The NFL reigns supreme, MLB has the nostalgia of America's pastime and the NBA has star power on every team. In the face of this competition, the chance of soccer blossoming into one of the four major sports in the United States is actually much greater than most realize.
American interest in soccer is at an all-time high with the United States men's national team's latest accomplishments in the World Cup in South Africa. Expectations have undoubtedly been raised for the national team, even with the slow start manager Jurgen Klinsmann has had so far since he replaced Bob Bradley as head coach in 2011. If the U.S. is able to live up to the increased hype, with continued success during World Cup play, soccer will become one of the most popular sports in the country. Americans like winners and I just don't see how it would be possible for the American sports fan to not embrace soccer like it has football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
The most important cog in the American soccer machine is certainly Major League Soccer. There is, and will continue to be, a direct relationship between the success and growth of MLS and the popularity of soccer in the United States. Founded in 1993, MLS struggled in its infancy to simply stay afloat, and the outlook was bleak at best. Since 2009, MLS has successfully added expansion teams in Seattle, Wash., Vancouver, Montreal, Portland, Ore. and Philadelphia, Penn. with the goal of becoming a 20-plus team league in the near future. Also, unlike soccer leagues that have failed in the past, MLS isn't expanding to these new markets if they don't think there will be a big enough fan base to support the franchises, making them financially profitable.
Star power and name recognition are two things that have held back MLS in the past. Even though the signing of big names such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry are often downplayed because they are past their prime, these acquisitions must continue to occur. Greater name recognition is key in attracting the casual fan. These names can be the hook that draws people to watch a match, which catalyzes an interest in soccer as a whole.
MLS is on the verge of big things. In addition to the games aired on the ESPN Networks, MLS inked a three-year deal this past summer allowing NBC to air regular and post-season games, as well as two national team games each year. This deal brings some MLS games to primetime – the most coveted time slots in all of television. One must imagine that NBC would seek out a partnership with MLS only if they felt that soccer in America was poised to step into the mainstream.
Americans already show tremendous support for the best soccer players and teams in the world. Even though the teams often start many reserve players, exhibition games between MLS teams and top European clubs almost always sell out. Impressively, the 2010 World Cup final had higher television ratings than the deciding game of the World Series and game seven of the NBA Finals.
Americans support soccer, there is no denying it. If the popularity of soccer and MLS keep growing at their current pace, it will undoubtedly become one of America's most popular sports.