Rich Luker, a 59-year-old baseball-loving social scientist based in North Carolina, is the brains behind the ESPN Sports Poll, the complex database that recently pronounced soccer as America's second-most popular sport for those age 12-24, outstripping the NBA, MLB and college football. Luker is also the man who discovered that three soccer players -- Lionel Messi (16th), iconic veteran David Beckham (20th), and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo (24th) -- rank among the 50 most popular athletes in America. "Unbelievably, [Lionel] Messi ranks ahead of Dwyane Wade," Luker marveled. "Only two baseball players, Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter, are ahead of him."
Luker founded the Sports Poll in 1994 when he realized the industry lacked a systematic intelligence service despite the billions of dollars poured into it. The researcher quickly partnered with ESPN to track the minutiae of fan habits surrounding 32 major sports, hoping to understand how Americans watch, play, buy and express their fandom.
Luker is a gregarious chap whose passion for his craft is self-evident. Even after 30 years in the business, the researcher still sounds as if he is in the midst of his first "Eureka moment" as he litters his conversation with such off-the-cuff nuggets as "lack of discretionary spending power means that a larger proportion of Americans would now rather watch games on television than in person," or "since 2007, the only age group that has increased its interests in sports are males over the age of 45. Everyone else is down."
Granted, Luker's terrain, the United States, is exceptional. "We live in a country that experiences a pent-up need for connection between family and friends, and sport has become the dominant way to do that," he said.
His studies have revealed that 85 percent of Americans identify themselves as sports fans, and the social scientist said with a giddy tone of wonder, "Most cultures have two, sometimes three dominant sports -- the United States has 12."
The U.S. soccer audience is also unique in Luker's eyes. "It is a true community. The only group that comes close are college sports fans or followers of the Grateful Dead. They embrace soccer as a communal lifestyle as opposed to a personal experience or a community that only exists on gameday."
Luker's analysis has revealed the reason soccer fandom tends to be expressed on a 24/7 basis. "Soccer was originally an expression of national identity in hotbeds like the United Kingdom or Brazil," he said. "So that seed has been imported and sown here in the United States."
However, Luker also believes soccer is underperforming. "It's a sport that should have been doing well a long time ago." The social scientist is well positioned to make that claim. He partnered with MLS back when it was planning the launch of the league in 1994. "We discovered 30 percent of American households contained someone playing soccer. The only game that comes close to that massive number is baseball."
Through decades of study, Luker was able to pinpoint the exact moment soccer's built-in early advantage traditionally evaporated. "The game was massive up to the age of 13, when sport was all about bonding with male peers, but in middle school, it became all about cross-bonding with other genders and high school football shot right to the top," he said. "You simply can't beat the social lubrication of the homecoming football game."
Soccer's social perception was further weakened by the sport's stigmatization in the 1990s. "Middle school kids were seen to lack the guts to play one of the big sports -- baseball, football, or basketball -- preferring to play soccer, the sport their moms were pushing."
But the sporting tectonic plates have shifted. America's cultural diversification, increasingly globalized outlook, and widespread access to the Internet all have benefitted soccer more than the other more traditional American sports. "In the last two years, Americans have been exposed to elite soccer on a very regular basis, which has allowed us to appreciate the sport and develop a savvy about it in a way we could not before," Luker said.
The impact of these factors has been as powerful as they are simple. "Kids growing up today gain cachet and social currency by knowing about the sport," Luker said. The old stigma has fallen away. Pride and esteem have become attached to the game for the first time as Americans have collectively undergone a "now we understand what it is all about" moment. It is only a matter of time 'til we see soccer take off in a big way."
By way of context, Luker rattles off statistics about soccer's competitors. "Twenty-five percent of Americans are avid NFL fans first and foremost, 14.4 percent are basketball fans, and MLB comes third with 13.9 percent."
Soccer's avid fanbase is 10 percent, which does not sound like much until you realize that is 33 million people. "Based on the way it is trending, I believe global soccer will soon be four or five times bigger than it is today, and MLS's fanbase will triple or quadruple," he said. For those who do not believe, Luker is keen to underline that change can happen fast. "In 1994, MLB was as popular as the NFL. This stuff can shift quickly and right now, soccer is like a rocket ship on the launchpad."
"If baseball and basketball don't adapt to this new reality they are going to have issues," Luker continued, discussing the NFL's challenge to continue to develop talent in an era in which youth participation has dropped precipitously. "Fewer and fewer kids are actually playing [American] football so they won't learn the game in the way it sustained their interest in the past. It is an inevitability that soccer will soon be as popular as MLB and NBA."
How long will it take to get there? "We are talking generational change," Luker said. "A generation of kids have now grown up as having MLS as part of their reality. Give us one more cycle and that is all it will take. One more generation."
Luker is bullish about the rise of MLS, given that 7.2 percent of Americans describe themselves as fans of the league. "That is 25 million people, of whom MLS can only currently account for about 5 million, a fifth of their potential audience," he said. "If the league gets its marketing right, there will be massive growth." Luker reinforces this bold claim by revealing a remarkable 50 percent of those who declare any interest in soccer ask to know more about the MLS when three percent is considered a positive response rate in the consumer product industry. "MLS's problem is they only have 19 teams and no regular national television presence," Luker said. "Right now, you are not going to bump into their product but they are working hard to change that."
Despite Luker's evident enthusiasm for soccer's future, he said that he grew up playing hockey in Ann Arbor, Mich., and only watches MLS and EPL for a living. When pushed, he concluded by confessing, "My greatest delight is to look out of a plane's window when I am crossing the country and see what people are playing in the parks below," he said. "If you watch it like that, soccer is the biggest sport in the nation."
Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN, and with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter: @rogbennett.