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Soccer still short of a breakthrough in the US


Every time there is a World Cup one can expect a slew of articles proclaiming that soccer has now 'established' itself in the United States.   To be fair, Major League Soccer (MLS) has made steady progress, but it is still some way behind the major traditional sports such as baseball and American football.

When the league got under way in 1996 there was an average of 17,406 spectators per game with just 10 teams.   In 2011 there were on average 17,844 per game, by then with 18 teams and more games played in the season.  Nearly one-third of Americans consider themselves football fans, but only 2 per cent of US fans say that football us their favourite sport.

MLS's television contracts are dwarfed by even the least significant of the American major leagues, the National [Ice] Hockey League.  It renegotiated its television rights in 2011 and signed a decade long, $200m a year contract with NBC.

Television audiences for MLS have been mediocre.  Only 16 US cities have teams, so many fans lack a local allegiance.  US brands are also uncertain about how to invest in a sport that does not have regular commercial breaks.   Ironically, the World Cup may benefit viewing of the European leagues which is where most of the stars play.

Of course, it is a huge market.  Nearly 25 million watched the US's game against Portugal, compared with the 18.5 million who saw England lose to Uruguay.   This was more than the number who watched the professional basketball finals this month.   The audience was particularly strong in cosmopolitan centres such as New York and Washington DC.

The fact that matches are being played in a convenient time zone helped.  Furthermore, there are not many other sports to watch.  The US domestic basketball and hockey seasons have finished.  There are relatively few high profile US players taking part at Wimbledon.   The only golf superstar, Tiger Woods, is recovering from injury.

Long-run trends should help.  The Hispanic population has risen by 1 million in the past three years and now accounts for one in six Americans.   The growth of college soccer should also help.  But it may take fifteen to twenty years before football is on the level of hockey.