No one is particularly fond of hedge fund managers, or the peculiar subphylum of Wall Street bullies and corporate scions who bestride world markets gathering sports franchises like baubles. But let’s be clear and clear-eyed: These guys aren’t pursuing National Hockey League franchises these days, or hockey clubs anywhere. Todd Boehly’s recent purchase of Chelsea F.C. means nine of 20 English Premier League clubs are today majority-owned by American-led consortia. Should Minnesota-based investor Maciek Kaminski consummate his recent offer for Everton, make it fully 50 percent.
U.S. money overwhelmed the National Hockey League long ago, but these futbol acquisitions are demonstrative of something else, something broader — namely, that soccer has already supplanted hockey among this nation’s four major sports. There. I’ve gone ahead and said, because the evidence is pretty damned clear. It’s a done deal. But it’s also a pretty big deal because American sport’s so-called Big Four hasn’t changed in 75 years or more.
As such, with the best-ever MLS Cup in the can, and a FIFA World Cup on our doorstep, now would be an opportune time to explore this development. I’ve not intention of cheerleading the matter. In 21st century American sport, iconic club ownership is a flashy but secondary piece of evidence. Television and streaming deals remain the primary bellwethers and measuring sticks, and those numbers speak with some finality:
English Premier League — NBC — 6 years — $2.7 billion
UEFA/Champions League — CBS — 6 years — $1.5 billion
Spanish La Liga — ESPN — 8 years — $1.4 billion
Italian Serie A — CBS — 3 years — $225 million
German Bundesliga — ESPN — 6 years — $200 million
Major League Soccer — Apple — 10 years — $2.5 billion
U.S. Soccer (English) — Turner — 8 years — $215 Million
World Cup, English — Fox — 12 years — $925 million
World Cup, Spanish — Telemundo — 12 years — $1.25 billion
NWSL — CBS/Twitch — 3 years — $5.5 million
Kudos to colleague Grant Wahl for first assembling these numbers above. To contextualize: The NHL currently receives $625 million annually from its U.S. TV rights holder, Turner. The list of TV and streaming deals above totals $1.44 billion, annually. What’s more, the latter figure doesn’t include Liga MX, the most popular domestic league in the United States (the Mexican first division sells its rights by team; not centrally, by league).
Hockey defenders might argue that these rights deals with foreign leagues make the comparison apples vs. oranges. And they’d be right: It is precisely soccer’s international profile and scope that have finally broken through to U.S. broadcasters and sports fans alike. In other words, Americans don’t need to care about or fixate upon MLS in order to follow the game here. Their collective appetite for English, Spanish and German soccer, for World Cups, Euros and Copas America clearly generate big money for networks — a figure well north of $1.44 billion in advertising and subscription fees, one assumes.
What’s more, while this supplanting all feels quite new, it seems unlikely that soccer’s tripling of hockey’s TV rights revenue happened overnight.
The NHL remains the biggest, richest hockey league on Earth. Yet foreign TV rights to the NHL remain a pittance when set beside NBC’s investment in the EPL alone. What’s more, there exists no comparable U.S. appetite for hockey content generated abroad. What’s the second biggest/richest league in world hockey? It’s the Russian Super League. Those rights remained perfectly available but less than attractive to U.S. broadcasters prior to the geopolitical events of February 2022. Ditto for the Swedish and German leagues.
The Big Four, of course, has traditionally stood as a domestic, uniquely American construct. Its composition is more nuanced than numbers alone. But the dollars do reflect multiple, brave-new U.S. soccer realities both cultural and competitive:
- Soccer’s unisexual dynamic clearly gives the sport a massive leg up on allsporting competitors when it comes to establishing/leveraging broad, cultural interest. The U.S. Women’s National Team is arguably more popular than its male counterpart. It is undeniably more competitively capable. While two women’s professional leagues have failed here since 1999, the National Women’s Soccer League feels like a goer. The times demand gender equity. Configuration of a New Big Four surely stems from soccer’s unique ability to engage male and female fans.
- While hardly an overnight success — only since 2010 has Major League Soccer effectively served its obligatory first-division function as a club-based diversion between World Cups — today its growth and profile are impossible to look past: 29 franchises and counting; total attendance ranking MLS 6thamong futbol leagues worldwide; the league’s in-person fan culture putting to shame all domestic counterparts, save American football. The league’s new streaming partnership with Apple TV, which starts in 2023, may just revolutionize the sports-broadcasting genre, while conveniently obscuring the fact that MLS regular season TV numbers are, like NHL regular season numbers, pretty lousy.
- U.S. soccer fans maintain an atypically outsized relationship with its senior national teams, owing to historical factors I detail in my new book, Generation Zero. In short, there was no club soccer in America when Paul Caligiuri’s goal qualified the U.S. for its first modern World Cup, Italia ’90. Ditto for women’s club soccer in 1991, when the U.S. Women’s National Team claimed the first of its four World Cups. Still, each of these national teams is a cultural juggernaut that no U.S. club team can match — again, an international dynamic that simply does not exist in or apply to hockey, basketball and NFL football.
Popularity of the USWNT again underscores the unisexual dynamic, while the current USMNT is younger and deeper, its talent more prized/rated by European sporting directors than any previous incarnation. Domestically, no men’s national team has ever been so relevant and media-leveraged. Does Volkswagen or Chipotle shape ads like these around top American hockey players competing in an Olympics, World Championships or Stanley Cup final? I don’t think so.
While a FIFA World Cup looms, the ascendant U.S. soccer firmament stands on the cusp of three such events that will only solidify its new cultural heft: Qatar 2022, next summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia/NZ, and the 2026 World Cup finals — an event to be hosted here, with our NAFTA co-conspirators Mexico and Canada.
In the pages of Generation Zero, I spend a good deal of space quoting and contextualizing the work of Dr. Andrei Markovits, a sociologist and cultural historian at the University of Michigan. In their 2001 book, Soccer and American Exceptionalism, he and co-author with Steven Hellerman spend a lot of time on how American “major” sports achieved that status. Yet the authors eschew the word “major” to describe games that dominate organized, professional sport in America. He opts instead for the more magisterial and intellectually acute “hegemonic,” which, as Markovits explains elsewhere, cannily refers to Marxist philosopher and linguist Antonio Gramsci’s “path-breaking work on a form of domination which is in some ways consensual, and to which both the dominator and the dominated agree and consent. Clearly, there is a power relationship that exerts its power by creating a cocoon of consent from which the dominated does not even feel the need to exit.”
We see this dynamic in the hold baseball used to have on the American sporting psyche; the NFL clearly enjoys it today. Historically, soccer never had the pervasive cultural standing to compete in this company. Today it does. In 2001, Markovits was frankly skeptical that soccer would ever achieve Big Four status. Indeed, Markovits doesn’t refer to The Big Four at all, not directly. In his book, he referred to “The Big 3.5,” a direct and rather withering appraisal of hockey’s long-term, weak-sister standing as a major sport in this country.
I spoke to Markovits about this assertion that soccer has supplanted hockey among the Big Four. He wasn’t convinced:
“I totally disagree with your assessment of hockey! HUGE in New York, HUGE in Boston, Colorado, Chicago, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan on and on and on!!!!! Miracle on Ice!!! NHL followed all around the world. I also do not see why soccer should and would displace hockey. The American Sports Space can — and will — handle five even six hegemonic sports.”
His last point is unassailable: The Big Four was a purely arbitrary construct. There is no reason such a big, rich country cannot accommodate five or six major spots. But Andy’s response just adds fuel to my argument: Yes, hockey is huge in the northern tier of this country, but no one plays hockey in the southern tier, even if they might occasionally root for the Florida Panthers or L.A. Kings. The NHL is indeed followed around the world; it is the best league on earth. But that is a credit to hockey fandom elsewhere, not here in America.
As a proud Masshole, born and bred, I adore hockey and the Boston Bruins. But my research on Generation Zero convinced me that the mainstreaming of soccer in this country didn’t happen millions of American boys and girls participated in the Youth Soccer Revolution, during the early 1970s. Those kids all grew up to form soccer’s first legitimate U.S. soccer fan base. This is how sports reach a cultural critical mass: through youth participation. Starting in the 1970s, soccer has proved the most popular participatory sport among American youths, in all 50 states. Due to cost, climate and regional cultures, hockey has never and will never achieve this sort of coverage and cultural integration.
Truth is, hockey here in America has long been ripe for the picking. Long tipped as the nation’s sport of the future, Soccer has finally come and plucked it.
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