MLS and the FIFA World Cup: A Symbiotic Relationship

America’s dramatic exit from the knockout stages yesterday has resurrected the debate that agonizes proponents of US soccer culture with each passing World Cup. Fans and media pundits alike wrestle with a question that is equally monotonous in its prevalence, yet alarmingly complex in its nuances—“is it finally soccer’s time in the United States?”

ESPN analysts perched above the glistening waves of Copacabana beach offer a few viewership statistics laden with optimism; MLS executives attribute the league’s profit losses to accelerated investment in stadiums. A few hardened critics point to the fact that 45% of MLS players are foreign-born, and clamor for homegrown talent. Despite the multitude of voices weighing in on the debate, their arguments can be synthesized into one question:

Does MLS popularity beget World Cup success, or will World Cup success beget MLS popularity?

Last week, I met an English bar owner in the West Village who handed plastic Heineken trophies filled with beer to several customers. He quipped, “A few years ago, we used to run specials to beg people to watch. Now I have Americans complaining that our beer trophies are shaped like the Champions League, not the World Cup.”

His assertion would certainly be in line with the numbers. A Turnkey Intelligence survey conducted in April revealed that American soccer fans followed eight properties on average. David Downs recently attributed this diversity of interest to the popular FIFA video game, which exposes tech-hungry Millennials and youth to foreign leagues. The pivotal USA-Portugal match was ESPN’s most-watched soccer telecast in history after the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final, and the eruption of star-spangled madness in bars across Manhattan was a reflection of excitement even South Africa 2010 could not generate, let alone Germany 2006. In the words of Hall-of-Famer Cobi Jones at Thuzio’s latest Executive Club panel featuring Cosmos legend Shep Messing and Red Bulls Coach Michael Petke, “Americans love events.”

The trouble with events is that eventually, they end—and that burning question lingers: How long will Americans follow Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard now that the US has made its exit?

Americans love global soccer more than ever it seems, but I’ve identified three platform overhauls required to generate staying power – namely, US youth development, strategic broadcast deals, and tailored social media strategy.

 

— Homegrown Heroes or Foreign Superstars? —

The construction of a simple cause-and-effect relationship between World Cup success and MLS expansion is oversimplication. We can only tackle the question of how these properties relate if we approach the subject as non-linear, and allow for the possibility that success of either can occasionally come at the price of the other — particularly in the player development sphere.

Since Pele’s run in the 1970s, foreign superstars the likes of Henry and Beckham have driven fans to seats. Similar to the battle that continuously wages in the BPL regarding a lack of home-grown talent, how can MLS prepare American athletes for battle in the Maracanã when it is the glittering just-past-prime La Liga strikers that generate the revenue?

Mike Petke, head coach for the New York Red Bulls, insists that American players are always “given a shot” on his roster, and new franchises such as New York City FC have committed to the creation of world-class youth training as part of their community legacy. Brands such as Chipotle have caught on to the “homegrown” frenzy, incorporating free soccer clinics and community initiatives into their sponsorship package. While MLS Vice President of Player Relations J. Todd Durbin considers competition with “high quality internationals” a factor in American players’ successes, the Bundesliga model of nearly $1 billion in youth academy investments certainly demonstrates its merits on the pitch.

Soccer is the most widely-played sport in the six to seven demographic, yet by fourteen, the pigskin reigns supreme. Comparatively lower salaries and substantially less media attention make MLS an unattractive destination when juxtaposed to a fame and finance powerhouse like the NFL. Despite MLS’s short-term goal of visibility, a long-term play for aspiring American athletes to choose soccer over football or basketball requires a glamorous league with plenty of avenues to reach its locker rooms.

 

— Television Ratings & the BPL as ‘Frenemy’ —

Soccer’s mantra in America may very well be the classic Public Relations textbook line, “all publicity is good publicity.” Strong World Cup viewership numbers are cast as a bellwether for the sport’s staying power, however the ebb and flow of MLS tune-ins demonstrates a larger point that World Cups do not sustain American fascination.

While the ‘big four’ US leagues have long been cited as MLS’s top competitors, the English Premier League’s well-honed media strategy may quickly snap up the youth demographic we’ve been waiting to pioneer “futbol fever” from coast to coast. As LFC International owner Jeff L’Hote astutely pointed out last year, “The EPL will, for the first time, truly challenge the MLS to become America’s league of choice.” His message was one of clairvoyance.

Occupying weekend morning time-slots with low competition, the BPL has established an appointment-viewing trend that turns MLS advocates green with envy. Coupled with engaging programming that aims to both teach and establish affinity, NBC and NBCSN have established over 430,000 viewers per match on average.

Although the World Cup has seen a continuous surge of interest with each passing match, MLS viewership numbers were wracked with volatility as a series of broadcast rights deals signed in 2006 came to an end. ESPN/ESPN2 matches dropped from 311,000 to 220,000 viewers across 2012-2013; NBC saw a decline from 125,000 to 112,000 on average.

Americans have already demonstrated a propensity for multi-league consumption, but more strategic broadcasting geared toward appointment-viewing and telling the story of the sport are needed to gain traction. There is reason to believe that the next round of deals recently inked with ESPN, Fox, and Univision will make headway, as a new “Match of the Week” format will debut alongside shoulder programming.

 

— Social Media & the Global Party —

A recent Iconoculture study attributes Millennial consumption patterns to an ability to see “the commonalities of human experience in a wide range of people.” It is perhaps no surprise that this adventure-driven, well-connected cohort seeks to join the global soccer community. Its ability to unite fans in the face of cultural and economic diversity resonates with this surprisingly romantic generation, one that craves both authenticity and connection.

Social media is easily the major facilitator in bringing American youth up to speed, and in the eyes of Shep Messing, remains “the economic future of the sport.” Twitter’s recent and successful activation that embeds World Cup messages into its control panel for easy displays of fanaticism has certainly generated excitement.

As MLS attempts to fit into the fabric of global soccer, it must stimulate conversations long after the Twitter World Cup watch party comes to an end. According to CNN, Ronaldo was mentioned 1.5 million times during the US-Portugal match, with Clint Dempsey garnering 465,000 mentions. The fostering of national rivalries such as US-Mexico, compelling stories of diversity, and a cross-platform integrated social media strategy provide an opportunity for both MLS and its partner brands to generate buzz.

The embers of World Cup madness glimmer so sporadically across our lifetimes that we feel compelled to seize them, and suffer a mild—if not all-consuming—heartbreak when our nations leave the pitch disappointed.

While some fans will cling onto its coattails—and Cobi Jones believes “we are hanging on to a lot more people each year than the previous”—there is much to be done in the four-year-wait until the world’s gladiators converge once again.  The World Cup is an interruption, albeit a powerful one for brands and fans, but Major League Soccer needs traction to survive. If we recognize the need to balance dreams of World Cup greatness and the long-term efforts required to generate MLS success—particularly in terms of youth development, broadcast media, and social engagement—perhaps the exhausted question of “is this our time?” will stop dominating the press box.

 

What do you think about the relationship between success for the USMNT in the World Cup and future success of MLS? Let us know in the comments section below, or via Facebook or Twitter.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.