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How Soccer is Beating Baseball at its Own Game

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Chicago White Sox v New York Mets
That’s Neymar in a baseball jersey. Hey, how come we don’t see Mike Trout at Old Trafford?
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Baseball, our national pastime, the great American sport, the ‘faith of 50 million fans’, is in decline.

Attendance at games peaked in 2007, and has been flat or in a slight decline ever since.

@ScottLindholm, Beyond the Box Score

Last year, of the 26 most watched sporting events of the year in the US, none was a baseball game (full disclosure, only one was a soccer match - the Women’s USA-Japan World Cup Final.) On a global scale, there’s no reliable source - I clicked to a lot of Buzzfeed-type slideshows and listicles just to find nothing conclusive. But the wide consensus is that the Super Bowl, Olympics, World Cricket Final, and Men’s World Cup are the most watched events on the planet.

Baseball is not on those lists.

There are a lot of reasons why soccer is perceived as the world’s game, while baseball is a goofy little American sport with some penetration in funny places like Venezuela, Japan, and the Dominican Republic. A big one is the specifics of English vs. American colonialism in the late 19th century. David Goldblatt covered that in his masterful work ‘The Ball is Round’, which you should read.

But another factor in the recent acceleration in the popularity of soccer in previously untapped markets like the US and Asia is barnstorming.

Which is ironic, because it was barnstorming that made baseball so popular in the first place.

A lot of people don’t like that big English Premier League teams, European clubs, and Liga MX teams take pre-season and even mid-winter trips to the US and Asia, earning fat paydays and spreading their brand to the four corners of the Earth. There’s always folks that poo-poo this kind of match as nothing more than a slickly marketed, poorly played cash grab for Euro teams to scam gullible Americans fans. This is true.

Folks are also critical because many MLS teams play friendlies against European and Mexican teams in order to earn scads of cash. Which is clearly in conflict with their goals of having a well-rested team in top form for the MLS season. This is true too. Houston played a friendly against Real Sociedad. Columbus played a friendly against Tiburones Veracruz of Liga MX in May. The Red Bulls played a friendly against Club America, also of Liga MX, in July. None of these games make sense for a team in the middle of the season, unless you think of the match as something that A) pads the bottom line nicely, and B) exposes fans of Club America to the fact that, yes Virginia, there is soccer in America, and it is called MLS.

These European teams are making a commitment to growing the game, and their own league’s brand, around the world. And they’re doing a really great job of it. The growth of the game in Asia is ginormous, and it’s a big reason for the Chinese Super League’s recent buying spree of famous European soccer stars on the backside of their careers. Which is annoying, because MLS used to be really good at that.

Baseball virtually invented international barnstorming. And it had huge effects. In 1934, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and others went to Japan for a series of games against Japanese players. Those games led to the formation shortly afterwards of the Nippon Baseball League.

Barnstorming works. Not just in baseball, but in soccer.

Last month I went down to Colorado Springs to go see German Bundesliga team Mainz 05 play the Switchbacks. I had never seen a Bundesliga team in person, and I’ve been watching Mainz, Bayern Munich, and Borussia Dortmund in short bursts every Saturday. It was a thrill to watch this big German team in tiny Switchbacks Stadium. I bought a scarf. I got it signed. I will watch more Bundesliga this year, and maybe someday, take a Spring trip to see German Fussball is person.

Manchester United is spreading its brand all over the world. So is Bayern Munich, who set up offices in New York and has been aggressively (and smartly) marketing and touring in the US since 2014.

Baseball teams still barnstorm - the Dodgers toured Australia in 2013; the Yankees have been back to Japan. But it isn’t as robust, or aggressive. Baseball’s attempt to create its own ‘World Cup’ seems to have mostly sputtered out, since the reality seems to be that other than Korea, Japan, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and the US, baseball isn’t really a big deal. Baseball isn’t barnstorming like it needs to. Soccer is.

Guess which one is growing.

English Premier League audiences in the US, “... are up 150% since 2013, and there are now 60 million American adults who have seen at least one game of professional club soccer from somewhere in the world on TV” according to the BBC. Partially as a result, EPL clubs are starting to surpass NFL clubs in revenue, and even in club value.

Maybe soccer is a better game. Maybe the trend in soccer popularity in America is a fad. Maybe the barnstorming of soccer teams is only coincidental to their sudden success in America.

Or maybe soccer’s growth on these shores can be traced directly to a trick they learned from the golden days of Major League Baseball.