Stamping out stubborn myths of soccer in the United States

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About a week ago I shared a conference room with other journalists, cameramen and MLS commissioner Don Garber, who answered questions about the new stadium going up downtown and what it means to the professional game in the States.

In that room I found sad reminders that so many myths and stereotypes remain attached to the game – incorrect assumptions about professional soccer that stubbornly prevail.

Myth No. 1: That soccer still needs to “make it.”

Here’s a question straight from the 1992 journalists handbook: “When will soccer ‘make it?’ ” The thin query usually gets asked by a general news reporter or a newspaper columnist who doesn’t have sufficient depth of knowledge to ask a more pertinent question.

I always think the same thing: I’d like to query the questioner, “When will Thai food ‘make it’ here?’  You know, it’s not as big as Chinese food! It’s got to ‘make it.’ Right?

The reporter would probably say, “Well, it is what it is. What does it matter whether Thai food or Chinese food is bigger?”

Exactly.

It’s certainly fair if we want to discuss market share in the U.S. sports scene, or the competition for marketing dollars or strategies for cracking hard-to-reach consumer demographics, etc. But generally, the game is growing apace and doesn’t need to “make it.”  That’s just kind of silly.

Myth No. 2: The marketing model is still about selling to families

I suppose the soccer world is more insular than I sometimes understand.  People who follow the game understand how the professional game’s marketing strategies shifted so significantly about five years ago. It’s all about 20- and 30-somethings, about creating “real” fans. It’s about making the club matter, establishing a base of supporters who truly care about club, who rejoice at wins and sulk forlornly at setbacks.

It’s hasn’t been about suburban families looking for something to do on a Saturday night for a few years now – not in most markets, anyway.

But I forget that a substantial number of U.S. consumers don’t live in MLS markets – so we’ll need more time to kill off those old school beliefs about the tired marketing models. Because the questions about families and suburbs and pro soccer are still out there.

Myth No. 3: That professional soccer’s success and acceptance of the game at a greater level are inextricably linked.

Two words: they aren’t.

Major League Soccer is the game’s most visible property, so I get this one, that pro soccer is frequently linked to the development of the game at a broader level.

I get it, but that doesn’t make it any less incorrect.

Soccer as a game is what it is. It’s a popular activity, a great sport for kids, a staple of many ethnic communities, a sport with burgeoning awareness at international level, etc.

Now, “professional soccer” still has scads of room to grow – but that’s a different matter altogether. “Soccer” as a sport has ample societal acceptance here. (Who really cares if a few older white guys with a certain media influence still want to bluster about a “boring” game; there were more of them 10 years ago, there will be even fewer of them in 10 years to come. Believe me on this one.)

“Soccer” is not going away in the United States – no matter how fast or slow the game develops at professional level.

I suppose, all things considered, I should be happy that old guard general sports columnists and pretty news anchors don’t still ask if we should widen the doggone goals in order to promote greater American acceptance? I do believe, at very least, that we’ve finally killed off that one.