So the posting of some numbers about MLS fans got a lot of attention today and lead to some good questions, so I thought lets keep looking at the numbers, Here is a look at who the fans of each league are:
Source: Scarborough Sports Marketing, February 2010
First thing you should notice is what sport they chose to use fans from? Oh those lovely fans in Seattle. So yesterday we saw that MLS ranks low on the list of priorities for Hispanic fans but you can see that they still make up a good number of MLS fans. In fact they are almost 25% of the leagues fans, a huge number compared to other sports, so understanding that the league is going to spend a good amount of time and money marketing to them is a given. I think both the league and most other fans would have hoped that MLS (13.3%) would have been more popular among U.S. Hispanics than the Winter Olympics (17.9%), but I don't think anyone is surprised that it is almost half as popular as Mexican League Soccer (25.9%).
I think the popularity of the league with African-Americans, who make up 9% of the fans, is a bit of a surprise as only the NBA and NFL have a higher percentage in pro sports. I think this trend is one that the league should focus on ways to encourage growth in this group.
One of the big questions I have been hit with is what is the difference between fans and Avid fans? Each of the agencies that do this type of research define fans "as people who express an interest in the sport being measured", while avid fans differ because they are "very interested". I know it is still a vague definition but it is what we have to work with.
The other big question about the information is why? Some are saying it is the generational growth of interest by those who grew up playing the sport. I believe that is part of it but I think there is something more going on here and I will offer up my thoughts after the jump:
So to keep me from just rambling I am going to bullet point my thoughts on why I believe over the last decade MLS has seen more fan growth in the all important 18-34 yr old male demographic.
- More TV - listen 10 years ago you had to fight to find a place to watch soccer on TV, now we have ESPN covering MLS (not as well as I would like, but that is for another day), you have 2 full time dedicated soccer networks in the US with Fox Soccer Channel and GolTV. So the exposure to both MLS and soccer in general has increased and that has to be part of the reason why more people are expressing an interest in the sport.
- Live Soccer - Last summer was an incredible thing as the "Summer of Soccer" saw over 1 million people pay to attend soccer matches in the US, from the big team tours, World Cup qualifying, to MLS. Soccer is a decent sport to watch on TV, but when seen live it converts the barely interested into interested, and the interested into the fan. Getting more people to see more live matches will only help the sport and MLS grow in the US>
- Media Coverage - I would have to put some of this under More TV, but I am not talking about matches being broadcast, rather I am talking about coverage in newspapers, on radio, on local TV, but also the fact that soccer is often now a part of the top 10 plays of the day on ESPN. The Saturday and Sunday night sports shows often now talk about the sport (if you are in a market). The coverage of David Beckham, while he may not have been a game changer on the pitch, he got on the Today Show, Oprah, and just about everywhere else a camera was available. It has also shown other players that the US is a valid market.
- Quality of play - If Beckham had come to MLS and won 3 straight MLS Cups, fans and players around the world would have likely turned up their noses and said " what a crap league", but the fact that his first two years here (or partially here) his team didn't even make the playoffs speaks volumes about the quality of play in MLS.
- World View - In the last 10 years the world has changed in a lot of ways, one of the biggest ways is that after decades of being looked down on as "un-american" soccer is now being embraced as the "world's" sport. For many in the US that is now reason enough to have some level of interest in the sport, embracing things outside of our core culture now is not only acceptable but preferred by many.
- USMNT - The rivalry with Mexico is one of the best in all sports and for many sports fans in the US, by beating Mexico it makes soccer more attractive, if we can beat a nation of people that live for the sport, then we must be doing something right. Hosting the 94 World Cup gave the sport exposure, but I believe the run in 2002 probably did more for the sport. We showed we can play this "foreign" game as well as they can.
- The Supporter Culture - Oh I know that so many people think that MLS supporters started last year with the crowds in Seattle, and they are impressive, but every team has their supporters and some like the Screaming Eagles were very impressive before last year. Now let me be clear I believe that in US there is a huge desire by all people to be part of something bigger than themselves, it is our desire to be part of a tribe.
In Europe the tribes are based on the history of their cities sometimes over hundreds of years have lead to people creating an identify that often is expressed through their team. Now in the US we don't have that much history and often the distance between cities doesn't breed that type of direct history between often, but we do see it from time to time, most often in college sports. Think Ohio State vs. Michigan, Oklahoma vs. Texas, USC vs. UCLA, well I believe the nature of soccer and soccer lends itself to the tribal. For soccer fans it simply seems to fit. It also provides a sense of "family" or "community" that is based around a choice vs. an obligation.