Soccer is the planet's most popular sport, both by fan base and revenue generation.
Given that it's played on every continent with a field to do so, that's hardly surprising. It hasn't made much of a difference to sports fans in the United States, though: Even after four attempts since 1967 to boost professional soccer by importing star players from foreign countries (with mixed results), the game has failed to connect with the broader American public.
So it's time U.S. Soccer's marketers realized international stars are only part of the equation. The heads of MLS and the U.S. men's national team could learn a few things from the burgeoning pro-soccer league in Australia, as well as from long-standing soccer traditions elsewhere in the world: namely, that those star imported players need clever coaching and sophisticated players around them and a competitive local atmosphere to bring out their best performances.
Hope for the American Game
Like American soccer, the Australian game—which is more akin to the American interpretation than most others—also lives in the shadows of more popular sports. Rugby and Australian Rules football, in particular, have long dominated the fall landscape Down Under. Both boast macho, hard-nosed, working-class personalities and violent action; needless to say, Australian soccer fans don't drink at the same pub as rugby fans anymore.
A dedicated effort, though, has helped soccer finally earn validity in Australia, with the promise that it might soon explode in popularity: Australia's A-League—the country's highest division of professional soccer—just posted better attendance figures for a number of its weekend fixtures than the rugby league's opening round.
A decade ago, this would have seemed impossible.
So what can U.S. soccer's chiefs learn from the Australian game, which has similarly pursued a national presence and has finally impressed the peanut gallery?
The A-League is a streamlined, slickly marketed professional romp that succeeds not just because of its glitzy imported players (as is often the prescription for flailing sports) but because local players view the league as a destination and not merely a stepping stone. To rouse fan interest, the game's modern savior—shopping-mall honcho Frank Lowy—started by enlisting foreign talent like former Manchester United poacher Dwight Yorke, Brazil's Cassio, the once-prodigious English striker Robbie Fowler, and, more recently, Italy's "Little Painter," Alessandro Del Piero. (The Los Angeles Galaxy has adopted a similar approach in recent years, signing English star David Beckham and Irish striker Robbie Keane.) These and other international names have been bundled together with attractive uniform designs, contemporary team monikers, and more gentrified stadiums.
However, Lowy's strategy went further than just establishing one or two premier-team brands and one or two marketable names. He helped drive the sport's national TV presence by ensuring games aired live on Fox Sports, the country's primary sports network, and shifted the competition from winter to summer. The rugby diehards had no choice but to take notice (next season the A-League will go free-to-air, too). Lowy and his Football Federation Australia also enticed reputable European coaches to run the national squad, like the highly regarded Dutch tactician Guus Hiddink, the defense-minded Pim Verbeek, and Holger Osieck, a former understudy of German coaching legend Franz Beckenbauer, who each helped recast the sport's image with new techniques and ideas.
All of these initiatives transformed both public and media perception by emphasizing the international idealism of the World Cup, and encouraging a more stylish and exciting brand of soccer from the top down. After 16 years of middling results with relatively unaccomplished American coaches, this revolutionon has finally begun in America with the hiring of German great Jurgen Klinsmann to lead the U.S. men's national team.
Winning the Crowd
Australian soccer players have rejected British footballing staples—namely hard tackling and speculative long balls—and broadened their tactics. Creativity like this attracts new fans, plus many of these stars are (or have been) regarded among the best on the planet at their position.
Football Federation Australia enticed reputable European coaches to run the national squad, who recast the sport's image with new techniques and ideas. This revolution has finally begun in America with the hiring of German great Jurgen Klinsmann to lead the U.S. men's national team.
Australian striker Mark Viduka, for example, scored 72 goals in just 166 appearances for Leeds United in the English Premier League. Harry Kewell, his countryman and running mate at Leeds, scored some of the most breathtaking goals ever seen in the English Premier League. Kewell joined the A-League in 2011, and although he's since taken temporary leave from playing, he is expected to return next season. Viduka retired as a player in 2009, but was named Melbourne Victory's international ambassador.