(by Alex Morrell forbes.com 11-8-13)
Clark Hunt — son of the late NFL legend and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt — has a lot to be excited about these days. Yes, the president and partial owner has watched his Chiefs leap to their first 9-0 start in a decade after years of irrelevance. But the NFL season is long and brutal, and a variety of misfortunes could derail a Super Bowl bid and render that enthusiasm short-lived. He has more to be genuinely excited about in a different league and a different sport altogether– the other football: Major League Soccer.
The MLS Cup Playoffs are underway, and even though FC Dallas, the team he owns with his family, didn’t make the post-season, the future of the league he and his family helped build from the ground up has never been brighter.
For years it’s been the league that cried relevant. Hyped up events — from hosting the World Cup in 1994, to luring legendary British midfielder David Beckham to the L.A Galaxy in 2007, to recent international success of the men’s and women’s national teams — offered promise to finally catapult domestic soccer into national prominence, only to provide an small, incremental boosts after all the dust and fanfare settled. The lucrative television rights deals of the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL have long dwarfed that of MLS — which as recently as 2011 signed a three-year deal with NBC worth a meager $10 million per year, according to the Sports Business Journal. A decade ago, MLS was teetering on the brink of failure.
“We’ve been hard at work for 18 years. There were some days early on where we thought it wouldn’t make it,” said Hunt, 48, who along with father Lamar, was instrumental in launching the professional soccer experiment in the U.S. in 1996 and has stubbornly refused to let it fail. “Just 10 years ago we had 10 teams, three owners and we were really in trouble.”
Now, there are 19 teams – with another New York City team scheduled to launch in 2015 and one in Orlando in the works. And with Hunt selling his second soccer team, Columbus Crew, for an MLS record $68 million this July, ownership is as dispersed and valuable as ever. Average attendance has surged to 18,600, a more than 35% increase from the 2000 nadir of just over 13,700.
Perhaps most importantly, there are the stats that point to the sport finally gaining traction.
Rich Luker has been conducting and analyzing polling of American sports fandom since 1994, when he launched the ESPN ESPN Sports Poll. The poll – the first of its kind and the only national syndicated intelligence service dedicated to the study of sports — gathers data on a broad, inclusive list of sports and their U.S. fan bases. The growth Major League Soccer fandom has experienced the past five to 10 years is remarkable, Luker says.
Of the 18,000 people surveyed in 2012, more than a third identified themselves as fans of Major League Soccer, according to the Luker on Trends – ESPN Sports Poll. It’s a 24% increase from five years ago and a 33% increase since 2002. Avid fans of the league — now at 7.3% — grew 35% from 2007 and 43% from a decade ago.
The poll defines a fan as “a little bit interested” in a sport and an avid fan as “very interested,” a far more coveted distinction.
MLS’ avid fan base is the fastest growing of any sport, outpacing all others in the ten-year periods from 2001 to 2011 as well as 2002 to 2012. And the gains come from nearly all ages of both genders.
Why is MLS finally turning the corner? Hunt can’t point to just one catalyst, but he’s confident in its trajectory. It may never catch up with the NFL, but the league is now nipping at the heels of the bottom of the big four pro sports.
“Soccer has a chance to be the No. 2 sport in the U.S. in my lifetime,” said Hunt, who recognizes the international leagues are currently more popular but believes MLS will be the primary beneficiary of the sport’s growth in years to come.
Critical to that growth has been a rapid cultural and generational maturation of a rather unique fan base, according to Luker.
Soccer is the first sport that has been imported and commercially scaled in the United States that rose to global prominence entirely outside the U.S. Even if their earliest incarnations occurred elsewhere in the world, the four major U.S. sports rose to cultural and commercial significance within American borders over multiple generations. Major League Soccer, only one generation old, was created because FIFA made it a condition for the U.S. to host the 1994 World Cup.
“This is a league that was born not of love or culture or tradition, but of mandate so the U.S. could host the second largest sporting event in the world,” Luker said. “It boggles the mind that we are where we are.”
The kind of fans the league is attracting and cultivating also bodes well.
The fan base, unsurprisingly, is especially robust among millennials and Hispanics, a steadily growing ethnic population in the U.S. But it has also made substantial gains among the 35-to-54 age demographic, which Luker calls “the most important demographic in sports and gaining strength.”
But beyond demographics and statistics, the culture and behavior of the fan base sets the league apart and has attracted the envy of the other leagues.
“What we are seeing in MLS is unlike anything we’re seeing in any other sport,” said Luker, who likens the fan base to a cross between two iconic musical followings — grunge and Deadheads. Grunge existed on a small but intense scale for years before exploding in the Pacific Northwest and then nationwide. Deadheads, the loyal grassroots following of The Grateful Dead, traveled from venue to venue night after night to experience the music and the culture that accompanied it.
“Other sports are trying to find a way to emulate that. That vibrance transcends the game day experience and therefore the consumption of goods and the interest of the sport.”
Doug Williams can attest to the growing fervor. He’s the business development director for Sports Endeavors, which owns Soccer.com and World Soccer Shop and is among the largest soccer merchandise retailers in the world. The company, which will cross $200 million in revenue this year, has been around since 1984 — long before MLS existed. Merchandise from English Premier League teams still sells the best, but sales from MLS teams have increased substantially in recent years.
“The dominate league is the English Premier League — they’ve had a long time to get a good head start on that,” Williams said. “But the best MLS teams would be in our top 10 of all teams.”
These trends matter little, of course, unless Major League Soccer translates its burgeoning popularity into revenues that allow the league to grow and invest in its product. With its comparatively paltry TV deals set to expire in 2014, expect the fastest growing league in the U.S. to command a fee far surpassing those in years past.