Business of Soccer: United States, an emerging soccer market

Business of Soccer: United States, an emerging soccer market
Wes Harris, Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Business of Soccer, Media Partner of Soccerex USA, explains why the soccer market will continue to develop over the next decade with US Soccer, MLS, NWSL and USL playing a vital role.

In less than two weeks Miami, FL and Marlins Stadium will play host to Soccerex USA, a two-day event that will bring all facets of the soccer industry together to discuss the state of the world’s game in the Americas.

The timing of the conference, one might argue, could not be more opportune given the state of the soccer landscape in the US today. With the US, Canada, and Mexico having recently won the bid to jointly host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, new leadership at the helm of US Soccer after crashing out of World Cup 2018 qualifying, Major League Soccer (MLS) finishing up a successful 2018 campaign, the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) looking to make a deep run in the upcoming FIFA Women’s 2019 World Cup in France, and the continued rise and success of Division 2 league United Soccer League (USL), soccer in the US is poised for what many fans of the game hope will be step-changing growth.

For some time now, the US has been viewed by many in the global soccer industry as an “emerging market” (and still is), which typically is not something one would think of the US. But if you look at the focus of international business development functions at some of the world’s top clubs and leagues, the US has been a prime focus for high-potential growth markets, along with in many cases parts of Asia and Africa. Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich to name a few, all have established permanent offices located in the US to further tap into the market and grow their brands. 

Professional sports are a massive market in the US, with the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL together comprising what many call “the big four” leagues, all of which are considered to be the top leagues in the world for their respective sports. They all have rich and storied histories and have cemented their place with US sports fans for many years to come. Soccer has struggled somewhat as a sport to take hold on the US market, at least to the extent of the success of the “big four”, with several iterations of professional leagues (both outdoor and indoor) that struggled to compete for the attention, and money, of the US sports fan. It wasn’t until the latest version of top-flight soccer in the US with the launch of MLS in 1996 that soccer finally found a sustained foothold in the US professional sports landscape. 

Now in its 23rd season, MLS has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, and has found some success competing with, and in many ways partnering with, the other major sports in the US. There were 23 clubs competing in MLS for the 2018 season (from an original 10 clubs in 1996), with further expansion clubs announced to be coming in Miami, Nashville, Cincinnati, and two other cities yet-to-be-determined. Domestic TV viewership for the 2018 MLS season was at an all-time high, reaching over 26 million viewers, with impressive growth in Canada as well, and also saw record-setting levels of fan engagement across all digital and social media platforms,  per a recent article from SportsBusiness Journal. While league average attendance finished slightly lower than 2017 (21,871, -1% vs prior year), there were plenty of impressive attendance figures throughout the league, especially in markets in which other leagues have strong foot-holds like Atlanta (2018 average attendance 53,002) and Seattle (2018 average attendance 40,641). 

Though the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) missed out on the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia this past summer – still a sore topic for many fans and soccer industry colleagues alike – it presented the US soccer industry with a chance to press pause for a moment and evaluate the state of the game and for industry leaders to figure out where we want to be as a soccer nation in the near and long term, and what it will take to get there.

The missed World Cup will not only sting as fans, but it will also potentially be a big hit to the growth of the game at the grassroots level, as there typically is a big spike in interest and participation levels among US youth in soccer as a result of the US participating in a World Cup – this was especially evident after the USWNT won the 2015 Women’s FIFA World Cup. US Soccer has made strides over the last few years at the youth level, but still recognize the opportunity for improvement, and in fact have recently formed a special youth soccer task force to address these areas. In the opinion of many, this is the area that needs to improve most under the new regime at US Soccer over the course of the next 8 years leading up to the 2026 World Cup, not only for the success of the USMNT, but also for the continued success of the game at all levels in the US, including the professional level for both MLS and NWSL.

It is an exciting time for soccer in the US. There are stable men’s and women’s top-flight professional leagues that are growing both domestically and internationally, viewership of the sport (across all competitions) has never been higher and accessibility has increased exponentially as new technologies and streaming deals come to the surface, the USWNT is headed to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France next summer, the list could go on and on. The US has incredible spending potential, a burgeoning interest in the game among fans, consumers, and businesses alike, and a market ripe for development, all setting the stage for a soccer market poised for significant growth in the coming years.

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