MLS tries to build through Euro club visits
Touring European teams could boost US soccer
As Tom Werner walked down Boylston Street recently, he was stopped, recognized by a fan. Not a Red Sox fan, though.
Perhaps just 100 yards from Fenway Park, Werner was recognized not for the beloved baseball team he helped bring to two World Series titles, but for his work with Liverpool Football Club, the English Premier League team an ocean away.
The reach is great — of Liverpool, of the English Premier League, of top-level European soccer. And many of those clubs, in an effort to extend their fan bases in the emerging soccer market of the United States, are doing so with summer tours of the country, with exhibitions such as the Liverpool-AS Roma game at Fenway Wednesday.
But who are the Liverpool diehards who will be packing Fenway Park?
They are mostly American, mostly young, mostly well educated. And most have never seen their favorite English soccer club in person. Tim Treacy, chairman of the local Boston Liverpool fan club, estimates that 90 percent of his club’s approximately 130 members are American, and most are native Bostonians, though Treacy is originally from Ireland. While the membership numbers are not large, the reach of the club through social media extends to 8,000 to 9,000 additional fans, Treacy said.
Those demographics are echoed in the American soccer market at large. David Nathanson, Fox Soccer’s executive vice president, said that expatriates are making up an increasingly small share of the US soccer fan base. Just three years ago, 10 percent of US soccer fans were expatriates; today that has shrunk to 5 percent.
“The soccer audience is the youngest, most affluent, most educated audience in cable television compared to other sports on cable television,” Nathanson said. “The median age of a Fox Soccer viewer is in the early 30s, the average household income of a Fox Soccer viewer is $90,000, which skews extremely high compared to the US population, obviously, and they’re educated.”
Those are the people who on weekends pack Cambridge’s Phoenix Landing — a Central Square pub that bills itself as Boston’s official headquarters for Liverpool FC — to watch games broadcast from England. They are the ones who will be taking up space in Fenway’s bleachers, with John Henry’s properties come together in a way they never imagined.
International soccer is promoted and encouraged by Major League Soccer, the US league that has made strides in recent years but still lags far behind international soccer in terms of passion, talent, and financial resources.
“There’s certainly enormous overlap today between the international soccer market and the MLS soccer market,” said Don Garber, Major League Soccer’s commissioner. “Our goal is to continue to convert those people who begin their soccer fan experience through a connection to an international, whether that be through the EA [video] game or watching the Premier League on television. Then we work hard to convert those fans into being a passionate supporter of a local team.”
But unfortunately for MLS, there are some fans of European soccer who still disdain American soccer clubs.
“It’s a fight in the community about Euro snobs, and whether or not these guys [in MLS] are good enough,” said Jay Taraskiewicz, membership director of the LFC Supporters Club Boston.
“I see that’s kind of diminished some. [But] I think you’re always going to have some classism that comes from people who like soccer in America. The top-level clubs in Europe, the play is just phenomenal and you see it. It’s the question of do you only want to go see a Major League Baseball game or will you have a good time going to the Double A game or to Lowell?”
While MLS is doing its best – though still acknowledging the deep divide in talent – the league is welcoming the best of Europe to its fields and stadiums this summer. From July 18 to Aug. 15, 35 games are scheduled in the United States and Canada involving international teams, the most in recent history.
That includes the MLS All-Star game, in which the best of the US league will take on EPL club Chelsea. In May, Chelsea became Europe’s club champion for the first time when it defeated Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League final.
“People are curious to see how we do fare against a world-class competitor,” Garber said.
Though, he added, even the best of MLS is not close to on par with the best of Europe.
“The reality is that our 17-year-old league is not competitive on the field against the English Premier League from every way, from what we spend on players to the history and the tradition of the sport,” Garber said. “That’s just the reality that we live in.
“We try to do a wide variety of things that bridge that gap and try to convince the international soccer fan that the gap is not as big as they think it is.”
So it is that MLS encourages teams such as Liverpool and Roma to make the journey across the Atlantic. The league believes it’s a win-win, that by bringing European teams into the fold, that the soccer audience increases, helping international clubs looking to expand market share and domestic clubs looking to increase interest in soccer.
Part of the reason that top-division European clubs such as Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Liverpool have become some of the most valuable properties in sports is their commitment to touring worldwide, to developing their US and Asian audiences, Nathanson said.
“I believe that there’s a deep commitment among everyone in the soccer community to try to unlock this massive sports market here in the United States that has become a real emerging soccer powerhouse,” Garber said. “It’s all part of growing the game.
“We’re really not competing against each other, frankly, as much as we’re competing against the other pro sports leagues.”
There is evidence the strategy has worked, or at least that Americans are finally paying attention. MLS average attendance has grown from 14,862 in 2001 to 18,626 in 2012.
Treacy from the LFC fan club, who arrived in the United States seven years , said he never saw a Liverpool jersey during his first year in the country. Now? He sees an English Premier League team jersey at least once a day, and those often belong to his favorite club.
Werner, chairman of the Red Sox and Liverpool FC, recounted how when Fenway Park hosted Scotland’s Celtic FC vs. Sporting of Lisbon in 2010, they had to work hard to sell tickets. The event sold out, but it took a lot of effort.
Now? In the first three weeks, 30,000 tickets were sold for Liverpool-Roma.
But even if those international soccer fans are being captured, even if Garber argues that “our view is anything that raises the water level for soccer in our country is good for MLS,” even if MLS sees a carryover audience from international matches on TV transitioning into MLS broadcasts, the bias still remains.
“In American sports, the way it’s projected is usually like these are the greatest athletes in the world, these are the greatest sports,” Taraskiewicz said. “So you can almost see the backlash in some ways, like this is ours. It’s something the Americans will never be best at, something the rest of the world will always have.”