Monday, March 29, 2010
Despite a century long history of limited professional soccer in America, the game remains a fledgling in the world of U.S. sports. The latest incarnation, Major League Soccer, was founded in 1993 with the first competitions in 1996. Over the past five years the league has begun a rigorous expansion program growing from ten teams to eighteen by 2011. Following in the European tradition 10 of the teams have "shirt front" sponsorship with a floor of $500,000. In addition the league has gotten larger TV contracts, a sure sign that TV executives recognize the growing interest in the sport. Like any struggling franchise, the teams are still trying to boost their bottom line. This past year only two clubs saw their financial statements in the black: Toronto (a team from a supportive soccer community) and Seattle (who benefits from a partnership with the Seahawks and shameless promotion from minority owner Drew Carey). Overall, even for the successful clubs, revenues lag far behind those of other professional sports. This translates to very unglamorous salaries. The average MLS player's annual earnings sit at $80,000 to $90,000, but when I looked at the salary chart for all players in 2009, I saw a majority of players sitting below the $40,000 mark. David Beckham's $5 million salary definitely skewed the numbers along with a few other foreign players and some American stars who also earn seven figures. The league and soccer in general dodged a bullet last week when the players and owners came to an agreement and a players' strike was averted.
So what does a backroom deal have to do with youth soccer? Quite a bit actually. The U.S. has struggled to get a profitable, sustainable professional league going. The National American Soccer League (NASL) existed from 1968 to 1984 with its indoor soccer branch lasting another decade. US Youth Soccer was founded in 1974 in a World Cup year and the NASL expanded bringing soccer further into the media spotlight. The high point for the NASL came with the addition of Pele to the New York Cosmos' roster in 1976. One of his bicycle kick goals featured prominently in the opening credits of ABC's Wide World of Sports giving every American sports fan an exquisite albeit brief taste of soccer. It also brought young fans into the sport giving them a recognizable role model. Unfortunately over the course of the next 10 years, American professional soccer took a nosedive and so too did interest in the sport. Rescue came in the form of the 1994 World Cup being awarded to the United States. Everyone had a reason to be proud of America and proud of American soccer players whose names were now known by a greater percentage of the population. When the MLS began its first competitive season in 1996 it rode the coattails of that World Cup recognition. In 1996 the number of registered US Youth Soccer players had risen from 100,000 to over a million.
The popularity of a sport depends greatly upon the name recognition of the players and the accessibility of competition for the general public. Kids want to emulate their sports' heroes and to dream about one day following in their footsteps. Their interest in playing a sport grows from their interest in who plays the sport. Had the MLS players struck, it would have been a terrible blow for the growing U.S. interest in our own home teams. Coming in a World Cup year, it would have further ramifications by curtailing some of the crescendo wave rolling into June and carrying fans into World Cup fever. Obviously the diehard fans wouldn't be affected, but those novice fans upon which the growth of professional soccer in America depends would have had their interest disrupted. We finally have a generation of soccer players who have grown up not only knowing American professional soccer, but having the international experience through television channels like Fox Soccer Channel and Gol TV. Interrupting their burgeoning interest in American teams and American players could result in years of having to re-establish that interest. All but one of the teams, Real Salt Lake, exist within an hour of other major sports teams, especially baseball whose season parallels that of the MLS. A family looking for a summer sports experience may turn their discretionary income to baseball if soccer didn't exist due to a strike.
Another serious factor affecting youth soccer is the close relationship between the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and MLS teams. While the Academy doesn't include but a handful of the more than 3 million youth players in America, it is presently one of two conduits to the highest levels of soccer in America. The possibility of playing at the top level keeps youth players motivated and hungry. The Academy attempts to follow the European model of having youth teams for each of the MLS teams where the players are supported by the professional team with facilities, access to coaches, financial support, and name recognition. With the MLS players on strike, the affect on the Academy could be serious. While the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program functions outside of the professional system, it could also suffer residual effects from fan defection and a depletion of interest.
I have great sympathy for the MLS players. The league can't attract the best players because they can go to Europe where salaries in even the fourth tier of competition can exceed what they earn in the MLS. A semi-professional player in the Conference National, the fifth tier and primarily amateur league, makes around $800 a week which just about equals what the meat and potato MLS players make. For many American players the choice to sit on the bench in Europe or play in the United States comes down to what they can make over the course of a contract. So, American players have a legitimate beef with the league about pay and about their ability to move to other more lucrative contracts without league approval. But now is not the time for a strike. The league has at least another five years to go before it can claim the fan loyalty and revenues strong enough to weather a season disruption. This interdependent circle of fans and games needs to be nurtured a while longer, particularly as it relates to youth fans. If the league hopes to be as successful in the longterm as the NFL, the NBA, or the MLB, it has to bring more and more youth fans into the circle. Those who play the game now, follow the MLS, and hold American soccer players as their heroes are those who will become the season ticket holders of the future and the parents who sign their kids up for soccer perpetuating a larger fan base.
The MLS and youth soccer need one another for the sport to grow in America. While I loved attending Columbus Crew games for under $80 for my family when my daughter lived there and driving the two hours to Chicago to see the Fire, my interest would wane should there have been a strike. Who wants to put that much effort into going to games when you can't count on the games occurring? That means my kids and my grandkids wouldn't be going to games as well. With so many sports competing for their interest and soccer still considered not as "cool" as the other sports, it's hard to convince kids to play if there isn't a professional component that lends the game some validity in their eyes. Someday I foresee a time I'll complain about the ridiculously inflated MLS player salaries and the high cost of tickets, but that's the price we'll pay for soccer earning its legitimate permanent place in the professional sport ranks. I just hope one or both my sons will be playing for the MLS so I can get in for free!