Negative Impacts Defining US Soccer Market: Entry Barriers, Media, and Limited Investment

By Kelsey Ontko, Julia Fogleman, and Lucas Nevola
Edited and Updated by Matt Berezo (2013)

The 2009 MLS Cup rating on ESPN reached 0.9, up 29% from last year’s rating of 0.7[1].  While this may allude to an increase in MLS popularity, it is not an all-time viewer rating high; in fact, it is the third lowest rating of the past decade.  To further put this statistic into perspective, David Beckham’s regular game debut with Galaxy in July 2007 drew an overnight rating of 1.2 on ESPN[2].  Michelle Wie’s victory at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational drew a rating of 0.72 on the Golf Channel[3].  Women’s sports of lesser popularity such as golf are out-earning more mainstream men’s sports such as soccer…in a culture where sexism in sports is still a heatedly debatable topic, this figure speaks volumes about the value of men’s soccer in American society.

There are a few key characteristics with negative impacts defining soccer market specific to the United States: entry barrier of play, the American media, and limited investment in the game. The entry barrier to the game, determined by a person’s socio-economic status, has been commented on by many involved in all different levels in the U.S. soccer market.   Sunil Gulati, President of the United States Soccer Federation, says that the elite-level soccer at the youth level has been for the most part, “pay to play”[4].  Paul Cuadros, author of A Home on the Field, says that football in the United States is a “country-club sport” which is played in suburbia and limits access to others echelons of society (Cuadros 21).  He believes that the root of the problem of football in America today is the unwillingness to open the game to other economic strata.  The workings of the system in the US produce not necessarily the best players, but the best players who pay to play.  This is particularly interesting since soccer is one of the sports involving minimal amounts of equipment needed to play; merely a ball, and two goals are necessary for the most fundamental of games.  The structure of organized youth play however, is the cause of the extremely high cost.  To become part of a youth team and play in the elite leagues, a player must pay club dues, tournament fees, uniform costs, and in some cases depending on location, park district fees for field use.  If the structure were altered so that costs were minimized/eliminated, the entry barrier preventing players from a lower socio-economic stratum would no hold back un-tapped sources of talent.

Irv Smalls, the executive director of Harlem Youth Soccer, an area notorious for poverty, thinks that the key to tapping these raw resources of the economically disadvantage communities is supporting the youth leagues.  Since then, a few youth leagues have been created with the main focus of financially supporting players.  In 2005, the Los Angeles Futbol Club, which eliminates all club fees, was developed.  To add merit to the club, English Premier League Chelsea formed an alliance with them last year.  Chelsea will provide additional financial support for the club as well as coaching.

According to David Wangerin, author of Soccer In a Football World, overwhelming media indifference and under-investment are two additional major factors that plague American soccer.  I argue that the two are linked together tightly.  The first issue in determining why soccer is not broadcasted on television channels nearly as much as in other parts of the world is to find out who controls the media.  General Electric, Time Warner, Walt Disney Co., Viacom, and News Corporation are the five main parent companies that control all of the major television networks[5].  General Electric was the biggest revenue earner out of the key media owners with revenue of $168.3 billion in 2008[6].  These major companies are concerned with sustaining large profits, which gives them motivation to broadcast the major revenue sports.  As of 2009, the revenues associated with the following men’s professional sports leagues are as follows: Major League Baseball (MLB), 6.2 billion; National Football League (NFL), 6 billion; National Basketball Association (NBA), 3.2 million; National Hockey League (NHL), 2.4 million; and other spectator sports leagues (i.e. soccer) bringing in a combined 3.3 million[7].  Corporate interests lie in the leagues that generate the most revenue, the MSL not being one of those.  Consequentially, soccer matches are not highly publicized which in a media obsessed culture results in minimalistic interest in the sport.  Investors are not likely to invest in soccer leagues when the level of popularity, which has a direct correlation to profitability, is monumentally lower than that of other professional sports leagues.  This cycle results in the continued downturn of soccer’s popularity in the U.S.

Media controllers with investments in professional leagues and sports teams have bias interests, which also affect the content of media coverage.  For example, Walt Disney Co., the parent company of ESPN, stakes ownership in part of the Arena Football League (AFL).  In 2006, ESPN and the AFL entered into an agreement, which includes extensive multimedia rights and a minimum of 26 televised games per season[8].  This further solidified ESPN’s stake in having the most comprehensive football-programming lineup in the country.  ESPN is not the only television network demonstrating partiality.  Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, one of the leading cable providers in the U.S, has ownership in NBA team the 76ers and NHL team the Flyers[9].  Not surprisingly, Comcast Sports Regional Networks acquired the rights to broadcast for the NHL.  By regulating the media attention for private interests, networks such as ESPN and Comcast can improve their investments, none of which happen to be in the MSL.

Television isn’t the only category of media that is controlled by owners with bias interests in their own investments.  In 1981, the Chicago Tribune bought one of Chicago’s professional baseball team, the Cubs[10].  Now, the Cubs are more than just a sports franchise in terms of news coverage; reporters from the Tribune have stake invested in writing about them.  Another example of bias media control is the Dolan family whom controls Cablevision, which owns Madison Square Garden (MSG), the Knicks basketball team, and the Rangers hockey team[11]. Cablevision also owns Long Island newspaper, where they are free to hire staff that will follow out their best interests (i.e. extending extensive media coverage to the Knicks and the Rangers).

Not only is journalistic integrity and honest reporting compromised when media companies own sports teams, but the diversity of teams and sports shown on the media suffer as well.  Media exposure is a huge contributor to a professional team’s popularity, especially in a media-crazed culture here in the United States.  Owners of MLS teams in the U.S. are not entitled to as much media jurisdiction, and therefore cannot directly control the exposure of professional soccer in America.

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[1] Paulsen. “MLS Cup Overnights Rise 29%,” Ratings, 2009, (23 November 2009)

[2] Ibid., Paulsen

[3] Ibid., Paulsen

[4] William C. Rhoden. “For Soccer to Flourish in the U.S., Its Doors Must Open,” New York Times, 3 July 2009

[5] National Organization for Women Foundation, “Who Controls the Media?”, 2007

[6] Burke, Hijam, CNN Money, “Fortune”, 2008

[7] Plunkett Research, LTD., “Sports Industry Overview”, 2009

[8] Arena Football League Official Website, “ESPN and AFL enter into multi-year partnership”

[9] MCN Sports, “Why Brian Roberts Wants NBC”, 2009

[10] Warner, Charles, The Huntington Post, “Media Owning Sports Teams: Bad Mix”, 21 May, 2008

[11] Ibid., Warner


How to cite this article: “Negative Impacts Defining US Soccer Market: Entry Barriers, Media, and Limited Investment,” Written by Kelsey Ontko, Julia Fogleman and Lucas Nevola (2009), Edited and Updated by Matt Darlow, Dan Carp, Bryan Silverman and Matt Berezo (2013), Soccer Politics Pages, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, (accessed on (date)).

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