Part two in our now three-part (upgrade!) feature on how we choose the teams we root for.
Let’s get a couple of preliminaries out of the way off the bat. First, there’s no doubt MLS is here to stay. Right now, at this very moment in time, there are fewer soccer fans in this country than there will ever be in the future. Soccer is past the event horizon here; there’s only one direction for it to go. Eventually the number of fans may stall out, we may hit the limit of people who are possibly interested, but we haven’t done that yet, and we’re gaining fans far faster than we’re losing them.
Second, the growth of MLS in recent years has been truly impressive. Attendance and interest are up, despite the fact that the league has to compete on two fronts with both American leagues in this country and with foreign soccer elsewhere. Plus, all this comes at a time when gates for other leagues are dropping as people realize it’s easier to watch games on TV.
We can get that stuff out of the way because we’re not really talking here about MLS as a whole. The following refers for the most part to its individual clubs, and their efforts to gain fans not of the sport in America but of the teams themselves.
The trouble for those clubs — and here’s where we’re going to start referring back to part 1, so if you haven’t read it, you may want to — is that interest in their franchises is still primarily motivated by geography, which we determined last time is the weakest of the three motivating factors for choosing a team to support.
In Portland, Timbers Army member I’an Todd shared with me his theory of Northwest soccer fandom, his best guess for why Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver all draw large and rabid soccer crowds: A great many people in the Pacific Northwest, Todd says, come to the big cities there from somewhere else. When they arrive in Portland or Seattle, they already have an allegiance to a football or a baseball team. But they might not have a soccer team already; the MLS is still young, people in their twenties and older haven’t been raised with an allegiance to a team. Soccer then becomes a way for them to “have a sporting connection to the city they live in.” In this sense, MLS functions much as college sports teams do for undergraduates.
There’s something to be said for the efforts of supporters groups in building the community around their squads. They’re passing their loyalties on by dragging their buddies out to the match with them, but that’s not the fastest way to build a fanbase, even in the places where those cultures are prevalent.
Secondly, since it’s still a young league, MLS is not yet able to take advantage of the most widespread, and most certain, transference of loyalty out there: the familial variety. There’s no reason yet that parents or uncles or cousins can’t pass their MLS loyalties onto their children or nieces or…other cousins. The problem is the league isn’t yet old enough to have a legitimate second generation of fans: those kids are still kids, and their loyalties can be fickle.
More importantly, from the perspective of TV ratings, many MLS teams are so new — or at least the growth of their fanbases is so new — that they haven’t had time to cross-pollinate to other regions. Compared with baseball or college football, there just aren’t many MLS fans outside their team’s geographical range. I went to college in Atlanta, and though I was friends with a great many soccer players I can’t think of one with an MLS loyalty. I know one former Seattleite Sounders fan in Bloomington, and one Union fan in Austin, Texas. There hasn’t been enough time for many people to develop a fandom strong enough to survive a move somewhere else.
Part of this can be attributed to the lack of bandwagon fans motivated by curiosity. Let’s be honest, despite what your thoughts about them might be, the primary distinguishing factors of the MLS for a casual fanbase has been the designated players — the Beckhams and Donovans, Marquezes and Henries. When the casual fanbase thinks of its teams, their first thought goes to these players, not to a style of play or any of the other things we talked about stimulating curiosity last time.
The reason for this isn’t because the big name players are the most interesting facets of their teams or the league as a whole; it’s because for some time it was the only distinguishing factor that had seeped into the national consciousness. That’s changing now: those growing attendances we mentioned at the top can be attributed at least partly to curiosity in supporters groups, in the MLS game-day experience.
But there’s still one more aspect of their operation, curiosity-wise, for MLS teams to get casual fans interested in: the play itself. We’ll tackle that in Part III.