I talked about the World Cup the other day and how the brand power of sport trumps nearly everything else, including the protests in Brazil. As we enter the 13th day of the World Cup, that certainly is proving to be true.
Nielsen is reporting that the recent match between the US and Portugal attracted 24.7 million US viewers. To give that a little perspective, that ranks as the 5th highest viewed sporting event over the last year surpassed only by American Football (Super Bowl, NFC Championship, AFC Championship and the BCS Championship – in that order). It was higher than the NCAA Men’s final, the NBA finals, Belmont Stakes, and the World Series. Soccer is alive and well in the US, right?
Yes and no. When you consider Major League Soccer (MLS), although actual average game attendance has surpassed the NBA and NHL, TV ratings lag far behind – even behind European Premier League. This is an interesting phenomena. Clearly US soccer clubs have done a good job in their local markets to get support, but they have failed to translate that local following to the national stage.
But on a national level, soccer is doing quite well. The US is going World Cup crazy. So why can’t MLS gain traction nationally?
I think the answer is two-fold. Unlike other US sports (NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA), Major League Soccer is not the preeminent league for soccer. Sadly, MLS does not have the world’s best players. This is partly due to MLS players not getting paid as much as their European counterparts. Also, the best players want to get paid and play against and with the best players. The other reason is that MLS has done a poor job in globalizing its brand. It was a late entry into global soccer, and league and owners have been unwilling to heavily invest in making it one.
If anything, the World Cup demonstrates that Americans do like soccer. But, much like in the Olympics when everyone likes curling, the intensity comes from the American brand. If the MLS could position its brand to use some of that emotional intensity, then it could enjoy greater success. In soccer, success begets success. More revenue means you can pay players more and when you pay players better players come to play. Perhaps on the heels of the World Cup, the MLS should take a look at its brand and grow up to the world stage.