Is US soccer about to score big?


Soccer is still dwarfed by other sports in the US, but the 2010 World Cup may be about to change that, writes the BBC's Katie Connolly, in Washington.

Image caption,
David Beckham's deal with Los Angeles Galaxy was a boon for US soccer

In 2001, no English language television network in the United States wanted the rights to broadcast the 2002 Fifa World Cup.

So the marketing division of America's professional soccer league bought them and reached an agreement with sports channel ESPN to show the matches for free.

For the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, ESPN and US Spanish language broadcaster Univision paid $425m (£294m) between them for the broadcasting rights.

These days, that's pretty good value for money.

Football is a growing sport in the US, played, according to sports author Andrei Markovits, by more than 20 million Americans.

Nonetheless, in financial terms, US soccer is still dwarfed by other American sports and international football leagues.

David Beckham is by far the highest paid player in Major League Soccer (MLS), the US professional football association, earning $6.5m a year on his contract with LA Galaxy.

MLS created a new rule - colloquially called the Beckham rule - to allow Beckham to shatter the league's $2.6m per team salary cap.

But compared to his contemporaries in other US sports, Beckham is paid peanuts.

Baseball player Alex Rodriguez, of the New York Yankees, earned a massive $33m in 2009, while San Diego Chargers star quarterback Philip Rivers pocketed almost $26m that year.

Beckham's salary is also surpassed by European giants like Wayne Rooney of Manchester United (estimated $8.8m), Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid (estimated $13.9m) and Kaka, also of Real Madrid (estimated $13.9m).

Fortunately for Beckham, he is paid handsomely by sponsors, bringing his 2009 earnings to an estimated $33.5m.

But even there his earnings pale compared with golfers Phil Mickelson, who reportedly earned $46m from sponsors in 2009, and the beleaguered Tiger Woods who, in spite of personal turmoil, pulled in an astonishing $92m in sponsorship 2009.

After Beckham, MLS's next highest earning player is Cuauhtemoc Blanco of Chicago Fire at $2.9m.

Indeed the median salary of the top 25 MLS players - while 10 times the median income in America - is miniscule compared with the other major US sports of basketball, baseball, American football and ice hockey.

But with the US again in the football World Cup finals - it is one of only eight teams that have qualified for every World Cup since 1990 - the sport may be poised for transformation.

Missed opportunities

Although football has oft been considered a foreigner's pastime in the US, the sport has had a long history in America, dating back to a famous match between Princeton and Rutgers University in 1869, if not earlier.

But professionally, the sport developed in fits and starts, hampered by disorganisation.

Franklin Foer, author of How Soccer Explains the World, points to the 1920s as a critical missed opportunity for football.

At that time, America's diverse and disparate culture was cohering into a national identity, aided significantly by the development of radio and Hollywood movies.

"At that moment when the national culture was emerging the soccer leagues in the country were horribly managed," says Mr Foer.

"They tended to be organised around ethnicity and were completely ill equipped to take advantage of that moment when baseball and the other football cemented their place in the national consciousness."

Football experienced a resurgence in the 1970s, catalysed by Brazilian soccer legend Pele signing with the New York Cosmos, a team in the North American Soccer League (NASL).

Considered an enormous coup for Cosmos, the deal with Pele was nudged along by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, himself a football fan, who told Pele in a telegram that the US-Brazil relationship would benefit enormously if the famous footballer were to sign it himself.

But NASL collapsed in 1984 amid financial turmoil, and US professional soccer remained in the wilderness for over a decade.

It was reborn in 1996 with the establishment of Major League Soccer (MLS).

Beckham's boost

After a rough start plagued by financial problems, MLS has emerged as a viable enterprise in the US.

The growth is exemplified by joining fees. Two teams joined MLS in 2005, each paying $7.5m for the privilege.

By contrast, the fee for the newest team, Montreal, which will enter the competition in 2012, was $40m.

"That's a good illustration of the belief in Major League Soccer among owners and potential owners of professional sports clubs in the United States," says MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche.

Mr Courtemanche says David Beckham's move to LA Galaxy in 2007 was an enormous boost.

"David transcends sport and brings Major League Soccer into mainstream Americana," says Mr Courtemanche.

"That was significant. We went from a niche sport to a professional sports league, and David's presence has helped elevate the credibility of MLS."

'We get it'

MLS now attracts high-profile sponsors and advertisers like Panasonic, Visa, Volkswagen and American Airlines. Game console Xbox pays $4m per year to have its name displayed on the jerseys of the Seattle Sounders.

Pepsi was a founding partner of the MLS. Mark Rooks, director of Pepsi Sports Marketing, sees MLS as a valuable tool to reach America's rapidly growing Hispanic community, more of whom watch soccer than any other sport.

He says that MLS teams have highly localised and dedicated communities of followers who feel that they have a very personal relationship with the team.

"Our involvement says a lot to those teams in the local markets - that we care, that we get it," says Mr Rooks.

Football in the US also tends to attract cosmopolitan, internationally minded audiences. Fans are younger, and more affluent and educated than the average US sports fan, making them enormously attractive for brands like Pepsi.

Those demographics are particularly evident in Seattle - a trendy city that's home to Starbucks and Microsoft - where over 36,000 fans regularly turn out for home games.

"It's a phenomenal audience for us," says Mr Rooks.

"It's really the perfect combination of the ability speak to a very targeted Latino audience and the evolving soccer fan we are starting to see in markets like Seattle. They complement each other very nicely."

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