The United State of Soccer: Part I

December 9, 2016 / John Shreve

Toronto FC recently hosted the Seattle Sounders in Major League Soccer’s 21st MLS Cup. While a frigid December night on the shores of Lake Ontario might not seem like an ideal setting for a championship soccer match, all of the tickets made available to the public sold out in less than three minutes. Ultimately, more than 36,000 crazed supporters electrified the space and provided yet another showcase for the burgeoning league.

We’re in the midst of a new era for American professional soccer. After decades of grassroots development, the beautiful game has arrived on the main stage of American sports culture. The last decade has seen near-exponential growth across all facets of the sport. As Toronto’s success shows, that growth extends beyond the borders of the United States.

To better understand the reasons for American soccer’s surge and their design implications, Populous undertook an extensive research project this summer. The sport’s commentators like to tout World Cup viewership as the key metric gauging American interest, but our deep dive into the topic proved it’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s more to the story when you look closer at the sport’s product and profit. To request the full research report, send us a note.

Following the Money Trail


Fiscally speaking, American professional soccer is growing faster than ever before. From 2013 to 2014, MLS merchandising sales increased 14.9 percent, more than the NFL, NBA and MLB combined. The league’s annual broadcast rights have multiplied nearly five-fold since 2012. Major corporate partners have begun to recognize the huge opportunity as well, paying hefty sums to connect with the sport’s swelling group of young fans. The MLS is finally beginning to translate a growing interest in the game into tangible economic results.

Investors are well aware the average MLS team value has skyrocketed in the past decade and are lining up for the chance to join the club. Nearly half a billion dollars of expansion fees alone have been injected into the league by five teams since 2013. Major League Soccer has the opportunity to expand to 28-30 clubs in the near future, with Minnesota United and Atlanta United FC next to join in 2017. We’re elated to help deliver a world-class venue to Minnesota’s rabid fan base and at the same time help other clubs like the Tampa Bay Rowdies realize their goals of joining the league.

The MLS ownership structure has also changed dramatically since the organization’s early days. A mere 10 years ago, American entertainment magnate Philip Anschutz owned half of the teams in the league. This stability proved crucial to the expansion of the league, but as the game grew, a new ownership model began to evolve. Today, most teams are owned by some form of partnership, with many of those partnerships including international groups. While most major American professional sports are actively trying to expand their global reach, Major League Soccer is enviously experiencing the reverse. Soccer interests near and far are knocking on the United States’ door to invest in the next major hotbed of professional soccer.

The Player Pipeline

The international connections extend into not only ownership and the gameday experience but product development. No other sport better demonstrates just how globally connected our world has become, as evidenced by 57 countries being represented on 2016 MLS rosters. Each line in the map above represents one MLS player. International clubs no longer tour the United States to simply sell out a few stadiums and head home. Several top tier European clubs instead have established roots. Liverpool has more than 70 competitive youth teams in America. FC Barcelona has multiple schools on the East Coast. Overall, 17 percent of U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams, the highest tier of competitive youth soccer in America, affiliate themselves with international clubs.

While international teams are firmly invested in American youth soccer, the MLS is uniquely positioned to grow not only the next generation of talent but, just as important, the next generation of fans. Unlike any other major American sport, the same governing body, US Soccer, oversees both the youth and professional arms of the sport. sportingnetwork_webThis allows for unparalleled flow of information, tactics and experiences between both sides. The average MLS team annually invests more than $1.5 million in its youth initiatives.

We studied Sporting Kansas City’s network to get a better idea of how professional teams approach their youth affiliates. As illustrated to the right, the system is tiered and draws a direct connection from any youth club to a first-team player. While not every one of these youth players will play professional soccer, they feed the pipeline of future fans while being treated to replica jerseys and tickets to see the top club in action. Affordable ticket sales and lively game day environments will continue to appeal to young demographics.

In a lot of ways, the most recent MLS Cup was symbolic of the new status of American soccer. On screen, multiple broadcast partners presented the match across a variety of platforms. On the pitch, two rosters included emerging homegrown superstars learning from seasoned international players. In the stands, two of the most passionate supporters’ sections in the game chanted until they went hoarse.

As American soccer continues to grow, how will designers make sure the action surrounding the pitch matches the joy of the beautiful game itself? Stay tuned for a follow-up post examining that topic.

Meet the author

John Shreve

Senior Principal, Senior Urban Planner / Kansas City


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