Will Soccer Succeed in America?

U.S. soccer personalities discuss sport’s future on panel in St. Louis
by Dave Lange   |   Wednesday, May 07, 2014

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Twenty years from now, soccer will have replaced baseball among America’s top 3 sports.

Yes, the United States can win the men’s World Cup in our lifetimes.

The 2022 World Cup will stay in Qatar, so we just have to deal with it.

Comments coming from well-oiled and somewhat delusional soccer fans in the local pub? Nope. These are some of the pithy pearls of wisdom left in St. Louis by a blue-ribbon panel of national soccer personalities Monday night:  U.S. Soccer Federation CEO and Secretary General Dan Flynn, FC Dallas and Kansas City Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt, Sports Illustrated soccer guru Grant Wahl and ESPN analyst and former MLS scoring wizard Taylor Twellman.

Led by moderator Michael MacCambridge, who has written several books on the NFL and teaches a course at Washington University on soccer’s global impact, the panelists bantered back and forth over a wide range of topics for 2 hours before an audience of several hundred.

Some of the more memorable discussions dealt with soccer’s place in the American sports pantheon, prospects for the success of Major League Soccer’s expansion franchises, the future of women’s soccer, cleaning up FIFA and promotion/relegation in the United States.

The age-old question of “when will soccer make it in America” drew some pointed responses.

Asked how long it would take for soccer to become one of the top three sports in America, Hunt replied, “I personally believe that within the next 20 years, it’s one of the top 3, which means one of the other sports that’s currently in the top 3 has to go. ”

Twellman interjected, “Baseball.”

Flynn added, “The statistic that would bear that out is the average age of the viewer during the last World Series was 57 or 58, while the soccer viewers are 36 or 37.”

Tied into the issue of soccer’s growth in America is the expansion of MLS into new markets in Atlanta, Miami and Orlando. Hunt and Flynn emphasized strong commitments for season tickets to the new franchise awarded to Atlanta, reported to have topped 9,000. Wahl and Twellman were a bit more skeptical.

Wahl: “I do have questions about a team in Miami, and similar questions (about Atlanta) … but if the MLS wants to be a national league, it needs to be in the Southeast. Atlanta is a gigantic market. If anyone is going to make MLS soccer work in Miami, it’s (David) Beckham and the smart (management) team behind him.”

Twellman: “When you look at ratings for the U.S.-Mexico games, Miami and Atlanta are always in the top 4 or 5. (But) I think Miami is a very long shot. You have to have a stadium, and you have to have the right kind of players there. Atlanta I believe in, because of (owner) Arthur Blank (who also owns the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons). I think Arthur Blank will make it work. Orlando is the one that is going to work because they are the ones who are going to build a (soccer-specific) stadium.”

Asked about alleged corruption in FIFA’s process to award World Cups to host nations, Hunt and Flynn said that the business side alone will lend greater weight to considering the United States and China as hosts.

“If soccer is a business decision, there will be change,” Flynn said. “I just don’t think the shenanigans can continue because of the business principles and the business challenges (that FIFA faces). If you look at the world, FIFA has two big geographic areas, the U.S. and China. That’s got to drive this. If you are FIFA and you step back, and you talk about multinational companies (and growing TV rights fees), it’s the development of the U.S. market commercially, and China, that will make the value of FIFA triple or quadruple.  So they (FIFA) have a vested interest. It’s a matter of that getting through to them.

Added Hunt: “There were many people who thought that there was no way the U.S. was going to support a World Cup. Sure enough, we sold more tickets (for the 1994 World Cup in the United States) than any country ever had. FIFA understands that, and the explosion in the rights fees is not lost on them.”

On the topic of promotion and relegation coming to U.S. soccer, the message coming from the panelists was: Don’t hold your breath.

“If we (MLS) have 40 legit owners in this league, I wouldn’t mind seeing promotion-relegation in a two-league system,” Twellman said. “I could be talking 40-50 years down the road.”

Hunt: “People say, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if you have it like the Premier League (and have promotion-relegation).’ But the flip side is the economic devastation of being relegated, particularly in the U.S., at this point (makes promotion-relegation) unrealistic.”

Similarly, panelists said, a brighter future is some years ahead for women’s soccer. While average attendance for matches played by the U.S. Women’s National Team has grown from 5,000 before the 2011 Women’s World Cup to 16,000 today, soccer at the level of the National Women’s Soccer League has a ways to go.

“The biggest challenge for the NWSL is survival,” Flynn said. “We simply can’t raise the revenues to sustain the model for a professional league other than the model that we have today. In that model, we pay the Women’s National Team players and we distribute the (national team) players.

“The years 2015 and 2016 are very important to us with the Women’s World Cup and the Olympics. We have to keep our status as a favored and well-known side.”


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Dave writes about soccer in St. Louis, something he's been doing since the early 1970s. His book, "Soccer Made in St. Louis," was published in 2011 and has almost sold out. He was a head coach for 11 years at Busch Soccer Club.