Former major league baseball infielder Jack Wilson says he’d likely have chosen a different career 20 years ago if soccer in this country was like it is today.
“It was probably the hardest decision I ever made, to be honest,’’ said Wilson, a high-school star in soccer and baseball in Thousand Oaks, Calif., in the early 1990s. “My passion for baseball was good but it was nothing compared to my love for soccer.’’
But Major League Soccer didn’t exist yet, leaving few professional goals for teenage players to aspire to the way others dreamed of playing in a World Series or Super Bowl. There were no youth development programs run by pro teams to encourage a homegrown player like Seattle native DeAndre Yedlin, a Sounders FC defender playing for the United States in this year’s World Cup.
And soccer’s biggest boosters say that kind of development is key to some day rivaling mainstream U.S. pro sports like football, baseball, basketball and hockey. That Yedlin’s generation was raised with an enhanced awareness of soccer, that will eventually lead to greater interest in and commercial success for a sport that’s yet to permeate American culture the way many have long hoped.
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“In some ways, it’s a good thing I didn’t have that kind of opportunity back then because I’d probably have stuck with soccer,’’ joked Wilson, who earned $40 million over a dozen seasons with the Pirates, Mariners and Braves, but now prefers indoor soccer to softball as a recreational hobby. “I think if there was an MLS or if I’d known for sure it was coming, I might have gone for it. My life would probably have turned out a lot differently, with a lot less money.’’
The U.S. advance into the second round of the World Cup has heightened debate over whether this could signal soccer’s “arrival” in this country’s mainstream. By the most important measurement of such things — the almighty dollar — it isn’t there yet, despite continued record levels of amateur participation by men and especially women.
But signs of gradual gains and future potential for the sport keep cropping up with each step taken by an American squad that plays Tuesday against Belgium.
A combined 24.7 million people tuned in to last week’s U.S. draw with Portugal on ESPN and Univision, tying a record for the most-watched soccer game in our nation’s history. The 18.2 million who watched it on ESPN alone set a record for the country’s largest English-language soccer telecast, several times the numbers drawn by the Stanley Cup or NBA Finals.
FIFA says Americans purchased more than 200,000 tickets to the tournament, second-most in the world behind only host country Brazil. An estimated 20,000 Americans — half the stadium — attended the team’s opening-round win over Ghana.
A surging Hispanic-American population is also carrying over soccer loyalties. While Hispanics comprise 20 percent of the nation’s sports fans, 55 percent of them are interested in soccer.
And perhaps the biggest keys to soccer’s continued growth here are so-called Millennials and their use of social media.
In March, the ESPN Sports Poll Annual Report found that, for the first time, MLS had caught MLB in popularity among 12-to-17-year-olds. The poll, managed by Luker on Trends, stated that roughly 18 percent of those surveyed listed themselves as “avid” fans of both leagues.
A Pew Research Center study in January found that 40 percent of young American adults aged 20-29 were looking forward to the World Cup, compared to only 13 percent among those 50 and older.
And with younger fans comes changed sports viewing habits of a wired generation following the action online or via smartphones at a greater rate than most other North American sports.
ESPN says a record 1.7 million concurrent viewers saw the U.S. vs. Germany game Thursday on its WatchESPN smartphone app.
Mobile application company theScore says subscriptions to its U.S. men’s soccer team app for scores and updates the tournament’s first two weeks was triple the combined sign-ups for the top three MLB teams — the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers — the opening two weeks of the baseball season. TheScore also says interest in its soccer sections nearly quadrupled over the past year, growing at a faster rate (292 percent) than baseball, basketball or hockey and second only to the NFL.
For Adrian Hanauer, general manager and part-owner of the Sounders, success with that younger demographic can’t hurt.
“I’d rather be on the side of the young people than the old people,’’ he quipped.
Hanauer’s team was rated by Forbes as the league’s most valuable, at $175 million — up from a $30 million expansion price in 2009. He said the league’s revenues and corporate support have grown steadily the past 15 years and the young demographics of devoted fans should keep them rising.
Average MLS attendance is up 35 percent since 2000. Two new expansion teams in 2015 will give the league 21 compared to 14 in 2008. Forbes says the average MLS team is worth $103 million, up from a $37 million valuation in 2008.
But even Hanauer won’t proclaim soccer on the verge of joining the nation’s other major pro sports. He’s sticking to advice given him years ago by MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott when he first considered buying into the Sounders.
“He just said ‘This is going to be an evolution, not a revolution,’ ” Hanauer said. “There are going to be watershed moments and big steps over time, but it isn’t going to happen overnight.”
And indeed, some suggest any “soccer fever” we’re experiencing will vanish once the World Cup ends. That, like the Olympics, Americans watch the World Cup for patriotic reasons over any enduring desire to follow the sport the four years in between.
They’ll note that MLS television ratings on ESPN actually declined 33 percent to an average 220,000 viewers last year, trailing the WNBA’s 231,000 on that network. Overall, the league’s combined viewership on ESPN and NBC fell from 443,000 to 332,000 and was dwarfed by the 532,000 who watched the NHL on NBC channels last season.
Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a consulting firm that tracks consumer loyalty, says MLS lags well behind the “Big Four” leagues.
“This is the UFO of major league sports,’’ Passikoff said. “Every four years, it floats around long enough so people get a glimpse of it. But it never lands.”
The biggest problem, he adds, is that despite the arrival of David Beckham with the LA Galaxy in 2007, the MLS lacks the star caliber of leagues overseas. Indeed, American TV ratings for English Premier League games still outpace MLS.
“Until the MLS teams here start bringing in some stars, nobody’s going to pay attention to them,’’ he said. “The truth is, any one of your friends can rattle off the names of five or 10 of the major league baseball, or basketball or even hockey teams. Nobody here knows who the heck the MLS teams or players are in some of their own cities.’’
Passikoff says big-time sponsors like Gatorade, Adidas and Coca-Cola invest globally in soccer for the World Cup and international events. Until MLS can garner those bigger dollars, he says, it will remain on the pro fringes.
Hanauer agrees U.S. pro soccer has a ways to go. He says the only way to get better players and competition is by continuing to steadily grow revenues and infrastructure.
He’d like to double the $1 million spent annually by the team on youth development. It was through the Sounders youth academy that Yedlin, a former Emerald City FC, Northwest Nationals and Crossfire Premier standout, became one of three homegrown players signed by the team.
Yedlin, 20, born three years before the MLS played its first season in 1996, is the first such homegrown MLS player to reach a World Cup. Hanauer hopes he’s a sign the sport will retain more top athletes from this country, make the game better here and eventually grow enough to draw stars from around the world.
“I may not get to see it in my lifetime,” Hanauer says of soccer reaching the level of other American sports. “But at least I’ll know that, if and when it eventually does, I’ll have played some small role in it.”
For now, the athletes who got away, like Wilson, can at least appreciate soccer’s steady gains — one generation at a time. When he was 12, Wilson played with a California select team that stunned an unbeaten U-15 Russian squad at an international tournament.
“I’d never gotten a feeling like that from sports and I never have since,’’ he says. “To do that in the sport you love, that you were meant to play, it’s just indescribable.’’
And as he watches the Americans on TV this week, he’ll know that for Yedlin, Clint Dempsey and others, the feeling didn’t have to end.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org