Major League Soccer has never had it so good. The league is expanding, the values of franchises are rising, and attendance figures to reach 19,000 per match in the next season or two. The huge success of the World Cup suggests that soccer may become a major commercial player in the US, passing hockey, competing with basketball and baseball for second position behind football.
A Not So Small Problem
There is just this one not so small problem. MLS’s TV ratings are stagnant. Recent World Cup matches drew tens of millions of viewers, and the Nielsen’s don’t have any way of measuring the huge numbers that watched matches in pubs. The English Premier League doubled its TV ratings last season after moving from ESPN & Fox to NBC. The Mexican League (Liga MX) does extremely well on the Spanish-language networks. And I feel fairly confident predicting that the UEFA Champions League, which pits the best clubs from Europe against each other, is going to enjoy a dramatic increase in viewers now that Fox sees the potential of the sport and has secured rights to the next two World Cups.
Soccer is no longer a niche sport, and MLS is helping generate this wave–but why hasn’t all this success translated into more viewers? Why are Americans increasingly willing to watch major tournaments and foreign matches, or attend MLS and even minor league matches, but not watch them on TV. Answering this question is key if MLS is going to generate the kind of revenue the NBA, MLB, and even the NHL does.
There have been lots of articles written about why Americans will or will not embrace soccer. Some have been worth taking seriously and some have just been silly, but none of them, to my knowledge, have tried to systematically examine how soccer differs from the traditional American sports as an aesthetic experience from the point of view of American viewers.
Sports & Aesthetics
In fact, I have only read one truly insightful piece about viewing sports: “The Well Played Game: Notes Towards an Aesthetic of Sport,” by Eugene Kaelin. Dr. Kaelin, once a philosophy professor at Florida State University, argued that a satisfying sports event, from the perspective of a viewer, has to meet three criteria. It should be dramatic, characterized by excellent performances, what Kaelin terms continuity, and ‘articulation’, which relates to the spectator’s ability to evaluate the quality of play and identify the tensions that lead to the outcome of a match.
Kaelin’s focused on football and baseball, but I hope to show that his theoretical framework has huge explanatory value for understanding the challenges soccer faces in the United States (and Canada). Unfortunately, I cannot do justice to this claim in a few hundred words. You will have to link to the the white paper I have written. It is really long (more than 5,000 words), but there is also an SCI TV episode on, and a less abstract treatment of, the subject.