On the United States’ sports Mount Rushmore, four sports stand head and shoulders above all others: the NFL; college football; Major League Baseball; and the NBA.
Depending on what region you live in, this could be modified to include NASCAR or surfing, but for the most part, these sports remain atop the mountain.
Twenty years ago, you could say a fifth spot belonged to the NHL.
The New York Rangers had won the Stanley Cup in 1994, revenue was at a high, and expansion into California and the South seemed successful early on. Players like Gretzky, Lindros, Yzerman, and Messier were household names to the average sports fan, appearing all over SportsCenter and in advertisements.
Flash forward to 2012.
The NHL is mired in its second lockout in 8 years, with much of the season likely to be cancelled.
Southern expansion, for the most part, has failed, with many teams going or attempting to go back to their original roots in Canada.
The NHL couldn’t even get an ESPN deal.
Meanwhile, a sport and a league many laughed at fifteen years ago have been making gains in the American sporting scene.
Soccer, led by a growing interest in La Liga and the English Premier League, and being played in front of 75,000+ American audiences, seems poised to take that number five spot away from the NHL.
While European soccer still carries the majority of the interest, Major League Soccer in the United States has been making steady gains, with sellout crowds in Seattle (Seattle Sounders), Portland (Portland Timbers), Kansas City (Sporting KC), and Los Angeles (Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA), as well as fans of the league eagerly awaiting the eventual return of the New York Cosmos to the highest level of American soccer.
While TV ratings of MLS games (especially the paltry 0.9 championship rating) do not necessarily signify a large audience to the masses, season ticket bases in individual cities are growing, and the league had a favorable deal with ESPN.
In terms of American male soccer stars, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan are household names, with the reaction of Donovan’s game-winning goal in the World Cup having over 1 million views on YouTube.
In addition to the pro leagues, soccer has continually been the most played sport among youth.
Now, with all the research on football, concussions, and other information, soccer isn’t considered a “sport for wusses” anymore. More athletes are choosing to pursue a college and pro soccer career, with the help of various soccer-specific academies set up around the nation.
Obviously, simple soccer nuggets tend to hold the game back amongst your average American. Offsides, poor officiating, and the possibility of 0-0 games are turn-offs to fans accustomed to 60-53 football games. Or maybe its the constant action of soccer, as compared to those other sports where there is downtime after every play for you to casually sip your beverage of choice.
However, the demographic makeup of the US, and solid homegrown fan bases in various citie,s play to the MLS’s advantage. Many hardcore MLS fans fall into the ever-growing Hispanic demographic and the key male 25-54 sports demographic.
In addition, the salaries of many players (some as low as $40,000) almost humanize the interactions between teams and fans, in an era where player salaries in sports are spiraling out of control.
While MLS does a good job of promoting itself and its players, the key will be with the US Men’s National Soccer team, which boasts an increasing amount of MLS players.
The 2002 World Cup, which saw the US advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1930, gave the MLS a huge post-World Cup boost, and the excitement led to the construction of several soccer-specific stadiums. A similar result in 2014 could be enough for even the biggest soccer skeptics in the US to take notice.
With the NHL mired in discontent, the question of whether MLS can supplant it in the American sports hierarchy is not an “if?” but a “when?”
MLS will never surpass the NFL, college football, MLB or the NBA, but fifth place, in a country with so many sporting options, isn’t a bad position to be in for a 20-year-old league.