My first instinct in writing this article—which, at its core, is about how World Cup fever affects ratings, attendance, and general fandom around Major League Soccer—was to look to the data.
So I did. The numbers are a bit hard to find, but once they turned up, I realized there’s little in the way of an immediate World Cup bump for the league. In 2010, for instance, the league saw higher attendance figures in the two weeks before the World Cup than in any of the four weeks following it. And 2006 also failed to provide much in the way of an immediate boost—attendance actually dropped in the five weeks following the World Cup by about 8 percent compared to the pre-tournament year-to-date numbers.
Even if there had been a lift, it would need to come with a couple of caveats. For one, summer weather means the possibility of a higher turnout, compared to the less predictable spring season that comes before the World Cup. And as the season marches on and the playoffs approach, the games’ stakes grow higher—also, theoretically, causing more people to funnel in. Attendance didn’t increase so those caveats are unnecessary—but they illustrate this sort of analysis isn’t an exact science.
There’s a bit more of a rub if you look at things from a year-by-year basis. For example, MLS attendance grew about 8 percent on a per-game basis in 2007, following the 2006 World Cup. And in 2011, after the 2010 tournament, attendance grew about 7 percent.
But even those numbers are somewhat fragile. The league has been in a growth spurt for the better part of a decade, bolstered by expansion into new markets and heavier promotion. The addition of the Seattle Sounders team alone, which draws more than 40,000 fans per game, has had a major effect on overall attendance figures.
Meanwhile, the ratings game doesn’t tell much of a story either. While MLS shared an interesting data point with Boston.com—in 2010, seven of its top-10 rated games came after the World Cup—but that only makes sense considering the stakes for those games are higher. Viewership has grown year-over-year following World Cups, but those numbers are also subject to the qualifier that the league has grown several years running.
Anyway, the point is that the numbers are murky. So, while a data analysis seemed like a fun idea, the relationship between the world’s biggest sporting event and America’s pro soccer league, now in its 19th season, probably requires a more qualitative discussion.
To that end, I sat down with New England Revolution president Brian Bilello to talk about it. I invited MLS officials to participate in the conversation but we were unable to make it work. A lightly-edited transcript of my conversation with Bilello follows.
Boston.com: What does a World Cup bump look like for MLS? If there is one at all?
It’s hard to quantify exactly how the World Cup affects ticket sales because there are so many other factors. But what I do think is an interesting story is that if you go back, even go to 2002 or 1998, you can look at the leading indicator—the growth of World Cup ratings, particularly for the US National Team. You see a very clear trajectory (of growth) with what’s been going on from 1998 to 2002 to 2006 to 2010 to what I think you’ll see this year in 2014.
And if you look at MLS, during that same window, our attendance numbers have grown. We’ve expanded by a great number of teams. (Ed. note: The league has gone from 12 teams in 1998 to 19 in 2014, with two more expected in 2015 and two more beyond that. The league did, however, contract two teams prior to the 2002 season.) Teams are doing higher attendance levels across the board on top of that. You see the World Cup numbers are up and so are attendance numbers. And I do believe that for our league right now, US Men’s National Team support is probably the number one indicator of MLS support. I think you’re seeing that already. Expansion alone—that there are more markets that can support MLS than could in 1998—is a really big deal.
And that comes first. You see the US National Team numbers pop and then you see the MLS numbers grow.
In a past job, I interviewed MLS commissioner Don Garber. He stressed that the key to the league’s growth is trying to harness the power of existing soccer fans rather than trying to rope in every potential fan. So if the World Cup is a gateway drug to soccer, so to speak, does that really help to serve that mission?
That’s true. But the way I would look at it is, the existing foreign soccer fan is tricky because if you live in England or Holland or Germany your whole life, and you live in that country and move to the United States, sure, you have an affiliation with the sport. But you probably also have a team you grew up loving and supporting. And you can watch that team on the TV or the Internet these days. If a Red Sox fan moves to Japan, are they going to become a hardcore Yomiuri Giants fan? Probably not. They might go to a few games, but they probably won’t become a hardcore fan.
The existing sort of foreign soccer fan, maybe from a casual basis they’ll turn on some games and go to some games. But they won’t be the core. The core is the soccer fans who are either second-generation soccer fans, or just US-born (people) who see the World Cup and get excited and say: “That’s kind of cool, maybe I’ll go to a game.” And maybe they have a friend who has season tickets and goes to a bunch of games. I think that’s what you’re really looking at, and that’s a piece that can get a lot of momentum.
I don’t think the mission can be to take somebody away from the club they grew up with. You can’t tell an Arsenal fan they should become a Revolution fan. That doesn’t make sense.
Well, you probably wouldn’t be afraid to admit it’s a far cry from Arsenal and the English Premiere League, and MLS.
I don’t think I’d necessarily agree with that. What we’re trying to build in our league is a communal feel around our team. We have supporter groups that create a unique atmosphere. And being live at games, being around a team in your community, I do think that’s important. The league’s expanding and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the league’s new TV deal comes at a time when we have more teams and more people connecting to the sport. (Ed. note: Signed earlier this year, the new deal with ESPN, FOX, and Univision will be worth about $90 million per year, tripling the league’s previous TV revenues.)
If you’re an Orlando City fan in that town, I think that’s a better product or fan experience to become fan of that team than, say, Arsenal. You can go to games, you can watch all the games on TV, you can be passionate about something in your town. So no, I would strongly disagree a foreign super club makes for a better fan experience for a US soccer fan than being a fan of a local MLS team.
Moving to this year’s World Cup and any potential boost. To what extent do you think time zone similarities between Brazil and the US might help? Do you see any benefit from the World Cup being in prime time in this country this time around?
I think that goes back to the macroeconomic view. The ratings will be way up. More people will be watching the games. And more people will start feeling a little more strongly toward the sport. The ratings will be incredible this year, with more prime time slots for the games. That just leads to more eyeballs, and therefore more people watching on TV.
And for our league, to be frank, we’ve done really well growing our attendances and the live game experience, but have struggled a little bit more with TV. So I think it is important for the league, in the case of the World Cup, for more people to experience it on TV and enjoy watching it on TV, then turning those eyeballs on MLS on TV—and not just the live experience. (Ed. note: MLS ratings fell off pretty hard in 2013.)
You also get about, what, a month or so between the end of the World Cup and the start of the English Premiere League season. So for any newly-minted fan who wants in, MLS is sort of the best available option in the immediate term.
We’re right back at it in late June. We do have games going on during the tailing phases of the World Cup. So if you get bit by the bug hard, we’ve got something for you then and there.
I know MLS’s role as a summer league (Ed. note: most European leagues are active through the winter) is a topic some people like to debate, but for half of our country and the teams in Canada, (winter games would be hard). We struggled in March to get some of our games going (in the cold). It’s a nice fantasy to say we should play the same schedule as European teams, but I think it’s just impractical for our league and our country. It’s one of those things where we have to define what soccer is in this country. It’s not just taking something that works in another part of the world and putting it here, where geographically and climate-wise, it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t mean the league isn’t authentic, it just means it’s authentic to what we do here.
For any perceived World Cup bump, to what extent does the performance of the US team matter? They have a pretty tough task this time around in Group G, with games against Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. Does it matter if they escape the group? Or does the spectacle of the World Cup help on its own?
I do (think it matters) to a degree. I don’t think it’s critical. But yeah, if they go to deeper rounds and play in knock-out games, it makes a difference. I think games against bigger teams like Germany and Portugal are games casual fans can more easily latch onto. And fans who know the sport a little bit are going to see, whether it’s Spain or Brazil or Italy or Holland—some of those teams aren’t going to make it out of the group stage. You’re talking about top-10 teams in the world that won’t make it out.
People are realistic. It’s the World Cup. We play a sport where, when one team’s better than another, they win 1-0 or 2-1. We played a game Sunday night against New York where we had 22 shots and they had eight, and they won. Credit to them, but I don’t think that’s a game where if we played that game 10 times the same way we’d lose more often than we’d win.
I think people just want to see the US team perform well, look good, play a fun style of soccer, scoring some goals. I think the casual fan gets more engaged with more games, but I don’t think it’s a tragedy if the US doesn’t get out of its group.
That Sunday game: You managed to draw more than 23,000 people, a season high and one of the better figures in Revolution history. A few factors there—beautiful weather, and New York games tend to draw a decent crowd because the away fans just jump up I95. Think there was any bump, though, from the World Cup sendoff?
I think there’s a little. People are more tuned to soccer right now. I was driving earlier and talk radio was talking World Cup, on 98.5. I think people who have been to games before and are engaged in soccer hear more World Cup stuff and come down. We had great sales through TicketMaster and through our office.
It was also a great game because of the time of year and the weather. Plus, the team’s performing really well—the team’s in (second) place in the East and fans are engaged in that. And we play a fun style of attacking soccer, so even when we lose we generate scoring opportunities, and fans know that. They know the difference between a game you win 1-0 with four shots and one with a lot of interplay and attacking. So it’s all those factors, but I do think World Cup hype plays into it.
We’re here to talk World Cup, but you know I can’t let you leave without asking if there’s any update on the efforts to build a soccer stadium for the Revolution in the Boston area.
Nothing real specific. Just that it’s something we will get done. We really are actively trying to get done around Boston. We recognize it’s something that’s important for the growth of the Revolution and for soccer in the city. We feel strongly it needs to be in an urban environment and having a suburban soccer stadium won’t have the kind of impact we want for the sport. But we’re very confident that it will be a great growth driver and I hope we’ll get it done soon.
And how about a World Cup prediction?
Certainly my passions are with the US and I’m really hoping they make a deep run in the tournament.
But I think people are sleeping on (defending champions) Spain. I think if they get out of their group I think they have a very good chance to repeat. Somewhat controversially, I’m worried about Brazil. I don’t know if the pressure will build them up or push them down, but I have a nervous feeling it’s the latter. I hope they do well because they’re at home and the country loves the sport, but I kind of like Spain again.