A New Golden Age?
Cultural commentators have noted that we are presently in a second Golden Age of Television. The combined quality, diversity and popularity of current television programming has resulted in an era where television, traditionally a formulaic medium, has replaced film as the prestige format for visual creators.
One important factor in that is the myriad of streaming services that emerged over the last decade. As diverse content was created, these platforms gave instant and far-reaching access to shows that may have simply had cult status in prior years.
Some cultural critics have even begun predicting that this Golden Age may be rapidly ending as media companies begin rolling out their own streaming services. Many envision that this will lead to content again being more costly, and thus, harder to access. As the easy access to a massive amount of content disappears so will the Second Golden Age of Television as viewership declines and content providers no longer see worth investing in as much prestige programming.
I have started wondering if we may be in a new Golden Age of U.S. Soccer. The original Golden Age took place in the 1920s when the U.S. joined the rest of the world as a soccer-playing nation and the fully-professional American Soccer League brought in huge crowds. For some time we have been living in the Modern Age of U.S. Soccer. The Modern Age is roughly understood to be from the 1994 World Cup, through the launching of MLS in 1996 to the present day.
I suspect that the Modern Era is ending or, perhaps, has already ended. Things are vastly better now than 20 years ago at the national level. MLS is a stable Division I league and has the highest number clubs of any top-level league in the world. The league is popular and can charge expansion fees in the $150 million to $200 million range. Also, the U.S. Soccer Federation is in the last few years of a lucrative marketing deal that has paid the federation more than $300 million in less than 20 years.
On top of that, the game has exploded at the local, grassroots level. The youth game, huge even in the pre-Modern Era, has continued to expand. Even more than that, the number of elite amateur, semi-pro and pro teams is larger than it ever has been. The game is no longer played at a high level in just a concentrated number of pockets. You can find high-quality soccer clubs in all parts of the country now.
In addition, the investment in the game is no longer happening just at the national level. The number of clubs with excellent front offices continues to grow. Clubs are doing a better job investing in operations, media and outreach. We continue to see the creation of enthusiastic communities of fans.
So, is this a Second Golden Age of U.S. Soccer? Given all of the above it seems one could make a valid argument for such. But, an important factor is still lacking.
A huge problem with the sport in this country is the continued attempt to shoehorn the game into the traditional U.S. league-franchise model. That has worked for the other major U.S. professional leagues (and their minor league affiliates), and may have been required to get MLS off the ground, but such a model will always hamper the sport of soccer.
With all the great strides being made, access to the game is still highly problematic. One of the vital aspects of soccer isn’t just the game itself, it is the interconnectivity of the sport. Soccer games, clubs, leagues and organizations are never isolated. They always operate within a larger system that spans levels, competitions and territorial boundaries. It is both an intra- and inter-organizational game. It is a local, regional, national and international game all at the same time.
MLS, and its formulaic version of top-level soccer, can, and likely will, continue to operate on its current owner-operator league-franchise model. But, as it is a soccer league, it will then always be capped as to its quality and popularity because it is inherently disconnected from the greater game. No matter how financially successful it is, it will always be hamstrung because It is not fully connected to the soccer community.
While MLS can survive, without that institution’s vast resources, the lower levels of soccer face even larger barriers due the lack of interconnectivity. Without the organization that is fundamental to the sport, the overall soccer environment in this country has been, and continues to be, chaotic. Without a community that provides stability and engenders innovation, many clubs struggle to find an audience or even adequate playing facilities. For the clubs who are doing well league hopping, or straight out poaching, is the norm as they outgrow their current situations. For fans, it is often hard to figure out the landscape at a grassroots level. Diehards will make great effort to seek out their local clubs but the average soccer fan will likely end up devoting their attention to a far away MLS, Liga MX or Premier League club because doing so simply makes more sense.
Even more troubling is the very real concern that a healthy burgeoning soccer environment will end even before it has a chance to begin. If the soccer powers continue to restrict access to the few and refuse to open the doors to a broader coalition then most of the innovators at the grassroots level will find it impractical to continue (or even attempt to join) the game. And, if that happens, then the U.S. soccer community will have access to an even-more limited version of the game controlled by a few moguls.
We can not and should not consider this a Golden Age of U.S. Soccer until the sport is fully integrated with the greater soccer community.
- Dan Creel