Throughout each day I spend countless hours scanning tweets from various individuals whom I follow. Most, if not all, have some affiliation with soccer, whether local or abroad. One of the questions I see pop up on a fairly consistent basis is 'what would it take for soccer to become mainstream in the US?'
On the surface, the question appears fairly cut and dry. Major League Soccer needs more fans. While, yes, more fans would mean growth of the sport in some form or fashion, the answer doesn't truly begin to even scratch the surface of the dilemma facing US Soccer.
First, let's examine Major League Soccer. There is a current push to expand to 24 teams by the start of the 2020 season, and after announcing New York City FC, Orlando City SC, Atlanta and Miami the league is now one team shy of the goal of 24 teams. Why is this important?
The vast majority of television viewership for Major League Soccer matches tend to be from the local markets of the competing teams. This isn't absurd since the same holds true for most NBA and MLB games as well, except in the instances where a highly recognizable superstar is set to compete, such as Kobe Bryant or Albert Pujols. If soccer in the United States is to make the fabled jump to mainstream, it simply needs to compete for viewership beyond just local markets. It needs nationwide viewership much more akin to what the NFL experiences.
Is it possible for MLS to gain nationwide viewership for midweek matches? Not really, no.
I've read countless articles touting the idea Major League Soccer should adopt Friday nights as their night for the big games to air. After all, for most markets, Friday nights are a huge opportunity for eyeballs since the two biggest sports draws do not play on that night (NFL and NCAA Football respectively). I have to admit, I don't hate the idea, but I certainly don't love it either.
On the one hand, families do set aside Friday nights usually as a night for 'family time', and Major League Soccer has tried to position itself as the family friendly sports environment. On the other hand, are those the fans who would tune into a match on television if they aren't attending? Are the kids in the family going to clamor to see a match on television on a Friday night when they could just as easily go hang out with their friends?
Those kids need some vested interest in more than just the teams playing, they need a vested interest in the league and the players. How does Major League Soccer help potential fans find a reason to invest emotionally into a team, the league or its players?
The World Cup and the US Men's and Women's National Teams.
All one has to do to see the direction soccer in the United States needs to take is watch the way young girls attending Houston Dash matches light up when they see Alex Morgan walk by on the field. In that single moment, soccer has found its answer.
Young girls and boys are finding vested interests in players who appear on the national and international stage. Perhaps not in droves, yet, but there is a certain building grass roots enthusiasm for these players. Soccer in Europe has had over a century to build its fan bases, its vested interests, but in the United States the sport has had a far shorter span.
Trust me when I say Major League Soccer and the National Women's Soccer League have made great strides to bring back players whom casual fans and their families can find vested interests in. Further, these same players have found themselves in a unique position to be role models for those kids, and if you ask me, soccer will reap the rewards in five years time.