Soccer is the most popular sport in the world. It’s not even close. 3.5 billion fans pack stadiums from London to Rio de Janeiro to Tel Aviv to Nairobi rooting for their favorite football team, as soccer is called around most of the planet. While Americans have not embraced soccer as a spectator sport compared to American football, basketball, baseball and hockey, the beautiful game has been making steady inroads in the United States.
Meanwhile, another imported sport has made progress in gaining mainstream success but keeps shooting itself in the hockey skate. Seven years after the lost season, the NHL owners and players cannot come to terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and another season could be iced. Some pundits like Barry Melrose say there will definitely be a season this year because there is no way the National Hockey League could possibly cancel the Winter Classic, which is scheduled to take place January 1, 2013 at Michigan Stadium between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. Michigan Stadium is the largest stadium in the United States with a seating capacity of more than 100,000 and the game will be nationally televised again on NBC.
But the latest news is not good, as the two sides aren’t even talking and there are no meetings scheduled this week as an October 25th deadline looms to salvage a full season, which would begin on November 2nd. And the deadline to cancel the Winter Classic is November 20th.
Which brings us back to rise of soccer and the potential decline of hockey.
Do the billionaire owners and millionaire players not realize that they played with fire once in 2004-2005 and are lucky the fans forgave them and came back? That fans still buy jerseys, pay for tickets and purchase food at their arenas during the worst economic downturn since The Great Depression and when the price to see a hockey game gets higher and higher every year, even though wages for the average fan have been stagnant for decades? Or maybe NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr forgot that only a few years ago NHL games were broadcast on the niche cable channel Outdoor Life Network (which became Versus) and that the NHL is lucky to have secured a $2 billion, 10-year national television contract with NBC. A lockout could hurt momentum for the NBC Sports Network and its regional Comcast affiliates.
Hockey is a distant fourth in popularity in the United States, but its TV ratings increased 52 percent last year. Those ratings could plunge if the season is lost. Meanwhile, Major League Soccer also has signed a broadcast deal with NBC. The MLS on NBC is a three-year deal that also includes airing United States men’s national team matches. The past few years NBC’s rival Fox has been promoting soccer more. Last year Fox started broadcasting English Premiere League matches. The EPL on Fox ratings have skyrocketed and audiences are tuning into the Fox Soccer Channel to watch UEFA Champions League matches. The epic UEFA Champions League final on Fox between Chelsea and Bayern Munich at Allianz Arena averaged an audience of 2 million compared to the 2002 UCL Final on ESPN2 that delivered 264,000 viewers.
And over the past few years MLS has nabbed European stars such as Frenchman Thierry Henry on the New York Red Bulls and Englishman David Beckham on the defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy. And there are shiny new or renovated soccer-specific stadiums that have opened over the past few years in Houston, Philadelphia, Portland and Kansas City. The only two teams without new stadiums are D.C. United and New England Revolution, but there are talks in the nation’s capital about building a soccer-specific stadium for the most storied franchise in MLS history.
Attendance is up at MLS stadiums. Major League Soccer is enjoying higher per game attendance than hockey and is the 12th most-attended premier division in the world.
There are a combination of factors at work in the rise of soccer in the United States. The past few decades have seen increasing numbers of immigrants from soccer-loving nations in Asia, Latin America and Africa. The children of soccer moms across America are growing up and are turning their memories on the field playing for their youth recreational team or high school team into rooting interest of their city’s MLS team or a favorite team in one of the power house European leagues.
And soccer will always have an advantage for children of all income levels because all you need is a round ball. Hockey, while the sport has made amazing inroads into inner city communities, is still expensive when you consider the cost of equipment, joining a league and the long drives to rinks out in the suburbs.
So will soccer surpass hockey as the fourth most popular sport in the United States? I’ve always said that while hosting the 1994 FIFA World Cup was the start of soccer’s rise, that it will take a magical World Cup run by the U.S. men’s national team to the final or winning the biggest trophy in all of sports for soccer to explode Stateside.
I am a huge hockey fan and I’m in disbelief that another season could be lost. Life will go on. The players will be fine. Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League and other European leagues will be more than happy to accept more NHL stars and increase their popularity across the Pond. The filthy rich owners will be fine. The fans will save money and time and might find more interesting activities to get involved in. Some hockey fans might even discover soccer.
If there is another canceled season, it will benefit Major League Soccer and if the NHL isn’t careful, they will one day be looking up at the MLS as they beg fans to consider attending a hockey game again.