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The Business of Sports

America Loves $occer

You've heard it before. Is 2010 finally the year that pigs fly, hell freezes over, and Americans become diehard soccer fans?

It's easy to point to Major League Soccer research indicating that 90 million Americans identify themselves as soccer fans, or that the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn. lists soccer as the second-most-played team sport in the country. Or even that bars in Washington, D.C., will open at 7 a.m. so people can watch World Cup matches.

But to really appreciate the growth of soccer in America, follow the money at the Beautiful Game(s).

More than 25 billion sets of eyes worldwide are expected to watch the 64 World Cup matches. No country paid more for the tournament's TV rights than the red, white, and blue. ABC/ESPN and Univision put together a joint bid worth $425 million for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, marking the biggest TV deal in the 106-year history of the sport's governing body, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). The bid represented a 120 percent increase from the previous deals the U.S. had made to televise the tournament.

ESPN in South Africa

ESPN, the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader in Sports," is making the World Cup the network's top priority in 2010. More than 300 staffers are in South Africa geared up to produce 65 hours of live programming, including SportsCenter, the first time ESPN has ever had its flagship show broadcast live from a World Cup site.

Of course, not everyone will be watching the World Cup on TV. Some will brave the 15-hour-plus flight from New York City to Johannesburg, the longest nonstop commercial flight in the world. Surprisingly, that hasn't stopped Americans from buying more World Cup tickets than any country outside of the host nation. Of the approximately 415,000 tickets sold outside of South Africa, people in the U.S. bought 120,000. The United Kingdom ranks second with 70,000 tickets, and Germany is third with a "modest" 35,000.

Soccer is also on the rise within Corporate America. A recent SportsBusiness Journal poll concluded soccer is the sport with the biggest growth potential as a national property, a key reason several blue chip corporations are investing in the World Cup and its top athletes. Coca-Cola (KO), which is selling 2.3 billion World Cup-themed cans in the U.S., calls its 2010 World Cup marketing campaign the "largest and most integrated in company history." FIFA partners Continental Tire and BP (BP) subsidiary Castrol became MLS sponsors in 2010 to enhance domestic activation plans. Nike's (NKE) viral "Write the Future" video, featuring international stars Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, and Wayne Rooney, resulted in one of the biggest Facebook ad buys ever.

MLS's Success

And if you still don't believe America is a nation of soccer fans, look no further than Major League Soccer.

During a recession that has sidelined nearly every person and business in the U.S., MLS grew, adding five new teams for 2009-2012. The league's expansion fee is also steadily increasing, moving from $10 million for Toronto F.C. in 2007 to $30 million for the Seattle Sounders in 2009 and $40 million for the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps in 2011. Meanwhile, five new soccer-specific stadiums have popped up since 2006, with two more scheduled to open next year. Most optimistic of all, people are attending MLS games. As the league heads into a two-week World Cup hiatus, average attendance is 16,319, up 11 percent from last year.

So is 2010 finally the year that Americans embrace the sport of soccer? The answer is a resounding yes.

Brian Finkel has served as creative director of Horrow Sports Ventures since 2008. For more on the business of sports, follow him on Twitter @thefinktank.

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