This is a mystery.
After all, soccer has four passionate fan bases in the US:
1) immigrants arrived from soccer mad countries (South America, Africa, Europe, um, like, the whole world)
2) women under the age of 55 (thanks to the triumphs of Mia Hamm and company at the World Cup events in the late 1990s)
3) kids now participating in school and neighborhood programs that have embraced soccer because it is 3.1 inexpensive, 3.2 co-educational (if required), and 3.3 easy to play badly. Are there a lot of these kids? I believe there’s a reason we call their mothers "soccer moms."
4) kids who have graduated from said programs. Kids have been passing through these programs in big numbers for at least 20 years. This means that the first cohort is now in its mid twenties and in possession of the disposal income to support a local club and a national league.
This is what a marketer would call an "installed base." Millions of people have followed or played the game. If only 20% become fans, it should be more or less easy to sustain a professional league play. But this has been really hard to do. Soccer has struggled.
But things are looking up.
According to an article in BusinessWeek, the money is now in place with investors pouring $1 billion dollars into the league in the last two years. Red Bull putting down $100 million to buy a New York franchise. New stadiums are being created. Ticket sales are up 20% this year with attendance approaching 20,000 a game.
This is good news for fans of dynamism because soccer is a dynamic game in a way that football and baseball are distinctly not. George Will once said of the former that it combined two of the worst aspects of American life: violence and committee meetings. Baseball would be improved by either one. Soccer is all about pattern recognition on the fly. Says the striker, "if this is true, and this is true, and this is true, then this pass is called for. No! He moved." One of the real pleasures of the game is watching patterns form and reform on the field as these two little universes reconfigure themselves in a spectacular display of "sense and respond" as Steve Haeckel would call it.
But there is room for product development. Specifically, something has to be done about the physics of the game. There is too much time and too much space. A 90 minute game is too long and so is the field. Both tax players so heavily that dynamism is actually suppressed. I am not suggesting dramatic reductions. Otherwise, soccer would become merely basketball played with one’s feet. But I think 60 minutes and a smaller field would bring the game alive nicely.
Will this happen. Absolutely not. Soccer fans are religious zealots. There will be no reformation. I think this means that while soccer will climb from its present obscurity, it will never be ready for prime-time, and the present marketing opportunity will be wasted. Too bad.
For more on the ranking of sports, go here.
For more on Steve Haeckel and his ideas, go here.
Holmes, Stanley. 2006. A breakout year for soccer? BusinessWeek. May 1, 2006, p. 86.