Soccer in America: A World Cup Half Full

Today marks the beginning of the World Cup 2014! I know this because the Google doodle looks different. I also heard something about it on the radio this morning during my commute. This is the first of several matches in a global competition between gladiators, they say, kicking off in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The reward is supreme national pride, four years of ultimate athletic bragging rights, and 0% financing for 36 months.

Admittedly, I am not the biggest soccer fan. And I’ve never heard of futbol, so stop trying to push whatever that is on me.

I am a huge hockey fan though, and Canadians are the Europeans of America, so that got me thinking about soccer viewership, TV ratings, and how the sport can generate more American fans. Hockey has seen a swell in viewership in recent years. The Stanley Cup finals attract more viewers and fans each year, slowly upgrading hockey’s national status to “almost talked about.” The NHL’s growth and success is not by way of accident and should be something of a model for soccer to follow in this country.

 

Why isn’t soccer a major sport in the U.S.?

We want the best. Period. Americans have a very hard time investing in a sport when it’s known that a better version of that sport exists elsewhere.

  • Our four major sports already have the best and highest-paid players in the world. We get to witness them perform on the biggest stage, spend lavishly, and get arrested. Knowing there are higher caliber leagues out there makes it difficult for the U.S. to attract top talent.
  • No star players means losing to better talent which means no championships. Modern sports (and modern fans) are built around a “what have you done for me lately” attitude. No stars, no wins, no fans.
  • The tale of the underdog only becomes a sensation when the underdog actually wins. The movie Rudy isn’t as heart-warming if a linebacker ruptures Rudy’s vertebrae on the first day of practice. It’s a lot funnier, but not very heart-warming. U.S. Soccer is still waiting for its moment in the sun.

Lack of a rivalryThe greatest and most attractive aspect of sports to the casual fan is camaraderie. Whether you’re an athlete or a fan, you feel some degree of teamwork, group unity, and pride when the common enemy is embarrassed nationally in front of their friends and family.

  • Teams have been competing in the world’s top leagues for decades already; their rivalries have long been established. The same passionate, fiery hatred doesn’t exist between a new batch of American competitors yet.
  • A decade or two of heated contention are needed to change carefree sentiments. Enough time to come up with some really biting insults. Racial or otherwise by the looks of things.
  • No rivalry means no vested interest from the common fan. Why should I care if Chelsea beats Liverpool?

No historic or traditional value. I grew up in Boston surrounded by baseball fanatics. Baseball wasn’t a supplemental option, it was an essential part of a young boy’s summer afternoon. People took it seriously. We weren’t allowed to eat bagels when we played the Yankees.

  • Soccer is more than a sport in many parts of the world; it’s a tradition, like baseball to Americans.
  • When sports become embedded in the culture they become immovable. Teams become symbols of pride local and attitude.

 

Planting the Seeds of Fútbol

The average American boy can trace his first soccer experience to a singular miserable moment in his formative years: local youth soccer leagues. I played in a few different town leagues in Massachusetts as a child, mainly as a means of torture. My father needed a reason to get me out of the house and away from my Super Nintendo for a few hours, so I slowly learned about the sport. There are lots of things to love. I’m sorry, that came out wrong. I meant run. There are lots of runs to run.

Most youth sports programs are simply locally organized ways to tucker kids out so they leave you alone for an hour or two afterwards. One unlucky parent draws the short straw and has to coach, but kids can only absorb so much strategy. Just keep them hydrated and you’ll do fine. That was my experience, anyway. Lots of running, occasional contact with the ball or other players, then more running.

Football players get to wear pads and give each other concussions. You know, fun stuff. Basketball players are constantly passing, shooting, and scoring. No time to be bored. Hockey players zoom around, hit each other, and punch the teeth out of each other’s mouths. Baseball is boring, which is finally catching up to the ratings, but it will forever have a rich history in this country and can continue to survive based on traditions and namesakes.

Soccer, when played at its peak, is a brilliant sport of setups, maneuvering, angles, and speed.

Soccer, when used to distract children, is a miserable game of chaos, anarchy, and flailing arms. And orange slices. And sticky hands. Seriously, who brings two bags of orange slices and no napkins?

 

Spend it like Beckham

In order for soccer to grow in the U.S., team owners have to spend big money on top tier talent. Players and coaches need to see the U.S. as a destination spot to play and they need to be wooed by team management. There has to be a deliberate, coordinated effort to improve the league as a whole. One well-performing team is not enough to bring soccer to the national spotlight.

Soccer will grow as long as advertisers see ratings increases, owners begin to invest more on the team, and media coverage expands beyond the World Cup every four years. American soccer fans will be watching closely this time around.

The next big question: Is there enough space at the cool kids’ table?

 

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