Street Corner Soapbox: World Cup Soccer has Arrived! Again.
It's the dawning (again) of the age of soccer in America.
The last men's soccer World Cup was greeted with conservative hyperbole. "I hate it so much, probably because the rest of the world likes it so much," said Glenn Beck. "Soccer is a socialist sport," wrote columnist Marc Thiessen, and saw similarities in it to Obamacare. "To conservatives, the troubling aspects of the game aren't confined to the pros," wrote another, Matthew Philbin. "Soccer requires comparatively little from children but the ability to run after the ball – the risk of failure for anyone except maybe the goal keeper is zero. Even the strong chance that any given game will end in a tie makes it attractive for parents reluctant to impart life's difficult lessons to young kids."
But as the nations don cleats to face off in this year's tournament in Brazil, it may be time to face this fact: soccer has at last arrived in the U.S. .
Oh sure, we've heard that before. "Soccer has been America's sport of the future since 1972," quip Men in Blazer podcasters Michael Davies and Roger Bennett. Soccer "arrived" in the U.S. when 77,000 fans packed Giants Stadium to watch Pele's New York Cosmos in a 1977 NASL playoff match. Soccer "arrived" when the World Cup landed in the United States in 1994 – 69,000 fans on average attended each match, still a FIFA Cup record, and by a large margin. (The next closest was during the 2006 tournament in Germany, when 52,000 fans on average attended each match.)
Nonetheless, soccer lags behind most other professional sports in the country.
The sport has always been an oddball game to American fans, a curiosity, something to experience close up every so often to see what all the global fuss is about, but then to eschew, as they settle in to watch baseball, football, basketball, or hockey. Or car racing. Tennis. Boxing. UFC.
Things are different now. Really.
The 2010 World Cup in South Africa, for example, drew impressive U.S. viewership. The elimination match between the U.S. and Ghana, for example, was watched by 19.4 million Americans – more than the 19.2 million that tuned in for last year's deciding Game 6 of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. The tournament's final – which saw Spain defeat the Netherlands, 1-0 – was watched by even more Americans, 24.3 million. Women's soccer is popular, too. The gold-medal match between the U.S. and Japan in the 2012 London Games drew 4.35 million viewers – more than typically watch games of the Stanley Cup finals.
U.S. viewership of European soccer is also up, drastically. NBCUniversal's February 2014 ratings of its English Premier League games set a monthly record for soccer broadcast, as did its recent 10-game simultaneous broadcast of the final Premier League matches. And several of this year's UEFA Champions League games drew more than a million American fans to their television sets.
That's a far cry from the Super Bowl, of course, whose recent lopsided Denver Broncos – Seattle Seahawks matchup drew more than 111 million viewers. But the demographics of soccer viewers points to a steep increase in the sport's popularity: the two biggest segments of soccer viewers, according to Nielsen ratings, are the young (viewers under 34) and Hispanics. The former is, of course, the future, and the latter the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. And those viewers tend to be more socially connected, too, much more likely to own a smartphone and to stream video on it, and more likely to spread the news through social networks.
"Millennials are the biggest driver of the sport right now," said Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing's John Guppy in a recent Bloomberg report. "They are looking for their own identification. Soccer fits that bill."
That might also explain why the MLS survives. In some cities, it even thrives. The Seattle Sounders, for example, draw an average of 44,000 fans to each game – that's a higher per-game average than all but the Los Angeles Dodgers in the MLB, and nearly triple the average that attend each Cleveland Indians' home game. Seattle also has a high population of millennials.
And more Americans are playing soccer than football: according to the 2010 Census, 13 million Americans play soccer, behind only basketball for participation in a team sport. That includes over 8 million kids ages 7 to 17, more than the number that play baseball and football. Those numbers have likely only increased since the knowledge of the dangers of concussions in football have grown.
So what's in store this World Cup? For starters, it's in Brazil – itself a draw for Americans, not just because of the pageantry and excitement that'll accompany soccer's biggest tourney in soccer's liveliest country, but because it's only an hour or two ahead of most time zones in the U.S. . And while the U.S. squad's odds of advancing are slim – it's in this year's "group of death," with favorites Germany and Portugal, and a quality Ghana team – and without its most famous player, Landon Dononvan, who was cut from the team at the last minute, rising interest in America for soccer likely means more soccer viewing records will fall.
But most importantly, soccer is a great game. It's a game full of chaos and creativity and played by the world's best athletes. The tension and suspense of a close soccer game is like nothing else in sports. If for no other reason, love for soccer here has grown out of a basic love for the beautiful the game.
And for all those reasons, it's appropriate that soccer is growing in popularity here. It is in many ways the face of 21st-century America with its young, multicultural fanbase and a beautiful artistry at its heart. No wonder Glenn Beck hates it.
Jay Stevens can be contacted at Jay@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @Snevets_Yaj.