Reflecting on soccer in the United States

Dempsey is a household name. (AP Photo)

Major League Soccer playoffs have kicked off to celebrate the league’s 17th consecutive year in which it has not folded, which wouldn’t be impressive if not for the sport’s historical unpopularity in the U.S. The  North American Soccer League of the ’70s and ’80s could not last this long despite incredible star power including the likes of Pele, and through the late ’80s the average person’s options for professional soccer were limited.

Just a decade ago, MLS had to pay ESPN to broadcast its games, which probably would have put up better ratings had they been infomercials for steak knives, and two teams were contracted. Some owners, businessmen who ignored history and expected the sport to take off when MLS was founded in 1996, counted their losses and left — at one point roughly half of the league was indirectly owned by a lone billionaire willing to burn cash for his love of the beautiful game through the Anschuntz Entertainment Group. Satan and Brendan McGrath rejoiced, as the future of American soccer looked bleak.

Apocalypse was averted, though, and since then the game has reached impressive heights (albeit minor considering those of the “four major sports”): for one, MLS has thrived building passionate fans and non-corporate atmospheres at games. Some of its teams are actually profitable, and MLS’ average attendance is higher than that of the NBA and NHL — impressive even considering how tickets are cheaper and stadiums are larger in soccer than in basketball or hockey, considering how impossible it would have seemed in the dog days of the early 2000s.

There have also been bidding wars recently from channels like FOX, ESPN, Al Jazeera and the nascent beIN Sport for the rights to foreign leagues, international competitions and even MLS itself. Last year the league nabbed a then-blockbuster deal with NBC, which presumably promised to grow the sport like it did hockey through Versus, and the ever-expanding exposure of soccer has never been more apparent than it was last Sunday afternoon. During official gridiron hours, an MLS playoff game and EPL replay were broadcast on NBC and FOX, respectively, another miniscule feat which would have seemed impossible fairly recently.

And just this month NBC signed a three-year, $250 million deal with the EPL that will put 380 more soccer games on its family of networks every year while hockey continues to feed itself poison pills in the guise of lockouts. It might take another 10, 20 or 30 years before soccer even challenges the NHL for the “most popular team sport that is still considered niche” status, but while you’re waiting, get used to the phrases “nil-nil” and “draw.”