The U.S. and soccer – that joke isn’t funny anymore
Even though the results of the United States team in international competition indicate the country has become a respectable force in the game, in the past 12 months beating European champions Spain and drawing with presumed World Cup contenders England for example, there remain many who doubt whether soccer can ever capture the imagination of the sporting public in the United States.
The main problem Europeans, in particular English fans, appear to have with the status of soccer in the U.S. is that it is not the number one sport in the country. Not even number two or three in fact. And the fact is that there is no-one in the soccer business in the U.S. who would pretend they are in a position to overtake, on a day-to-day basis, the NFL, the NBA or Major League Baseball.
But those who doubt that soccer has a long term future in North America need to ask themselves one question when it comes to the game’s status alongside gridiron and basketball – who cares?
Ranking in relation to other sports really doesn’t matter. In the era of niche television, niche websites, niche entertainment and niche marketing , soccer clearly has an important and growing niche in the sporting life of the United States.
In the past few weeks there have been cover stories on soccer all over the US media — in TIME magazine and Vanity Fair as well as Sports Illustrated. The mammoth sports network ESPN has been all over the World Cup, broadcasting every game on television, the internet (in a choice of six languages) and streaming to mobile devices. When I left Miami for South Africa at the start of the month, my local restaurants and bars were already advertising ‘World Cup specials’ and promising giant screens and all sorts of competitions and prizes. Saturday’s England v USA Group C opener drew huge numbers to sports bars across the States — in one case, a pub in Columbus which had prepared itself for a massive 1,000 fans, had to deal with three times that amount turning up.
The fact is that the past couple of weeks have seen unprecedented Stateside media coverage of Bob Bradley’s team and the World Cup. The Sun’s mocking headline about the ‘soccerball world series’ was a lame attempt at humour that seems at least 20 years out of date — belonging to an era when those English who are afraid of the United States ‘catching on’ to the game could feel comfortable in the knowledge that it was probably never going to happen.
Here’s a few numbers that the site EPL Talk put together from various sources on the tv audience that the England v USA game drew:
Around 17 million people in the United States watched the game at home — a number bigger than any of the first four games of the current NBA final.
The England match drew more US viewers than every game of the 2010 Stanley Cup hockey Final. The June 9 broadcast of the Stanley Cup Final on NBC was the most-watched NHL game in the United States in 36 years with 8.28 million viewers — about half of the amount that watched an opening round group match in the World Cup.
Overall, the first five matches of this year’s World Cup drew around double the audience that tuned in four years ago. How’s that for growth?
Those who constantly harp on about soccer’s relative position in the American market are completely missing the point, just as those who point at the domestic league MLS’s average crowds of 14-15,000 and retreat into talk about irrelevancy are missing the bigger picture. The United States is a rapidly growing soccer market with increasing numbers of people ready to spend money on merchandise, television packages, soccer-related travel and match tickets. It is no coincidence that the European close-season sees most of the top clubs in the continent head to North America for friendly matches – they get big crowds, sell loads of replica kits and build their brands to an expanding fan base.
Yes, MLS is a relatively small league compared to either England’s Premier League or the NFL or NBA (although there are plenty of European clubs who would love an average crowd of 15k), but it is steadily growing and is swimming in a soccer sea that includes the large sector of fans who watch Champions League and Premier League football on television and of course the massive Mexican soccer market within the US.
The American conservative critics of soccer (‘haters’ as the soccer-lovers call them) are still clinging to the notion that traditional US sports, such as American football, reflect the country’s culture and what it makes it different from the rest of the world. They have a point as anyone who has attended an NFL game and an MLS match would have to acknowledge. But there is another kind of American exceptionalism, a modern-day difference, which it seems businesses are catching on to even if cultural and sports commentators seem to be reluctant to accept.
The changes of the past two decade – in television, the internet, consumer spending, immigration and globalization — have transformed the environment in which soccer in the States operates and allowed the sport to invade America in a way few envisaged. Call it cultural imperialism in reverse.
American sports executives knew that there was potential in the technological, economic and cultural forces of modern globalization to spread professional sports outside of their traditional markets and the NFL and the NBA and to a lesser extent the NHL and Major League Baseball have all tried to exploit overseas markets with varying degrees of success. But what those executives didn’t expect was the boomerang effect — while they have been trying to sell basketball in Beijing and gridiron in Great Britain, soccer has snuck in America’s backdoor.
As global soccer changes, America itself is changing in a way which weakens the grip of traditional sports and opens new doors for soccer. In NFL reporter Sal Paolantonio’s book ‘How Football Explains America’ (a tour of the notion of American Football as exceptionalism) the author notes how the sons of immigrants used football and baseball as a way of becoming American.
The immigration into the United States over the past 20 years comes largely from soccer-obsessed Mexico and Latin America and as the huge crowds for their national teams shows — they are not becoming Americans through sport but using soccer to show their continuing attachment to their roots. Soccer has been happy to provide – the Mexican national team now plays more games in the United States in an average year than it does in Mexico and other countries – and Colombia and Honduras ensure that their markets in the United States are well catered for.
Italian-Americans turn out to watch Milan, Inter and Juve tour the country in the summer. A generation of American fans of Premier League teams is emerging. Modern cable and satellite television and the internet have given Americans easy and cheap access to the best soccer in the world.
Just 15 years ago, an American with an interest in European soccer would have to wait for the foreign papers to arrive in order to get the scores. Now they watch the games from England, Italy, Spain, Germany, Mexico, anywhere, live on television and follow the news on websites, chatting with other fans on blogs and message boards. A thriving subculture is going mainstream. Crucially, the thousands of kids involved in youth soccer have instant access to the stars of their sport — something that never existed before when for the soccer-mad kid the only sporting hero around was the quarterback. Now that kid comes back from soccer practice and watches Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo and perhaps Landon Donovan.
The traditional scenario for soccer’s progress in the States was always based around the 19th century blueprint of English expansion of the game in Europe. It didn’t work. The NASL in the 1970’s sought to Americanize soccer (with shootouts and cheerleaders) and failed. MLS is a carefully constructed, gradualist and sensibly cautious attempt to lay down a long-term structure for the domestic game. But those participating in the current boom in interest have largely ignored hierarchies and formal structures. Instead (confounding critics who say soccer is doomed to fail due to its ‘foreign origins’) they have embraced globalized soccer.
Many Americans still don’t grasp the basics of the game but take five minutes to read a few American soccer blogs and you will discover that when Americans get into football – they really get into it. And with a passion that can border on the obsessive.
The demographics all point to continued growth for soccer. Foreign sceptics will be able to cling on to the “But NFL is number one” argument for many years to come but they should be careful what they wish for. After all, if MLS ever did become as popular and as rich as the NFL then they wouldn’t be signing David Beckham at the end of his career but at the start of it. The Premier League would be a feeder league for MLS in the way that European basketball supplies stars for the NBA. Perhaps those who enjoy watching the likes of Rooney, Drogba, Tevez and Torres in the flesh should be glad that MLS is still a long way off the economic muscle of the big three American sports.
That isn’t likely to change any time soon of course but this World Cup – and the way that a significant segment of the American population has embraced it – shows that the dismissive views of traditionalists in America and many in Europe are increasingly out of date. The national team may or may not make it out of their group but they have, for a short while, managed to bring together a diverse and disperse collection of fans that includes the Real Salt Lake season ticket holder, the Chelsea fan in Baltimore and the Real Madrid supporter in Miami.
As the late and sometimes great Steven Wells put it in his skewering of those wish to see soccer fail in the United States – it’s time for another joke.