Are MLS players now America’s “Boys of Summer?”
For the first time in the 20-year history of the ESPN Sports Poll, Major League Soccer has caught up with Major League Baseball in one significant marker of popularity.•Vote: Will MLS become one of U.S.'s Big Four?
In the survey, both leagues can claim 18 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds as avid fans of their sport, the poll said.
The ESPN Sports Poll Annual Report, which is managed by Luker on Trends, interviews 1,500 Americans per month and tracks interest in 31 different sports. In 2012, the poll determined soccer was America's second-most popular sport for those aged 12-24, ahead of NBA, MLB and college football. Respondents are asked to rank their affinity for sports (how avid a fan they are), athletes, sponsorships and other trends.
The NFL led the poll with 39 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds saying they are avid fans. The NBA, NCAA football and NCAA basketball were all over 23 percent. The current poll was released on the eve of MLS’s 19th season.
“MLS has been around since 1996,” said Rich Luker, who has been with the poll since its launch. “It is phenomenal that in just one generation it has gone from zero adherents to tying MLB, especially when you recognize this is the first generation to only know the United States with a professional soccer league. MLS is in their generational DNA.”
Luker admits it would have been difficult to predict this outcome event five years ago.
"It was not so long ago we used to do focus groups and raise MLS to the room and hear crickets in response," he said. "Although a lot of American kids were playing in organized soccer environments, there was no connection between that game, which everyone plays to learn the basics, and MLS.
"MLS also did not have a defined personality that sufficiently contrasted to the European and South American leagues."
The poll suggests that reality has changed significantly.
"Over the last five years, our research shows even American [soccer] fans who were born in other parts of the world, like Europe and South America, are starting to respect MLS," he said. "They have seen the fan bases in Portland and Seattle. It is hard not to be impressed.
"You need to understand, [the] 12-17 [demographic] is among the hardest to win over. At that age, they follow a whole lot of everything."
Luker couldn't point to one specific thing that is driving the change.
"[David] Beckham’s stardom definitely plays a role," he said. "EA Sports' FIFA [franchise] has also contributed to the liking and knowledge of the sport in a way other sports video games have not, because Americans really did not know much about soccer before they started to play, as opposed to Madden, where they already understood plenty about the NFL."
The sports poll will track the trend to see if it continues over the next 12 months.
"There is a lot of evidence to suggest MLS's growth will continue," Luker predicted.
"Now that EPL [English Premier League] and the other leagues are widely available on television, the sport of soccer is much more likely to be part of social conversations, which, in turn, increases the likelihood of people taking the underdog stance of supporting MLS and continuing to grow the league.
"While there are questions about which direction MLB will go in for 12- to 17-year-olds, we have no reason to believe the trend for MLS will be anything but up."