Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Americans Don't Like Soccer

In fact, they don't like it so much that they attended games in 2011 to the tune of 17,870 fans a game. This surpasses the NBA, which drew 17,319 a game, and the NHL, which drew 17,126. (MLB and NFL figures are, of course, far higher than any of these.) Compared to other soccer leagues around the world, MLS now ranks 10th, coming in between Japan's J-League and England's second-tier Championship.

If you've been continuing to insist that America actually doesn't like soccer, this may come as a shock. But if you've been paying attention, you've seen the groundwork for these numbers already laid. Soccer is beginning to win cities, beginning to make cities identify as soccer towns even if they don't quite realize it.

It starts in Seattle. When the Sounders arrived on the scene- well, they already were, they were just in a lower league- Seattle's sports scene was in its darkest hour. The Sonics had left. The Mariners were terrible, and still are. The Seahawks were terrible, and are still pretty bad. Seattle had paid for two very expensive stadiums for both of them, and lost the Sonics when they wouldn't pay for a third. Their best team was their WNBA franchise, the Storm.

Then came the Sounders. They came in with a rabid fanbase migrating from the second tier, Drew Carey got on board, they got to share the Seahawks' stadium, and most importantly, the team immediately came out of the blocks like a house afire. Seattle all of a sudden had a good team that they could be proud of (sorry, WNBA). They needed it badly, and they responded in force and continue to do so. The Sounders' focus on the U.S. Open Cup, a competition that many other MLS clubs do not take seriously, has led to them racking up a lot of comparatively easy trophies, thus quickly building the image of a winner, and thus further feeding the fans. The franchise has quickly become one of the marquee teams in the league, almost unheard of for a team so young compared to its peers.

In fact, the Sounders' immediate success led to franchises being granted at the very first opportunity to Portland and Vancouver, the homes of Seattle's old rivals from the second tier, the Timbers and Whitecaps.

Vancouver, being in Canada, is always going to be a hockey town. Portland, meanwhile, has only one other pro team in the city, the Blazers of the NBA.

There's a lockout in the NBA right now. You may have heard about it.

The Timbers, now the only game in town, have free run of Portland. The fact that their fans are fairly passionate and the team not being terrible only helps matters. (The Timbers need it; right now their home is a converted baseball stadium.)

The NBA lockout helps any team from any other league that shares a city with the NBA. And aside from Portland, that also means Salt Lake City- of all the towns- is now ceded to MLS as well, which has a presence in Real Salt Lake. They will certainly welcome the help as well. Real Salt Lake won the league title in 2009, but only a year or two prior, faced the prospect of relocation to Rochester or St. Louis if they didn't get a new stadium. (They got the stadium. Rio Tinto Stadium opened in 2008.)

And then there's the case of none other than Los Angeles, California; home of the Galaxy and Chivas USA.

The Galaxy is likely to be the first club any big international signing is headed to, and one of the teams the league will market as 'marquee'. In 2011, the Galaxy's attendance is sitting at 23,335. Chivas USA, a far inferior team, draws far worse. In 2011, they had 14,830 fans a game, but for a bad team in a league that's not supposed to have any fans, that's still pretty good.

To compare, there is no NFL team (yet). The Lakers drew 18,997 and the Clippers drew 17,742- less than the Galaxy. These two are out of play for the lockout, and when they come back, there is no way they'll continue to draw those numbers. The NHL's Kings drew 18,083 last season- again less than the Galaxy- and the Anaheim Ducks drew 14,738- less than Chivas. Baseball, is, of course, still out front, but while the Angels are doing fine (39,090, fifth in MLB), the Dodgers ceded a lot of ground this year in the wake of the tribulations of Frank McCourt, who only today has agreed to sell the team. Their attendance dipped 18% this year to 36,236- still far ahead of MLS, but an 18% drop and an on-field product in turmoil leaves a lot of fans in a very what's-next city looking for something else to do. (Though they may come back to the Dodgers now that McCourt will be out of the picture.)

That's right: the third most popular pro sports team in Los Angeles... is a soccer team. And that soccer team has more goodwill going for it than one of the teams in front of it.

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