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May 17, 2016

Everybody is missing the point when arguing about the 'four major American professional sports'

Soccer Union
051616_union_PSP Paul Rudderow/Philly Soccer Page

Vince Nogueira squares off against Steven Gerrard in a recent Philadelphia Union game.

The Sixers sent out a press release on Monday morning announcing that they’d become the first team in "major American professional sports" to carry advertising on their jerseys.

Naturally, a lot of soccer fans rolled their eyes.

"Soccer has had shirt sponsors for years!" they moaned.

Of course, it has, and you partially paid for one when Chevrolet threw $600 million dollars at Manchester United after accepting bailout money from U.S. taxpayers.

Here at home, the Philadelphia Union have been sporting the “Bimbo” logo on their shirt since 2011. The original sponsorship deal was worth $12 million dollars over four years, with some of that going to Major League Soccer since Bimbo was also a league sponsor. A renewed deal in 2015 was exclusive to the Union, who now earn $11 million over five years.

The StubHub patch appearing on the Sixers jersey will be 2.5 inches by 2.5 inches and located below the left shoulder. The Union’s “Bimbo” logo is probably 6x3, or 7x4, and dominates the front of the kit with a comparatively smaller team crest directly below it.

It’s a better deal, dollar-wise, for the Sixers, who obviously have a financial foundation and a fan base that’s been built up over the course of 70 years. The Union have existed since 2010.

But while the Sixers might be the first team from the “four major American professional sports” to carry a shirt sponsor, they weren’t even the first in their city to do it, depending on whether or not you consider Chester a part of Philadelphia.

That’s an argument for another time.

This argument is about the place of soccer and basketball in the landscape of American sports.

It's easy for soccer fans to feel slighted when the phrase "four major sports" is tossed around. There's probably a cross-section of sports media that use that locution to disparage the sport.

Go back to 2013, when Peter Laviolette was fired, and you'll find tons of stories about Chip Kelly becoming the "longest tenured" coach in Philadelphia. Nevermind the fact that Jay Wright (national champ), Fran Dunphy, John Hackworth, Al Bagnoli, Phil Martelli, and about 20 other people had been coaching here for a lot longer than "big balls" Chip.

Truthfully, however, the sample size of soccer-hating media isn't all that big. There are local radio hosts, producers, and writers that actually like the sport, but may not talk about it all the time like we do. Some soccer fans have an inferiority complex that surfaces at the slightest disrespect for the game, but they also fail to realize that the sport doesn't generate half as much money as football, basketball, or baseball.

The sport is growing, though it’s not even close to the top.

But neither is professional basketball nor ice hockey. Everybody else is missing the point with this four-sport phrasing.

Data annually confirms that college football, and even auto racing, generate more nationwide interest than the NBA and NHL.

Take the Harris poll, for example.

Each year, about 2,200 American adults are asked what their favorite sport is.

For the past 11 years, the rankings have been basically the same:

  1. NFL
  2. Major League Baseball
  3. College football
  4. Auto racing
  5. NBA
  6. NHL

Not since 2004 has the NBA or NHL outperformed auto racing or college football in the Harris poll. The NFL has only widened the gap at the top while Major League Baseball has dropped eight percentage points since 1985. In recent years, soccer, golf, and college basketball carry the same amount of interest and occupy spots seven through nine.

Let's try another poll.

Gallup's most recent data is a few years old, but the numbers are similar.

Pollsters don't differentiate between college or pro sports, but here's how it looked in 2013 when Americans were asked, "what is your favorite sport to watch?”

  1. Football - 39%
  2. Baseball - 14%
  3. Basketball - 12%
  4. Soccer - 4%
  5. Ice hockey -3%

The Gallup poll has always shown a huge drop-off from three to four. As you can see, soccer and ice hockey really don't even come close to the other three sports. Auto racing used to be in the top four of this poll then took a big hit a few years ago.

As for TV ratings, college football continues to crush the NBA.

This year’s national championship game pulled a 15.0 rating in a down year while the Warriors/Cavs championship series had an 11.6 average over six games. The Stanley Cup finals generally don’t even reach the 4.0 mark until a game six or game seven. Wisconsin and Alabama pulled a regular season 4.3 national number back in September. NASCAR, which is down big time this year, is still generating numbers above 4.0.

Demographic data is also interesting.

In the Harris Poll, “easterners” love baseball but Millennials hate it. Generation X picked college football as their favorite sport, but those same “easterners” aren’t fans of it.

No doubt about it, Philly, New York, and Boston are pro sports towns.

It’s ironic, then, that three of Philadelphia's "four major professional teams" all played like crap this season, depending on how you feel about the Flyers. The best teams in town were Villanova basketball and Temple football, whose successes were unfortunately diminished by the city’s provincial nature. You don't see that in Starkville, or Corvallis, or Ames, where college football and basketball are the only game(s) in town.

Philly sports fans don't have the greatest grasp of what’s going on in the rest of the country.

In the Southeast, Great Plains, and even chunks of the Midwest, college sports demolish pro sports in popularity. Even in big states like Ohio, Florida, and Texas, you're not going to find a lot of people who prefer the Blue Jackets to the Buckeyes, the Jaguars to the Gators, or the Mavericks to the Longhorns.

Professional economist Dan Rascher even testified, during the 2014 O’Bannon vs. NCAA trial, that a number of big college programs generate more money than the average NHL team.

At the end of the day, this isn't a soccer vs. basketball vs. everybody else issue. The Sixers aren't trying to shame soccer with the language in their press release. They have a good relationship with the Philadelphia Union and they have good people running their communications department.

But what exactly constitutes a "major professional sport"? Is NASCAR not professional? Is college football not major? Does anyone in Raleigh even care about the Hurricanes?

We could argue this for days, but there are other topics that we haven't spent enough time on, like the Eagles quarterback situation.