When is soccer going to finally make it in this country?
As the U.S. Men’s National Team prepares to take on Costa Rica in Saturday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup 9 p.m. semifinal at AT&T Stadium, it’s not a question Dan Courtemanche hears anymore. That’s because, in large part, it has already happened.
Courtemanche is Major League Soccer’s executive vice president of communications — commissioner Don Garber’s right hand. He heard that question for years. But now, not so much.
“I would say definitely since the 2014 World Cup, where the U.S. performed so well, making the round of 16 after starting things off with such a bang in that electric first match against Ghana,” Courtemanche said. “Nobody’s asked me that question since then.”
The national team and its relationship with Major League Soccer, the flagship league in the U.S., have a lot to say for that.
Professional clubs don’t try to dissuade Clint Dempsey or Tim Howard from taking part in international tournaments like the Gold Cup. Club and country need each other and feed off each other as the sport grows. USA Soccer’s marketing arm even goes so far as to extend marketing, merchandising and operations services to tournaments like the Gold Cup and even the United States’ fiercest rival, the Mexican national team, for part of its international schedule.
Courtemanche, who has worked for MLS for 19 of his 25 years in professional soccer, has numbers on his side when he tells the uninitiated that soccer has already arrived.
Consider this the next time you roll your eyes at that friend who has soccer on the TV in the background or asks you to go to something called a “pub” for something called a “match.” MLS matches have been better attended on average than NBA or NHL games since 2012.
Through the first 19 weeks of the 2017 MLS season, the expansion Atlanta United has averaged 46,482 butts in seats with Falcons owner Arthur Blank at the helm. That was the highest average attendance for any pro franchise outside of the NFL. The Los Angeles Dodgers led baseball during the 2016 season with an average of 45,719, according to league figures.
In that equation, fan-friendly ticket prices don’t hurt. FC Dallas matches are relatively accessible at $25-$45 per ticket for most regular season dates, while NFL stadiums have largely priced out working class fans who want an actual seat inside the stadium.
Sure, there’s context in the conversation that needs to be recognized. Most MLS stadiums hold more fans than do NBA arenas. Fewer home matches (17) per season for MLS teams drives demand in a different way than 41 home dates do for NBA teams. It’s not apples to apples, but barging in on the Big Four Leagues’ party was a significant marker in soccer’s march to, not only relevance, but a position of advantage in the sporting culture of tomorrow.
Among the coveted millennial and Gen Z (ages 12-17) audiences, pro soccer is the second favorite sport behind the NFL, according to respondents to a 2015 ESPN Sports poll. Pro soccer fans are also more highly engaged on social media than fans of other leagues. And pro soccer is also the only professional sport whose fan base is growing, according to the poll.
According to Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal, the average age of television viewers of MLS matches is 40, a decade younger than the average NFL viewer.
“You can’t look at a phenomenon like soccer and assume that just because it’s not in my social circle, it’s not in anyone’s social circle,” said Tobias Lopez, general manager for the Fort Worth Vaqueros, a local minor league soccer team. “All you’ve got to do is watch one of these MLS games from cities like Seattle and Portland, where they’re so passionate about it, to see that this is a sports audience unlike any other in the U.S.”
The presence of three FC Dallas players on the U.S. Gold Cup roster, and another who grew up in Dallas, points to the fertile ground that North Texas has represented for talent as the sport has grown. And that’s not even including Dempsey, who hails from nearby Nacogdoches. His 56 goals during international competition is just one behind all-time leader Landon Donovan.
Defender Omar Gonzalez grew up in Dallas and plays for Pachuca in Liga MX, the Mexican pro league. He scored the first of two goals in the United States’ 2-0 win over El Salvador in the Gold Cup quarters on Wednesday. He and FC Dallas defender Matt Hedges started for the U.S. in the team’s win in Philadelphia.
FC Dallas forward Kellyn Acosta, a homegrown product from Plano, entered for the U.S. in the 71st minute to earn his 12th international cap, while FCD teammate Jesse Gonzalez was listed as a backup goalkeeper during the match.
The powers that be in soccer learned years ago that when you’re trying to gain a foothold in the mind’s eye of American fans and viewers, it’s more valuable to focus on the collective popularity of the sport than go it alone.
“The World Cup was created in 1930 and is arguably the most popular sporting event on the planet. So this expanding soccer fan base understands and loves the idea of ‘club and country,’ ” Coutemanche said. “They love the fact that Clint Dempsey is playing in Seattle one weekend, and Michael Bradley is playing for Toronto FC, then they get together and they’re playing against Costa Rica in [Arlington]. Opposing fans hate them one weekend, but when they’re wearing the red, white and blue next weekend, it’s one of the unique things about being a soccer fan, the great coming together of those separate fan bases.”
The winner of Saturday’s semifinal will advance to play the winner of Sunday’s semifinal between Mexico and Jamaica. The Gold Cup final will be played Wednesday night in San Francisco.
Gold Cup semifinal
Costa Rica vs. United States, AT&T Stadium, 9 p.m., FS1