SAN JOSE, Calif. – During the Stanley Cup Final, the San Jose Sharks didn’t only have to compete against the Golden State Warriors for local sports attention.
The COPA America Centenario tournament held games at Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium. The U.S. men’s national team drew 67,000 fans to a match on June 3. Argentina and Chile nearly hit 70,000 fans for their game on the night of Game 4 of the Sharks’ series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It just underscored how prominent, and growing in prominence, international soccer is in the U.S. To the point that, Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports 1 argues, it’s surpassed hockey in the Big Four in the U.S.
I would argue that the Big Four were always ill-defined, and that soccer is just finally more widely available to a massive audience that’s always been there.
(Now, before we get into this: Yes, there’s a natural gag reflex when this commentator is espousing opinions on sports. He’s a race-baiting hot-takeist whose screeds against players like John Wall and Cam Newton are like a warm blanket for culturally biased simpletons. Frankly, we’re just impressed he got through this soccer/hockey thing without dropping a ‘Dominicans are idiots’ equivalent.)
(But ignore the messenger for the message, for a moment.)
Here’s what Cowherd said about hockey and futbol on Friday:
Some of the highlights, such as they are:
“Soccer has surpassed, in this country, hockey. Hockey is no longer a big four. It’s football, basketball, baseball and soccer. Now, I’m not talking MLS. I’m talking COPA, World Cup, men’s, women’s, MLS, youth … and there’s a lot of reasons for it. The demographics of this country are changing. And the people coming to this country are soccer fans, not hockey fans.
“I’m not taking shots at hockey. I love in a community with all sorts of LA Kings and LA Kings fans, but last night in America, 100,000 people showed up for a soccer game and none of our teams or our players were involved. It was a tournament has never been played here before.”
The basic problem here is that Cowherd has gamed the argument (I know, shocking) where "hockey" is the NHL and “soccer" is a catchall for everything soccer, which means it's technically bigger than every League in the U.S.
"Soccer" is three massively popular international leagues (Premier, La Liga and Bundesliga) and other localized ones like MLS; but on a international level, it’s six confederations; it’s COPA and it’s Champions League; it’s World Cup friendlies and the big tournament itself.
In soccer vs. the NHL, you’re dealing with patriotism and cultural identity vs. civic pride. You’re dealing with Olympic-level fervor for national teams vs. hockey in June. This is why the NHL is trying its hand at the World Cup of Hockey – to create another way to combine the disparate fan bases of the NHL into one massive supporter group for a national team. Or whatever the hell Team Europe is.
But with regard to viewership and fan support …
Let’s just toss the MLS argument out. If the NHL’s success is localized, then MLS is hyper-localized. There are, without question, success stories – Seattle, Toronto and Portland – but half the league averaged under 20,000 per game last season for 17 home games. The only reason the NHL doesn’t blow those numbers away are frequency of games and arena capacity.
But his point here is essentially right: This is international soccer’s moment in the U.S. However, I think it has less to do with the demographics of the country changing than with the soccer audience that was already here finally being served by American media companies.
In particular, NBC.
(This is the part where we weep about the greatness of their soccer coverage vs. their hockey coverage.)
When NBC took over the English Premier League rights from its shared deal with Fox Soccer, ESPN and ESPN2, it put its full power behind promoting and covering it. The improvement was immediate: In 2013-14, viewership shot up 118 percent over the previous season for games on NBCSN. By 2015, NBC had brokered a billion dollar deal to retain the rights through 2022.
Did NBC find 438,000 viewers per match in 2013-14 that weren’t already soccer fans? Of course not. They were serving an existing audience.
That’s not to say the audience hasn’t grown, as viewership inflated by nine percent for the following season. And there’s a reason for that: With the season running from August to May, and the games starting on Saturday mornings before college football during that season, it’s become ritualistic viewing. You know when the games are. You know when they end. It’s perfect television for a weekend morning.
As far as the demographic argument, again, this is about major broadcast companies realizing how much money was there already.
When Univision agreed to broadcast every Mexican national team match in a 2013 TV deal, it was the first time they were going to be available in the U.S. on a regular basis. This isn’t minting new fans, this is providing access points for a massive existing audience. Ditto bringing COPA America to the States: I was in the same hotel as the headquarters for the event in Santa Clara, and it’s pretty clear that it’s drawing fans of every nation from far and wide because it’s in an accessible place.
I would argue that it’s not that soccer has “passed” hockey or baseball or basketball in the U.S. – it’s that broadcast companies have finally figured out how massive the audience was for international soccer, and how to present coverage to that audience.
Of course, broadcasting matches and covering soccer are different animals, which we’ll get to later.
“Celebrity culture in America has never been bigger, and soccer stars celebrities. Baseball’s got one celebrity: Bryce Harper. Every soccer team has celebrities.”
“A soccer star is on the field for two hours. In hockey, your star player is on the ice for 20 minutes.”
Not only that, but they don’t have to wear helmets and shields. Which is why NHL players shouldn’t during the shootout. But that’s an argument for another day.
The NBA is the most star-centric sport. The NFL is next, especially when you factor in fantasy sports. Soccer’s probably next, and baseball and hockey face the same problem: Your biggest stars aren’t always out there, and the ones that are always out there are tasked with depriving joy (pitchers, goalies).
It’s something that’s always going to plague hockey as a marketable sport in the U.S., because of the way the game has transformed into an offense-from-defense one. Wayne Gretzky isn’t hosting ‘SNL’ if the Oilers were playing under Jon Cooper and goalies wore padding like Henrik Lundqvist.
But soccer’s popularity in the U.S. has, I think, less to do with stars and more to do with patriotism, ritual and community.
Casual sports fans might know the name Lionel Messi, but they aren’t rearranging life to watch an Argentina match. No one player is going to be as compelling a draw as rooting for a national team. Most Americans don’t know Clint Dempsey from Clint Howard, but they know what beer tastes like and they would very much like to drink it at a soccer bar at 10 a.m. on a Saturday or in a giant open-air stadium covered in red, white and blue.
And here’s the single most important change in soccer fandom:
They know they’re not alone.
I remember going to RFK Stadium in 2002 to watch the USMNT against Germany in the World Cup, on little TVs and on the Jumbotron. Since then, the viewing parties in cities like Chicago for the World Cup are the norm.
But today? I’m just as likely to stay home, watch the game and tweet about #USMNT than anything else.
Social media has transformed soccer fandom. You’re not alone watching Manchester City or Real Madrid. You’re not alone watching a U.S. friendly. And if you’re a casual soccer fan, you want to know why everyone’s losing their minds over a goal or a name trending on Twitter.
Social media has given soccer something that hockey’s marketing has attempted to do for about a decade, which is to create must-see highlights, familiarize names and make the sport seem like the thing everyone’s talking about. (Especially because international matches are happening during work hours.)
Viewing NHL game is a communal experience on social media, but it hasn’t broken through to being a fan recruitment tool like it has for soccer in America.
But there are, of course, bigger obstacles for hockey.
One more from Cowherd:
“It’s nothing against hockey. I like hockey. But think about soccer. ‘Here’s a ball, kick it.’ Hockey it’s ‘lets get a rink. Anyone know where a rink is?’ And then you have to buy the equipment and learn to skate like an Olympian. It’s hard to play hockey. It’s expensive to play hockey. Soccer is easier to play, it’s less expensive, it’s more global and right now it’s in the big four.”
This speaks to two other issues here, which are cost and demographics.
Alan Furth is a soccer and a hockey fan that reached out to me, and I think he brings home both subjects succinctly in a recent email:
"Soccer is cheap. It takes a ball and some space. You don't even need a goal. You can use balled up shirts. Hockey is insanely expensive. I know, I play 2-3 times per week. I'm blessed to be able to afford it. But if a Lebanese immigrant in Dearborn or a Liberian immigrant in Cleveland has to choose between hockey and soccer they'll choose soccer 99 times out of 100. Hockey is $500 just for the gear (until he grows out of it) thousands for the ice time, and even more for coaching and travel hockey. Soccer is $20 for a ball and shorts at Walmart and some space in a public park. Which sport do you think has more growth potential in this country?"
This is nothing new for hockey fans: It’s an incredibly expensive sport to play. And the fact is that one of the barriers to enjoying hockey is a familiarity with the sport. It’s not to say everyone that enjoys the NFL has played Pop Warner or that everyone who watches baseball has played Little League. But how many Americans haven’t ice skated, let alone shot a puck?
(This isn’t to say that youth participation always equals future fandom, mind you; if so, kickball would the most popular sport in America.)
It all comes back to familiarity, and soccer has it. It also has much, much different demographics, as Furth notes:
"Do you know what the USMNT looks like? Here's a hint: PK Subban, Nazem Kadri and Scott Gomez. Three-fourths of the US's defense is black. They have players on the team named Bedoya and Orozco - Al Montoya and Raffi Torres can't compete with literally thousands of professional, Hispanic soccer players, sorry. The US national team LOOKS like America. It's a [expletive] rainbow and scattered with immigrants. In the NHL, you're a minority if you weren't born in Ontario."
There’s no debate about hockey being perceived as a predominantly Caucasian sport. It’s the reason we’re used as a demographic punchline (on “VEEP” recently, to great comedic effect) and seen as an oasis for racists (from LA Times columnist Sandy Banks on Donald Sterling, to no comedic effect).
There are socio-economic and cultural barriers that have prevented the NHL from having a more diverse player pool, and in turn have prevented its fan base from growing in more diverse places. The good news is that this is changing at a player level, slow as that change is. Heck, we’re about to see a player of Mexican heritage who grew up in Arizona go first overall in the NHL Draft.
But hockey doesn’t look like soccer. It doesn’t play like soccer. And, as such, there are going to be obstacles to hockey fandom that don’t exist for soccer. Americans hate learning new [expletive]. For example, my dad just learned how to use a DVR, and he still relies on VHS.
Here’s the thing about the NHL: I’m actually impressed it’s become the multi-billion industry it has become, and has added a significant number of fans since 2005, despite these challenges.
It speaks to how great the game is when you get to understand it, see the live product and feel part of its culture. I doubt I’m the first to ever declare that the NHL succeeds despite itself at times.
It’s without question one of the “Big Four” major sports leagues in the U.S. Cowherd’s argument conflates leagues and sports. If we’re going by “sports” – viewership, participation, etc. – it could be argued that soccer is more popular than baseball, let alone hockey. But while that’s infinitely more interesting than the umpteenth “[blank] is more popular than hockey!” take, it’s also grounds for McCarthy-like hearings on your patriotism.
Yet in the end, soccer and hockey face essentially the same problem when going up against football, basketball and baseball in American: media coverage.
There’s no question soccer gets great coverage … when a soccer match is on. There’s no question that hockey gets covered … when a hockey game is on.
What does their real estate look like on sports talk radio for discussion and analysis? Or PTI? Or that other show where everyone’s always shouting at each other? Or in a newspaper?
In that regard, soccer and hockey exist outside of the “Big Three.” It’s an odd disconnect between the size of their fan bases and the coverage they receive. Part of it is that the hosts and commentators in sports media are ill-equipped to talk about these sports in in-depth ways without resorting to generalizations and hot-takery. Part of it, though, is a slavish dedication to decades of NFL/MLB/NBA overkill that leaves no room for coverage of other sports; and, in turn, those audiences are forced to look to blogs, podcasts and international media outlets for satisfaction.
Look, I love hockey with every ounce of me. I also love the U.S. men’s and women’s national soccer teams, and catch their friendlies and tournament games. I can’t get down with Premier League and the like because it’s a miracle I have the time in life to wipe myself, let alone learn a new sports thing. But I don’t despise them.
Do I think “soccer” has surpassed “hockey” in the U.S.? No.
I think that audience has always been there, and it’s finally being serviced by the media properly. And I think that acknowledgement has added more fans to the existing masses.
What I fundamentally disagree with is that soccer’s rise, such as it is, means hockey has slipped. Cowherd argues that the demographic changes in America benefit soccer; I’d argue that the demographics in hockey are shifting too, just at a snail’s pace.
William Douglas, the voice beyond the great Color of Hockey blog, makes the same argument. As “more minorities are becoming more affluent and moving out the suburbs,” he said, “kids are getting interested in hockey because they're assimilating. They're taking up the sport with their friends.” And that leads to deeper diversity in NHL Draft classes, as we have this season, which in turn will hopefully lead to deeper diversity in the NHL, which in turn will hopefully lead to deeper diversity in fandom and all facets of hockey.
There are still going to be significant economic and media barriers, but perhaps this helps ease the cultural one.
So I see hockey with the greater growth potential in the U.S. of the two sports, for those reasons.
Also because hockey is intrinsically a better sport than soccer.
It’s faster. It has a Cup trophy you can actually drink from. And when we dive, we don’t look like a flipped-over crab being assaulted by a seagull.
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