April 14, 2004

Soccer vs Baseball.: Forbes shows soccer is winning in the US and the world, at least in terms of the numbers. Soccer trumps baseball in # of people actually playing the sport in the US, worldwide viewership, and pro team franchise value, revenue and profits. There's also a poll at the end of the article that asks: "How soon (if ever) will soccer surpass baseball's popularity in the U.S.?" Right now, "Never" is leading "Perhaps eventually, but not in the foreseeable future" by 347 votes (31%) to 253 votes (23%). What's your take?

posted by worldcup2002 to soccer at 12:08 PM - 33 comments

I think that soccer will eventually overtake baseball in popularity in the U.S., but it will take at least 50-70 years for it to happen. In the meantime, we have to take this article with a huge spoonful of salt. The financial numbers for the most part are comparing the MLB franchises versus the 20 most valuable franchises in all of Europe. The deck is stacked right from the beginning.

posted by smithers at 12:16 PM on April 14

I can't really speak to it really though. In the New England area, there's no comparison: all baseball. Now that I think of it, I have no idea when soccer season starts/ends around here, even. I'd guess it follows along with the baseball season due to outdoor temperatures and the sort. It's definitely the distance 4th professional sport here... after baseball/football (interchangable depending on the season), hockey, basketball... and then way down the line... Revs soccer.

posted by jerseygirl at 12:24 PM on April 14

Never. I think the best case scenario for soccer in the U.S. is what's happened with baseball in many Latin American countries: very popular on its own merits, but a clear second to the traditional game that's been around forever comparatively.

posted by jeffmshaw at 12:29 PM on April 14

It will be interesting to see to what extent baseball drops in popularity as fewer people play it. My understanding is that even as fewer Americans are playing baseball, there are plenty of Latin American players doing so -- which would ensure a steady stream of players for the near future. The major hump soccer will have to overcome is creating a viable domestic league, which seems unlikely when the best players can make far more money overseas and the ratings/revenues will be cannibalized over here by the other major sports. Perhaps some excitement will build if the U.S. were to win the World Cup (which should happen in the next half-century), but it seems there are quite a few structural impediments to soccer ever reaching the popularity and revenues of baseball domestically.

posted by holden at 12:31 PM on April 14

Soccer might pass baseball as soon as the players stop acting like they've been shot every time they are "fouled". Yah, he tapped your leg with his foot while you were running. He didn't cut it off and pour salt on the wound. Stop writhing around and screaming like you're being burned alive. Just get up and take the fucking free kick.

posted by grum@work at 12:34 PM on April 14

Do little kids still like baseball? I know the mature fan loves it, but I get the sense that baseball has lost the young fan(elementary school). I could be completely off about this. If I'm right, footie will take a generation or three to put its root down in the pro league realm. If I'm wrong, please ignore this innane rambling.

posted by garfield at 12:35 PM on April 14

Do little kids still like baseball? the little bastards cherubs sitting behind me on Opening Day and again on Sunday wouldn't shut the hell up talking about baseball for one second if that's any indication. I like kids and they were driving me insane. But... this could be a regional thing, again.

posted by jerseygirl at 12:43 PM on April 14

Fox Sports and Selig think they have the a solution for luring younger fans.

posted by goddam at 12:51 PM on April 14

I think a lot of this depends on immigration issues too. Bear in mind, I'm living in Texas, so the influx of Mexicans and Central Americans is continuing at a very rapid pace, but I know the trickle is turning into more of a stream in parts of the MidWest as well. In order to keep the immigrants interested in US soccer, though, the MLS probably needs to change it's 3-foreigner limit per team rule. If they can lure some of the stars from the Mexican league, which gets more coverage around here than the MLS does thanks to Univision and Galavision (both of which come in via antenna), then there's a shot at soccer making a major surge. (Speaking of which, didn't Jorge Campos play both MLS and Mexican League back in the 90's? I don't see why that couldn't be done again). The MLS seems to be cutting off its nose regarding some decisions though. I know I've bitched about it here before, but putting the Burn stadium (set to open in 2005) an hour North of Central Dallas is really really stupid. The Burn played that far away last year (at a really posh HS stadium) and attendance fell to less than half the previous year. They're back in the Cotton Bowl this year, but next year I think it's pretty obvious that they're going to take another hit. Stupid things like that are going to cause stumbles if not serious pitfalls. Then again, MLB may be making a serious ploy for the immigrant market as well. I've heard rumors that a potential site for the Expos franchise could be Monterrey, which would make a lot of sense. It's a large city (~ 2 million IIRC), relatively affluent, and in Northern Mexico, so travel there wouldn't be as bad as some may think. I don't mean to focus on just one aspect of this issue, but it seems to me that it's the MLS's best chance at building a strong, more permanent fanbase. As far as International play goes, the only time the non-rabid fans in the US seem to pay attention is during the World Cup, and that's only if the US squad is playing. I'm not sure what can be done about that. There are friendlies played here in the states, and the women's team does get some press during the Olympics, but all of that combined is still not near as popular as the World Series any given year. If soccer in the states does catch up (or surpass) baseball in popularity, I see it more of a growth of the soccer market, not a conversion process. And I see both fanbases having little comingling between the two. Sheesh. That got ranty. Apologies.

posted by Ufez Jones at 12:54 PM on April 14

goddam: Argh! You know, kids can smell the stink of a lame animated character from five miles. This smacks of a South Park parody though, alas, it seems to be for real.

posted by Joey Michaels at 12:58 PM on April 14

the older i get the more i appreciate baseball. while kids today in the US may be playing more organized soccer than organized baseball, i really don't think that speaks to the future of either of the sports successes in the future. it's a lot more important to look at what sporting activites kids are into that are outside of the organized structure. most kids play little league or soccer because their parents encourage the activity....and how many of those go on to play *competitive* soccer or baseball as they get older. i bet the percentage is pretty low. that said, i saw tons of kids this weekend out at the local skate park. everytime i go snowboarding there's more kids than adults on the mountain. it's just a lot more social for kids to go skateboarding with their friends then it is to get a stickball game together or kick around the ball. either way, baseball isn't going anywhere and i'll go with it never playing second fiddle to soccer in this country.

posted by oliver_crunk at 12:59 PM on April 14

Ufez, I think you're onto something. It's alot harder and more time consuming to grow fans, rather than to convert existing fans.

posted by garfield at 01:15 PM on April 14

Anything that gets Tom Kenny's voice on TV more, I'm down with.. As for kids and baseball, I think what's missing are the days of eight guys just showing up at a diamond and playing Half Ball for 3-4 hours. Everything's so damned regimented for kids now, you just can't run off and get the guys (and gals) together for a little hardball. Add in the fact that any little scrubdummy can bash 500-foot virtual taters on his XBox from the comfort of his couch, and yes, fewer kids are playing. That doesn't mean the quality level is necessarily dropping, however. Instruction is much better than it was even 15 years ago, and the good kids play almost year-round. The one thing that has depleted the ranks? Parents forcing kids to choose one sport wayyyyy too early. I have had so many kids decide in high school or even junior high that they were going to concentrate on basketball or football or whatever. That's just stupid.

posted by wfrazerjr at 01:23 PM on April 14

Something like that, garfield. Frankly, I'm not sure what I was trying to say...anyways, yeah, that's kind of the point. At the very least converting existing fans will hopefully keep you afloat long enough to then grow fans.

posted by Ufez Jones at 01:24 PM on April 14

Where I went to high school, the issue wasn't Baseball vs. Soccer, but rather American Football vs. Soccer. The high school athletic department refused to start a soccer program because soccer was an autumn sport and conflicted with American football - they were concerned about diluting talent across too many sports. Some of the "bad kids" started playing weeknights at a local park during the summer, and by the time American football season came around, nearly half of the past year's team didn't show up for the organizational meeting - they were all participating in the informal league at the park. After the second consecutive year of this, the athletic program started an official team.

posted by rocketman at 01:47 PM on April 14

the older i get the more i appreciate baseball. Funny, I'm just the opposite. I'm watching Celtic-Villareal UEFA Cup on the TV as I write this and couldn't be bothered to watch my local team the last two games even though BBonds was going deep for 660/661.

posted by billsaysthis at 02:19 PM on April 14

I'm pretty sure this has been asked before, but has there ever been any proven link between sport participation in one's youth and fandom of that particular sport when one is old enough to make his or her economic decisions? (that is, actually pay to go to a game or buy merchandise). I played youth soccer for years but I couldn't tell you what cities MLS plays in, much less name any professional players. On the other hand, I never played an organized game of baseball in my life and I'm a bigger fan of that than anything. Just from my own experience (and the experiences of people I've informally polled on the issue) I don't really see any correllation and therefore the argument that "soccer participation is going up, therefore the sport will be more popular" does not seem very compelling to me.

posted by Jugwine at 02:39 PM on April 14

Jugwine: I am with you on this - I played soccer for years but can't muster up the interest to follow it. On the other hand, I never played basketball or football and I can't get enough of either of those. However if you want to get an All-Sportsfilter soccer team together to take on another sports site, call me. I would love to play it again. Go figure.

posted by Joey Michaels at 03:12 PM on April 14

Jugwine, Joey, do you mind if I ask how old you were when you quit playing? It's my experience that many people who played as youths but lost interest for whatever reason around 10-14 yrs old tend to toss soccer off as a game for kids. It's usually only those that played until they were 16-20 (or never quit) and got full-on into attacking strategies and the beauty behind the tactics of the game that can really get into a match.

posted by Ufez Jones at 03:18 PM on April 14

Jugwine: I think there is a bigger link to "media exposure" than "youth participation" when it comes to fandom of a sport. I'm exactly the same way with regards to soccer/baseball. And I don't just mean "on TV" media exposure. I mean being able to buy posters, cards and video games with those athletes. Baseball and basketball get bonus points for those types of exposure, while hockey and soccer lose points. Football is the king of all TV sports, so it really doesn't need the extra exposure. The next step in exposure: fantasy sports.

posted by grum@work at 03:25 PM on April 14

It's true that I quit playing soccer well before high-school -- although I personally don't agree with you that this necessarily means that I think it's a game for 'kids'. I don't think that. I respect the ability of professional soccer players and when the world cup rolls around I'll probably follow the standings, if not the actual games. On the other hand, my father played varsity soccer for his high school and I'd be surprised if he even knows that there is a professional league in the US. grum: I agree with you on the media exposure aspect, but on some level, isn't that a chicken/egg situation? That is, are sports popular because they get a lot of media exposure or does the media only cover the sports that are popular?

posted by Jugwine at 03:28 PM on April 14

as a sociology prof incessantly repeated, "it's neither and it's both. it's cyclical process" So unless you have a mega-product or a massive playing populus, it'll always be a bit of both.

posted by garfield at 04:09 PM on April 14

Just remember, in 1950, baseball was far more popular than American football. By 2000, American football was far more popular than baseball. Who is to say what the sporting landscape will look like in 2050?

posted by salmacis at 04:16 PM on April 14

Ufez: Fair question and I think you might be on to something. That being said, I played Soccer until I was about 17 or 18 and would have kept playing it in college if I had been good enough to get on the team.

posted by Joey Michaels at 04:19 PM on April 14

What if they put a big glowing vapor-trail halo around the baseball so you can follow it better on the teevee? Oh, alright. What baseball and US football (and to a lesser extent hockey & basketball) have over soccer in the States isn't understanding of the game or grassroots participation. It's mythology. Until soccer produces a DiMaggio, a Vince Lombardi, a Bobby Orr, an Arnold Palmer, a Magic Johnson, or even a Richard Petty or the Williams Sisters or a Willie Shoemaker, someone whose personality can sort of transcend the sport and promote it beyond its own border, then it'll always be in that second tier of sports where viewers are interested but not involved. There's plenty of money to be made in that tier, just not the billions you get from having Jeter or Jordan dominate the headlines for a decade or so. Pele was a start. Mia Hamm is a step in the right direction too, and if Adu grows right then maybe he could fill those shoes. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's a lot to ask of anyone.

posted by chicobangs at 04:30 PM on April 14

That's definitely a large piece of the puzzle, chico, and like holden noted above, getting a homegrown player to stick around here is either going to have to take a major sacrifice on his part or an assload of money. Sure, they can be a world cup hero, but the USian attention span being all of about 7 seconds, big time exposure once every four years isn't going to cut it. And yeah, you can maintain that via Fox Sports World and the net there's easier access to what goes on in Europe, but not near to the level that any of the other major (or hell, even minor) sports gets. That's kind of where I was coming from with pulling established stars out of the Mexican league and using that market to bolster the league until you can either A) be around long enough for the league to mature and grow some fans or B) use that money in an attempt to keep domestic stars here. It's a tough task, but I'm sure people were having this same conversation about the NBA/ABA or NFL/AFL decades ago. although I personally don't agree with you that this necessarily means that I think it's a game for 'kids' That was kind of a sweeping statement, and I imagine most people who don't quite "get" soccer respect the athletic skill of the players and the fact that some sort of strategy is involved. It's just a matter of fact that soccer strategy is a lot more difficult to establish in a game, much less to explain to a non-footyhead. Plus, the failure rate is a lot higher, so it makes it seem to the non-expert that there is no overwhelming strategy* and it seems like a bunch of random kicking and running. *outside of corner/free/penalty kicks, of course.

posted by Ufez Jones at 04:51 PM on April 14

I think football (soccer) will gain in popularity and I think that American teams will grow and grow. It's too good a business opportunity to ignore. The domestic market is obviously important (although until it gets on TV it's always going to struggle) but the overseas markets are the key, particularly the Far East. This is where teams like Manchester United and, increasingly, Real Madrid make their money. Players like David Beckham are almost literally worshipped there and the clubs can sell millions of dollars worth of merchandising on the back of them. Go anywhere in Asia, from Tokyo to Tibet or anywhere in Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town and you will see European (mainly EPL) merchandise being worn. These people are well informed about soccer and are passionate about it, they might not be able to speak English but know the names of Beckham, Owen, Roberto Carlos etc. American business men are shrewd and they will want a piece of this action. It will be easier to develop American soccer teams, import a couple of established stars at the height of the power(Beckham, Ronaldo et al), develop potential stars like Adu and sell truckloads of merchandising to these markets rather than convert them to American Football (which has very little recognition outside the States) or baseball (which is only really played in a couple of countries). Alternatively, American corporations could just buy a couple of European clubs and develop them. By the way, IMO, the major US sport outside North America is probably basketball and the major potential competition for soccer rather than MBL or NFL. This is the one that has made serious inroads into the cricket market in the Caribbean and whose merchandising you see all over the world (mainly thanks to the sports wear worn by rappers on MTV). I think I may have got off the point a bit here but once I start typing...

posted by Pete at 03:51 AM on April 15

In the US, there's a big disconnect between sports participation and sports fandom, particularly among men. There are plenty of men in the US who are rabid sports fans, and who don't and didn't play. Dunno why that disconnect is (or why it seems to be a guy thing), but as long as it exists, participation numbers are meaningless as far as becoming one of the Big Four fan sports.

posted by lil_brown_bat at 09:08 AM on April 15

great point, lil_brown_bat...

posted by smithers at 10:07 AM on April 15

I agree with the 'don't', but the 'didn't' I'm not so sure about.

posted by garfield at 10:42 AM on April 15

I played youth soccer for years but I couldn't tell you what cities MLS plays in, much less name any professional players. That's a problem with the franchise-based nature of big-league US sports, I think. Elsewhere, you can develop an attachment to your local team, even if it's lower-league, and see it move up and down the 'pyramid', thanks to promotion and relegation. (See, for instance, the rise of Chievo in Italy.) In my current locale -- western NC -- the nearest MLB team is the Braves, and everything else is rather desparately sold as 'see the stars of tomorrow'. There are a decent number of local soccer teams, but there's no chance of there ever being a sufficient market for a pro franchise. But Pete makes a good point: there's surely an opportunity to market the success of US players abroad, since for many fans, Man Utd or Kaiserslauten are no more 'distant' than San Jose or Miami or D.C. (It's curious that one of the biggest cross-marketing deals between soccer and baseball is the Man Utd-Yankees matchup.)

posted by etagloh at 10:20 PM on April 15

The Forbes article is remarkably dumb. It would be a compliment to complain that it's comparing apples and oranges; it's comparing apples and orangutangs. Why not an article about how skateboarding will become more popular than baseball because kids spend a lot more time skateboarding than they do playing soccer and baseball put together?

posted by spira at 10:23 PM on April 15

Oh, and football had clearly passed baseball in popularity by 1970. Major league baseball almost self-destructed in the sixties.

posted by spira at 10:26 PM on April 15

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