted the sport from a simple game that includes a net and ball, to being a sport of status with in Suburban America. This rise began in the late 20th century, making youth soccer an entire a life style that incorporates the whole family, and produces its own sub-culture following. The sport of soccer for Suburban America has expanded not only industries specific to the game which includes equipment, but as also included athletic fashion, helps instills middle class values, morals, and expectations of excellence.
According to David L. Andrews, “Over the past two decades youth soccer has become embroiled in the suburban context to the extent that it contributes to the very constitution of this competitive ‘universe of practices and consumptions.’ Soccer’s socio-spatial distribution is at least partly attributable to its position as ‘an elective luxury’, only afforded by the not inconsiderable wealth of parents.”
The middle class parents’ ability to provide for their children in sports shows how invested and involved these parents are in their children’s lives. Many mothers specially are referred to as “soccer moms,” and dads are identified as the child’s individual or team coach. Therefore, it is not a surprising comparison to see, that with increased participation in youth soccer in the last couple of decades there is also an increase in fans, as parents come and watch their children play. For this reason, it shouldn’t be a coincidence that since the MLS was created in the late 1990’s, popularity has grown parallel to Suburban American soccer participation.
Finally, coming back to look at why MLS popularity is growing steadily in the adolescent population. The cause is not only just the increase in media exposure, but also one that includes the participants as well. These children that have grown up playing soccer and are fans because of their participation in a sport they enjoy and understand. In addition, they have inspired their parents generation to join in. This is probably why we are seeing this steady increase in interest of viewing professional soccer within the United State. Who knows, with the suburban population still steadily growing, it is possible that in are near future we will see the MLS become the number one American sport of summer.
David L. Andrews (1999): Contextualizing suburban soccer: Consumer culture, lifestyle differentiation and suburban America, Culture, Sport, Society, 2:3, 31-53
SGMA Research / Sports Marketing Surveys: Single Sport Report – 2011 on Soccer (Outdoor)