Good soccer market, or bad? A little more nuance, please

A great stadium opens, and a "great soccer market" is born. ... Or is the truth something much more complex?

Some time back in June, on some golden and mystical night, benevolent fairies sprinkled magic soccer dust over greater Kansas City, which was wondrously and instantly transformed into a fantastic soccer market.

Previously, clearly, it had been a wasteland for our sport. There was precious little love for the Major League Soccer team there, and until the last couple of years, rarely a day went by when suggestions weren’t floated that soccer in this country would be far better off with Kansas City erased from the MLS map.

After all, local media didn’t give it a second look. Fan interest was sparse. Youth soccer was token level at best. Or so the theories went. It was usually summed up and tied off thusly: “Kansas City is not a good soccer market.”

Of course, Livestrong Sporting Park opened on June 9, and “Shazam!”   Kansas City is now a great soccer market.  One of the country’s best, perhaps?  Maybe.  I mean, look at it. Sporting Kansas City is averaging 17,678 at its amazing new park. That’s better than 11 MLS teams.

And those 11 teams now, clearly, now play in bad soccer markets. At least, by conventional wisdom.

Perhaps you’re seeing my point here. Obviously, I don’t believe Kansas City was ever a bad soccer market.  It wasn’t a great one when using some of the accepted metrics – but it was far from hopeless. It took a complete 180 in the city’s ownership and stadium situation to reveal the city’s soccer soul.

Here’s the point: this is something we tend to over-simplify, assigning far too much weight on one simple measure when we plant the flags of “Good soccer market” and “Bad soccer market” across the United States.  The truth, of course, is far more complex.  There are so many variables, and evolving variables at that.

I live in a city that’s long been a “bad soccer market.” Only, it’s not. Keep reading ...


Dallas has a rich soccer history. We recently passed the 30th anniversary of the Dallas Tornado folding. There was a time, believe it or not, when Dallas was one of the real promising young ponies in the North American Soccer League stables. In the late 1970s, the team was quite prominent in Dallas culture and in the local sports scene.

The Tornado played inside a small ground, smack in the middle of the city (imagine that) and regularly drew crowds that would make some Major League Soccer clubs quite pleased today. Even the college game made news here. The pro athletes were local celebrities who used their acclaim to help sow the seeds of youth soccer, establishing lasting legacies.

That made Dallas a “hotbed” for the youth game (I personally think that’s one of the most over-used words in the sport’s lexicon, but that’s another story.) Thus, Dallas established youth clubs that won national championships. Still do.

The point is this: Years later, somewhere along the line, poor decisions led the MLS club here into an attendance spiral. The local media was never very friendly to the sport. The stadium situation was highly imperfect – then became highly in imperfect in a much different way with the move to suburban Pizza Hut Park.

Dallas didn’t become a bad soccer market; rather, Dallas became a notoriously struggling MLS market. But those concepts were improperly mixed into a shared soup, and were overly simplified from there.  (Better decisions are being made these days, by the way, and attendance is moving the right direction for FC Dallas, but it takes a while to shake a bad rap.)

Oh, and another “by the way:” anybody who says Dallas doesn’t support soccer is tiptoeing a dangerous line. About 45 percent of this city is Latino, so to say something like that more or less dismisses the interests of about half the city, a half that absolutely does support soccer – just not necessarily MLS soccer.

Meanwhile, let’s look at Boston. The New England Revolution is averaging about 200 people more per game than FC Dallas. Just a couple of MLS clubs are lower in average crowd counts. So, Boston is a bad soccer market now, right?

Of course not. It’s a club stuck with a bad stadium situation. It’s not winning, left behind in the post-season once again.  Things are stale generally and the owners’ spending habits have become damaging in numerous ways.

But greater Boston has NOT devolved into bad soccer market. To say so would fall somewhere between “overly simplified” and “overtly ignorant.”

Same for Columbus, which tends to go in and out as “good market” and “bad market” in the fluid MLS soccer market discussions. The stadium isn’t in a great place, mistakes have been made in value assessment on certain properties attached to the team, etc.  As a result, attendance has suffered.  

The fact is, a lot goes into cultivating a flourishing soccer market. Just in terms of MLS markets, it’s some cocktail of demographics, youth scene, media friendliness, committed and engaged ownership, stadium situation, marketing savvy, on-field success and the tricky ability to capitalize on big moments or big player signings along the way. There’s probably more.

Bottom line: The next time a fan, blogger or (especially) someone in the media assigns a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” to an area’s soccer market factor, let’s hope they treat it with a little more thoughtful consideration, and a little less echo chamber cliché.

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