The US is still a generation away from becoming a soccer nation.
By Devin Skrade
The U.S. is still 20 years away from being a soccer nation.
In the spring of 1983, my father purchased my first MLB approved baseball glove. I was two months old.
Thirty years and seven billion miles of soccer travel later (author’s note: all figures approximate), any grandchildren lucky enough to bear his surname will receive gear approved by a different governing body: FIFA.
Unfortunately for those championing soccer in America as mainstream every few years since the summer of 1994, a generation of footie-first parents is, in all likelihood, only the halfway point of this 40 year adventure.
Despite tremendous developments in the past few decades--the 1994 World Cup, the founding of Major League Soccer, nearly universal access to soccer coverage, and the introduction of high-definition broadcasts, to name a few--the popularity of soccer in America remains adolescent.
Since the mid-1990s, the debate has raged over soccer’s place in the pantheon of American sports. After every World Cup, after major successes and failures of the U.S. National Teams, even after big announcements regarding broadcast rights, pundits asked the same question: “Is soccer here to stay?”
Thankfully, with Major League Soccer closing in on 20 seasons and the expectations for our national teams higher than ever, that is no longer a relevant question.
But as anyone invested in the tradition and development of American soccer can attest, the young standouts in the States are still miles behind those of soccer powerhouses like Spain, England, Argentina, and Brazil.
In other countries, children as young as 8 years old are cherry-picked by club programs, already showing the potential for greatness. According to legend, Lionel Messi’s Barcelona career began at age 11 with a signed napkin and a promise to move nearly 7,000 miles. In the States, that kind of mythos is resigned to 15 year olds with the size and athleticism to play basketball or football, who instead became defenders or point forwards.
For children growing up in the U.S--most of whom are taught to believe playing a professional sport is a perfectly reasonable career path--what is the difference between football and soccer, or basketball and soccer?
Well, probably the fame and glamour and toys associated with the money, but let’s be honest, most adults are unable to differentiate between the lot.
According to the Major League Soccer Players Union, in 2012 the average salary was around $175,000. Even if that figure was not severely inflated as a result of “designated player” contracts for the likes of Beckham, Henry, and Cahill, players would have to earn at this level for 15 to 20 years in order to retire with any sense of financial stability.
And that assumes they have studied the wisdom in Broke.
More than likely, players will make about $45,000 for a few years before attempting to parlay their talents into coaching or broadcasting. That sort of trajectory would be considered nothing short of a successful soccer career to anyone born in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, but it should come as no surprise that most gifted young athletes have been steered in other directions.
Those very same average-inflating contracts for designated players hint at new possibilities for young athletes. Where Landon Donovan was once the highest payed player in a small, under-funded league, there are a greater number of contracts than ever before breaking the million dollar mark. Thus, a greater possibility to land such a contract.
David Beckham’s impact on Major League Soccer is well documented, but to the average consumer of soccer in the United States, his tenure in the MLS is misunderstood. Whether he is a great player is irrelevant. The MLS purchased The David Beckham Hype Machine. Ronaldo and Messi are unequivocally better at the game of soccer. For that matter, a number of players in the MLS may have been as well. But no one on the planet draws an audience like Beckham does.
And advertisers will pay for an audience.
While money for player contracts comes, in part, from ticket sales, the majority of the income that supports the MLS is generated through television deals and sponsors (think banners, billboards, and jerseys). The value of those television deals and sponsorships is based on viewership and the amount of advertising revenue that volume of viewership commands. As soccer increases in popularity, the league will be better funded.
Assuming advertising budgets are predominantly controlled by soccer fans.
Which they are not. Not yet at least. Anyone born before 1980 grew up witnessing the explosion in popularity of basketball. They dreamed of owning an NFL team. They skated on frozen ponds. They used the baseball gloves their fathers bought them.
Naturally, they invested money in those sports.
What happens when the next generation of ad execs and CEOs takes over? And the one after that? Which sport did they dream of playing as child?
The answer--increasingly and overwhelmingly--is soccer.
Attendance and viewership continue to steadily rise and the possibility of landing the next seven-figure MLS contract is becoming more conceivable. Young American athletes are turning out to soccer camps and juggling in their backyard in hopes of being the next face of an Adidas campaign.
Most importantly, generations of players that devoured the game for 20 years knowing the NCAA would likely be the apex of their soccer career are starting to have access to corporate resources and decision making.
And when they finally gain control, it will be a beautiful day for soccer in America.