Why Soccer Won't Succeed in the US

I admit it. I have World Cup fever. I lived in France when they won the World Cup in 1998, and have enjoyed the sport ever since. Needless to say I was thrilled with today’s outcome, a 3-1 French victory over Spain. (And needless to say, I was quite disappointed with the US performance overall.)

So given the World Cup, and a tenuous link to both publishing and technology, I thought I’d post on why I think soccer, despite my affection for it, will not succeed commercially in the US.

  • It is inherently a poor sport for advertisers. Since advertising funds most of the content industry (and in this context live sports are most certainly content), you need to examine the advertising opportunity in sports to determine their commercial success potential. If baseball and football are the ultimate advertising-opportunity sports (think lots of natural, long breaks for commercials built directly into the game), then soccer is the ultimate nightmare: two 45-minute, uninterrupted halves with an approximately 15-minute half-time, where you can run commercials, but know that virtually no one is watching.
  • It’s hard to find good workarounds to the advertising limitations. I think there’s a 0% chance that FIFA will change the rules to have “TV timeouts” inserted into matches. So your only option is to do what they do in Europe: put logos on the uniforms (a la Vodaphone on Manchester United), signs around the playing field, and a sponsor logo displayed on the screen during the match (on either a permanent or rotating basis). But I don’t believe these sponsorships can command the $4M/minute value of a Superbowl commercial.
  • The game is low scoring. Americans like high-scoring games. Think basketball scores: 110-105. Or baseball: 12-7. Or Football: 35-21. Then there’s soccer: 1-0. (For example, yesterday’s Switzerland/Ukraine match which was 0-0 at the end of both regulation and overtime — that’s two hours of play without a single goal.)
  • The low-scoring nature of the game increases the impact of questionable calls. When there are 8 runs in a baseball game, 1 blown call has modest impact. When there is only 1 goal in a match and it results from a penalty kick awarded on a questionable call (e.g., last night’s Italy/Australia game) it doesn’t just have a big impact on — it actually determines the outcome of — the match.
  • The soccer establishment has resisted using technology (e.g., video replays, RFID chips in the ball) to improve officiating. There’s nothing more disheartening than watching a game for two hours and knowing the result was determined by a bad call (e.g., a questionable “was it in the goal” call as happened in one of France’s first-round games). I think Americans are less tolerant of such outcomes than others, as we tend to adopt a “fix it” attitude instead of a c’est la vie or a status quo preservation attitude.

Many of the problems I cite above are also associated with hockey, which itself has been on the decline in the USA for what I believe are the same reasons. That’s my take. What’s yours?

5 responses to “Why Soccer Won't Succeed in the US

  1. Humour and last laugh

    interesting blog. Who are your favorites for the cup?

  2. Nick Patience

    Dave – I think it depends on how you define succeed? Will it ever displace baseball, basketball or ‘football’ ;)? I doubt it. But will it displace hockey in some parts of the country? Quite possibly. On the advertising question, it’s always a strange one, because the rest of the world manages to televise the game and make enormous profits from it. Murdoch’s Sky TV in the UK lives (or dies) based on its ownership of the rights to the Premier League. And now they have such things at European grounds as the electronic video-based advertising boards around the ground, that change through the game (and are very annoying from the spectator’s point of view, which no doubt makes them attractive to advertisers). Plus they sell large shirt sponsorhip deals, e.g. Man Utd’s deal with AIG that gets the club £56.5m over four years. The sport will probably move to thhings like RFID chips in balls eventually, but the inexactness of the sport is part of its appeal, I would argue. Hey the pitches aren’t all even the same size! If it gets highly regimented with all variables extinguihsed in the name of efficiency, it might appeal more to the US market, but I think the European market (the only other one I could claim to know about) might start to lose interest.

  3. Hi Nick,I guess success to me meant “become a major sport.” The great irony of soccer in the USA is that I believe it has become the #1 children’s sport (all my kids play it), but there is no real successful, high-quality soccer league in the USA to watch as a spectator. Success, for my purposes I suppose = commercial success.For example, in Silicon Valley we had the San Jose Earthquakes, who played in a sub-sized, dilapidated stadium. They won the MLS championship, and no one seemed to notice. I think a typical player makes $80K/year. They have since gone to Houson. The MLS is like triple-A baseball. The great players are either on their way down from Europe or hope to move there on their way up. But like triple-A no one, per se, wants to be there. I totally agree with your point that the more you change the game to Americanize it, the more you would alienate the traditional European / Latin American fan base. Hence, I don’t think those changes will happen.

  4. Soccer will prevail in the US in the mass market BECAUSE generations of real ordinary citizens young, old, students, professionals, career athletes, weekend strikers, goalies forwards are all playing and love to play this sport. No one is watching BECAUSE the people are PLAYING. Enjoy your “chaise en Francaise” fat bum!

  5. I’m keenly aware that kids today play soccer seemingly more than any other sport, and that the tradition of playing football, basketball, baseball as the “standard 3” has long since past.But I have two comments: (1) as kids get into high school they seem to play soccer less; many seem to switch to the classics, and (2) far more important to my argument — how much soccer do they WATCH either live or on TV and how many ads is that exposing them too.By succeed, I mean commercial success and that means advertising.

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