Bringing the Fans to MLS: Part IV-The Soccer Hater

jim rome“Soccer is a girl’s game”  “There are no goals, it is boring” “It will never succeed”  “Why do they roll around on the ground all the time”

All soccer fans have heard these statements.  We all know people who feel this way about the “beautiful game”.  This is part four of our MLS attendance series.  You can see part I here,  part II here and part III here. We have collected anecdotes from hundreds of friends, coworkers, fans, familes, store owners and acquaintainces in an effort to determine what will bring more fans to MLS. We have asked these questions at soccer matches of all levels, dinner parties, social gatherings and board meetings.  We have been asking these questions since February with an eye towards seeking out trends about MLS fandom and what brings people to Major League Soccer League stadiums.

Should MLS attempt to bring “soccer haters” to the game?  Are they worth converting?  During our interviews, the sentiments set forth at the top of this page were repeated over and over.  Most of the people who fit in this category would rather watch anything other than soccer.  They are annoyed that ESPN even bothers to carry the games and cannot believe that the game gets “so much attention.”  Most think it is a kids’ game or sport for girls.  They decry the lack of content, lack of scoring and lack of commercials.

Yet, among the people we spoke with, there were a couple of passionate MLS supporters that say they started as soccer haters.   All remember getting dragged to a soccer event and having a surpisingly good time.  All of these converts are more dedicated to their local MLS side than many season ticket holders.

However, these folks are the significant minority.  Most of these soccer haters detest the game and have no inclination to give it a chance.  Overwhelmingly, these folks describe the NFL as their favorite sport.  They typically like sports radio and turn it off if there is a soccer conversation.  They told me they believe just about every negative soccer stereotype, and many related that they disliked the guys that played soccer in high school or college.  They don’t want to be “won over” or sold the game.

So the question is, should MLS try?  Is it worth devoting marketing dollars and efforts to convince these potential fans to come to MLS?

15 Responses

  1. My apologies in advance for a long comment (and a bit of a cross post, in that I left a very similar comment on Kartik’s site). I enjoyed your series on bringing the fans to MLS very much and want to share my thoughts on the growth of MLS in the U.S. as both a fan and a business executive. It is a topic very close to my heart.

    The mission statement recently articulated by Don Garber, which is that he believes there are plenty of die hard soccer fans in the U.S. and MLS needs to be converting them into fans of MLS, is the correct one. Nobody else will bring as much passion to the stadiums, and as solid numbers to the TV broadcasts, as this group of people. But the challenge is a big one, although I do not believe it is insurmountable. However, it will take some time, partially because MLS in many ways dug a hole with this group from the outset due to its focus on the soccer-mom families instead of the true U.S. soccer fan. Sometimes I think many of the founder franchises would be better off if they launched now, without the nonsensical gimmicks that were in place back at the league’s inception such as the game clock counting down and the shootouts to avoid ties. Too many real soccer fans were turned off by that immediately.

    Frankly, another one of the problems that we have as a “domestic” (plus Canada) league is that our geographic spread is so much damned bigger than most, with major population centers thousands of miles apart, making it much more difficult to cultivate interest outside of the cities that have teams. We simply don’t have a situation where one major population can have 4-8 teams, or where clubs in different cities are a quick train ride away. The addition of Philly and two more Pacific Northwest teams will clearly help, as it will create pockets of hopefully very intense rivalries. It also doesn’t help that the largest TV market in our country has, by far, the worst franchise in the league. One of the Sounders’ coaches recently expressed to me exacerbation about the situation in New York, saying that they should just implode the entire franchise and start from scratch, treating themselves as an expansion franchise with the new stadium giving them a fresh start. But I digress…

    I think there are essentially two major actions, one currently being taken and one where the opportunity now presents itself to be taken, which will help the MLS in its ambition to grow to the point where it is being taken more seriously by soccer fans in the U.S.:

    (1) Stadiums: Even on television (and even moreso in person), there is a vast difference between seeing a game played in a fantastic venue like Rio Tinto or HDC versus converted baseball stadiums (with pitchers mounds in full view, tiny dimensions and horrible fan sightlines) and cavernous football stadiums (particularly once the NFL and college football get started and the additional lines on the pitch make my eyes bleed). Thank goodness, assuming there are no unpleasant surprises, we will have great new stadiums in Houston, San Jose, Kansas City, Philly and New York by 2012 (all with natural grass surfaces, I believe). Only Seattle (which seems to work, even in a large stadium, for now), DC, New England and Vancouver (we will see how it looks once they start) will be left in giagantic stadiums, and there will be no more minor league baseball or small college football stadium eyesores left. This alone will make the league seem much less “minor league”. I wish all of the soccer stadiums could be as close to downtown epicenters as possible, but I understand that in most areas that is just a pipe dream.

    (2) Collective Bargaining Agreement. While the traditional management stance is always to keep wages as low as possible, MLS needs to take a giant, progressive leap forward here. Teams need to be able to pay their players, particularly the second and third tier players after the DPs whose stability arguably has the greatest impact on a franchise’s success in soccer. The cap needs to be loosened considerably or at least tripled. This will help keep (only to a point, I realize) U.S. talent here domestically and will considerably increase the quality of the product on the field. MLS needs to be forward thinking about this and understand that while the “NASL dilemma” makes it a bit scary, there is a way to do this smartly that will dramatically increase the league’s credibility.

    In addition to the above, in the immediate future I would love to see a reserve league, as well as a good performance by MLS teams in the Champions League (meaning, by definition, that they have to take it seriously), which will help MLS in the estimation of hard core soccer fans.

    I enjoy the blog. Keep up the good work.

  2. Craig:

    These are some great points. I agree fully with your point about how things might be different if some of the original franchises were just starting now. Interestingly, during our interview with the Revs COO (archived a few months back), he made the case that it was the mistakes of these franchises that laid the groundwork for Seattle, Toronto, etc… to succeed.

    Your thoughts on stadium’s are also well taken. I don’t find a venue like Community America nearly as dismal as a Giants Stadium type experience. The “friendly confines” do allow for a certain atmosphere.

  3. As an earlier follower of the league who used to live in NYC and go to Metrostars games, I completely agree regarding the huge stadiums sapping the life out of games (although as a Sounder season ticket holder, Qwest at half capacity still does quite nicely, to my surprise and delight). But at least (generally) there the pitch is full sized (although most often with awful, AWFUL turf). I just hate turning on games in KC and San Jose to see a tiny field, resulting in non-optimal spacing and play. Luckily, both venues are temporary and by 2012 we will have nice new soccer venues with appropriate sizes for the markets (both will seat under 20,000, I believe). I really think 2012, with (1) the new Pacific NW teams, (2) possibly Montreal (and St. Louis?), and (3) several new stadiums being minted on top of Philly and Red Bull Park in NJ, will be a banner year for MLS.

  4. I agree, but I don’t think that will change the minds of soccer haters.

  5. But I also have to recognize that the man does bring up some pretty valid things that annoy him about the game. I must note that he has tried to watch games with me but he cannot get over these things.

    1. Flopping

    We are Americans. We are Texans. We are Houstonians. We like tough. We are tough. We respect tough. We hate weak.

    My Dad loves NBA guard play, especially classic guard play, but he can’t stand John Stockton because he was a flop artist.

    My Dad likes the free-flowing nature of the game, it draws him and keeps him watching longer than he cares to admit. But when a player flops to stop the flow of the game. Our when a professional foul is executed and stops what would have been a great counter he gets very frustrated with the game. He feels it shouldn’t tolerate that kind of play. The stoppage and accompanying frustration are usually enough to lose him.

    2. Faking injuries and Best Actor performances

    I won’t repeat everything I said above but basically ditto to all from the previous point. When you’re hurt, do what Jim Brown did, hold your arm and run off the field. Unless you’re actually too hurt to move or run off the field. Even in high school football there are procedures and processes in place to prevent feigning injury from holding up the progress of a game. Teams are in essence penalized if the injury is under within two minutes of a half close. FIFA needs to figure how it deals with this issue. But MLS could be proactive and start innovating here to develop approaches to deal with these issues. I would appreciate it and I’m a die hard fan, think about what it could do to help attract new fans.

    3. MLS doesn’t feel American

    Now this is going to sound weird. Die-hards like me will say that MLS is very American in that there is such a dearth of technical talent. But for a soccer hater there isn’t an American culture and approach to the game being defined.

    It was funny because I remember when this came up. It was World Cup 2006 when I got my Dad to watch the US vs Italy game.

    I was describing the Italian playing style. Then we started talking about the Brazilian playing style, then the Clockwork Orange, then the Mexican playing style, and then he asked me a really tough question… What’s the American playing style?

    I had to answer that we haven’t really defined a playing style that is uniquely American yet. We aren’t flair players, we aren’t ball movement, we aren’t player movement, we aren’t technical masters. It was unfortunate because at the start of that game I saw that we really hadn’t developed an overt and really well defined playing culture.

    While watching the game when Brian McBride got his nose opened my Dad yelled out as Brian basically kept playing (like a champ!), “Now that is American!”

    But that’s nowhere to be found in MLS. Who knows why exactly, but there are two cultures I would expect to be pervasive and overwhelming in MLS and US Soccer by extension. I would expect either, an athletic culture (think NBA) or a hard-nosed, grind-it-out, fight-for-every-ball, very scrappy style of ball (think of a Cinderella NCAA Basketball team running the full-court press 85% of the time).

    Those are American sporting cultures and as a soccer coach I know that those cultures are seen as part of the American soccer weakness. It’s just time for us to listen to the sage like wisdom of Drucker when he mentioned of cultures that it is always more productive to work with the one you have then to try to change it.

    4. Pretty Boys

    Soccer is a pretty boy sport. I can’t help it cause honestly I am kind of one too, probably even more so when I play competitive soccer. I am not sure that we can really do anything to change that. But it is something we have to admit, the game does afford a great deal more pretty than other American sports.

    So it seems to me that MLS can gain some viewers but more important improve the quality of its league by addressing the concerns of these very polished and experienced sports fans. I think they are worth going after and I don’t think it will take advertising dollars to do it. I think we’re already getting to where they are, ESPN, ABC, etc etc. But we have to keep them.

    That’s my 2 cents, and my experience. I think there are some opportunities and this market segment may eventually become unimportant but it is not out of reach or impossible to attract them.

  6. (OH dear, the first half didn’t paste sorry guys.)

    As a person who lives with a very outspoken and aggressive “soccer hater” I empathize with this topic completely. And while I feel that SounderCraig has a great post (I’m jealous honestly) and think it warrants being a guest post so that everyone can and will read it on the front fold it does, as SVI mentions, have nothing to do with the “soccer haters.” I think a couple things are worthwhile to mention and explore here.

    One, my father is older (50s) and grew up with the “American Classics” of sports, football, baseball, basketball and golf. Those are his sports and the ones he actually follows closely. He has always teased me about playing a girly sport and he can’t stand when I monopolize the TV to watch a US Soccer or major MLS game.

    But I will say that I have seen him come around as of late for very specific reasons which I will mention now.

    1. Oguchi Onyewu & Jay DeMerit

    My Dad sat and watched the entire US vs. Spain game with me. He was so caught up in the battle between the hard nosed strong and physically imposing centre backs of the US with the pretty boy and balet-esque forwards of Spain. He thought Onyewu and DeMerit represented America the way he saw it, with strength grit and physicality. He saw Villa, Torres, and really the rest of the Spanish team as prima donnas who praced about the field dancing and enjoying their cunning and passing skill more than playing direct and taking the game while focusing on the result.

    2. Everyone loves a winner.

    After the US beat Spain my Dad loved to include himself as one of the supporters of the team of American Underdogs that toppled the European #1 in the world team. That win caused my Dad to drop his soccer guard for about 2 hours and quiz me intensely about where the players come from, how the US is developing players. He wanted to know how we get more of this dominance and he did seem upset when I shared my opinion that it was a marathon not a sprint and that the victory over Spain was only showing of promise rather than a coming of age.

    3. Jozy Altidore

    Raw athletic talent. My Dad adored Jozy. He was such a juxtaposition to the Spanish forwards and really the Spanish team. Heck Jozy is even an exception when you look at the US team in general. But he is attracting a different type of attention partially because of his results, but as much so because of his athleticism.

  7. It’s also valuable for anyone interested in this thread to check out this wonderful article from Bill Simmons on ESPN.com.

    If you don’t know Bill Simmons is kind of a big deal. He’s an incredibly popular writer op-ed type for ESPN and he is the voice of many basketball and ‘average’ sports fans.

    http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/090817

  8. In my estimation, Bill Simmons writing effusively about the experience of going to Azteca, as well as the analysis he provides of Jozy and other U.S. players as an admitted neophyte to the sport, does more for legitimizing soccer as a major spectator sport in America than any one game played during this “Summer of Soccer” (including U.S.-Spain). This column is a very big deal, as is Simmons’ continuing interest (and subsequent presumed columns) as time goes on.

  9. The Simmons article is a good read.

    John Reyes: The story about your father is pretty enlightening and meshes well with many of the folks I interviewed for the post.

  10. There is nothing more pathetic than throwing a party and noone shows up. Then in desperation, trying to figure out why people (who tell you flat out they hate your parties) didn’t come.

    The typical NFL Joe-bag-of-donuts will never care about soccer – who gives a damn? There are plenty of soccer lovers in this country that don’t go to MLS games (as stated above). THEY are the potential fans.

  11. Hard to argue with you S. Gouda.

  12. Gouda,

    Im not saying they are the best demographic to go after, but in the spirit of this discussion we have been going segment by segment sharing the considerations and context of each.

    I will say, that I share these posts with my Dad and I shared the Bill Simmons article with him as well. We even managed to share some real moments as he felt validated and that his complaints regarding soccer are really being listened too. He also liked hearing Bill Simmons basically speak his language and share his whole emotion POV regarding this whole soccer thing.

    It’s also worth noting that he did concede that he is totally sold on “this World Cup” thing for next year. He said he reads about it here and there, not everyday like me but that’s progress for a man who really has hated the game pretty much my WHOLE life. He said he won’t watch league for the same reasons I said before but he is sold on the World Cup, and heck man. That’s a start. If this World Cup goes well who knows he may even come around to that. That’s where we are with tons of previously anti-soccer guys in the US right now.

  13. […] of our MLS attendance series.  You can see part I here,  part II here, part III here and part IV here. We have collected anecdotes from hundreds of friends, coworkers, fans, families, store owners and […]

  14. […] of our MLS attendance series.  You can see part I here,  part II here, part III here and part IV here. We have collected anecdotes from hundreds of friends, coworkers, fans, families, store owners and […]

  15. […] of our MLS attendance series.  You can see part I here,  part II here, part III here and part IV here. We have collected anecdotes from hundreds of friends, coworkers, fans, families, store owners and […]

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