What Nielsen's 2013 Sports report says about soccer's future

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Nielsen has released it's data on sports fans in 2013, and it has some promising figures for soccer. While Nielsen ratings for soccer broadcasts often bring much wailing and gnashing of teeth, things are trending up in several areas.

Nielsen has released it's data on sports fans in 2013, and it has some promising figures for soccer. While Nielsen ratings for soccer broadcasts often bring much wailing and gnashing of teeth, things are trending up in several areas. The report focuses on soccer's two biggest draws in the US, the youth market and the Hispanic market.

"MLS still had strong viewership during its playoffs, which were up nine percent compared to 2012. When looking at the MLS regular season audience, viewership skewed young (40% under 34) and Hispanic (34%)."

MLS' youth and soccer in America's appeal to a Hispanic audience give it a fairly unique demographic. I've written about UniMas and the future of MLS before, and the Nielsen numbers back up that narrative. The biggest soccer broadcasts in 2013 all had a UniMas or Univision Spanish-language-broadcast.

The top is predictably the US vs. Mexico World Cup qualifier that drew an average of 7 million on ESPN and UniMas, but in second place is the US vs. Panama Gold Cup final which drew 4.5 million on Fox and Univision without Mexico participating. Even though the US is the common denominator, with a US tilt again El Salvador during the Gold Cup taking third place perhaps the diverse nature of the Hispanic population in the US is a bigger factor.

Efforts on behalf of Major League Soccer to tap into this demo have been mixed, with Chivas USA currently the poster child for failing to develop their potential. What the Nielsen numbers do show is that the youth of MLS fans makes our demo different from mainstream US sport.

Briefly I want to pause and consider the Beatles. That eight page Billboard article on the how the Beatles became a phenomenon in America before the Ed Sullivan Show admits that the Beatles came around at the perfect time to be embraced by the culture and technology of the early 60s.

Capitol Records passed several times on signing the Beatles. The first Beatles singles in the US were pressed by Indie labels. The early radio stations to champion the lads from Liverpool didn't see much success. However, they got their first big US break when teenagers home for Christmas break turned on their newly ubiquitous (made by new company Sony) transistor radios and heard what the newspapers and TV were starting to talk about.

Those same teens took their Christmas money and bought Beatles albums which couldn't get onto store shelves fast enough. The record companies at that point still hadn't realized that putting out singles to radio stations could drive future sales, and were upset that these stations were giving away their product for free.

Now, why did I just write a three paragraph interlude on the Beatles? The main reason Jack Paar and Capitol Records struggled to understand what Beatlemania was going to be is because they didn't understand the youth market. Mad Men had a whole arc on the topic, bringing in youth consultants because young people weren't drinking coffee anymore. Pepsi, which had the Beatles photographed with transistor radios bearing their logo, that's what the young people were drinking.

Nielsen's data concludes that MLS fans are more likely that fans of any other league to own a smartphone. 52% of people who have expressed interest in going to games and watching MLS on TV are between the ages of 18-34, more than any other league. 76% of MLS fans own an android or iOS smartphone, ten percent above the national average.

It's one thing to own a smartphone, these days some companies give them out like Skittles. However, MLS fans are also heavy users of these gadgets. 42% of fans have viewed mobile video in the last 30 days, with the national average around one in five. MLS fans are 13% more likely than the average MLS adult to engage in social networking, and 28% more likely to spend three hours or more on social media.

Soccer remains easy to dismiss. Cable sports networks zip through highlights quickly if they're shown at all, there's little effort to make these players household names.

However, online MLS fans continue to make their presence known. Soccer events regularly end up in Twitter's trending topics, and online news coverage of soccer continues to grow. The number of fans who own smartphones and view mobile video shows the moneymaking potential of MLS Live. Google is getting in the game streaming USL-PRO for free, and it's a safe bet that this is their trial run before investing more heavily in streaming the sport.

Online advertising is still a wilderness, but MLS has positioned itself to take advantage of what may come. That 18-34 demo is going to continue to get older, and start buying houses and cars like the youth before us. Meanwhile more and more children are growing up with soccer as their favorite sport.

It's easy to say that the older generation just doesn't get it and soccer is going to take over the world. It won't be that drastic. However, we're past the point where soccer is just that fad.

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