Soccer in America’s Great Awakening

Frontpaged. It's nice to look at the ESPN poll and think to yourself, "Self, other people care too. I am not alone. I am only half-insane."

It goes without saying that soccer in America is growing. A poll conducted by prominent social scientist by Rich Luker indicates that it is now the second most popular sport amongst 12-24 year old males, but taking a quick look at the people attending MLS games and playing in parks already proves the point.

Soccer has always been seen as the sport played by kids but never by adults. This was seen by the emergence of the soccer mom and the subculture of minivans and juices that emerged from it in the late 1990s. MLS tried to use this as the springboard for its league and it nearly killed the league as league executives realized that soccer moms only care about the game if their kid is playing in it. And while the success of the USA Women’s National team in 1999 and Men’s National Team in 2002 boosted the sport, it would not be until the latter part of the decade that soccer in America began to awake.

The awakening started when David Beckham signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy in January 2007. At the time, the league was not really anything special. The quality was subpar and attendances languished around the 15,000 mark. As Beckham and five players, including Mexican legend Cuauhtémoc Blanco and former Aston Villa forward Juan Pablo Ángel, became the first generation of Designated Players, average attendance grew to over 16,000 and the modern era of MLS began.

Beckham’s arrival may have boosted MLS’ reputation but it would be Euro 2008 that would begin to show the potential of soccer in America. It was the first European Championship to be broadcast on the ESPN family of networks, and its coverage was nothing short of a success. John Doyle of the Toronto Globe and Mail was right when he said ESPN’s coverage of the tournament would be a "cultural watershed moment." ESPN’s midday ratings increased 60% during the tournament, causing Doyle to call the coverage "near-revolutionary."

The success showed ESPN that there was a mass desire for international soccer. That desire and success would continue into 2010 as ESPN and ABC expanded on its encompassing tournament coverage. Over 15 million people viewed the World Cup Final on ABC, making it the most watched men’s soccer game in US history. MLS ratings this season are on track to be the highest since the league’s formation in 1996 as well.

While improving television ratings are always an indicator of growing interest, it also shows that there is work to do. Soccer in America is not even close to fully awake.

The interest in soccer in America is enough to generate buzz, but more importantly enough to generate investment. With money being pumped in from television contracts, advertising and wealthy owners, MLS and US Soccer began an ambitious campaign to overhaul youth soccer in America. The rise in academies related to both MLS clubs and US Soccer or unrelated comes to show that the soccer mom culture of youth soccer is dying. Replacing it is now a culture aimed at producing players capable of performing at the highest level. This includes ten-month seasons and an emphasis on developing technical skills amongst all players.

The added investment in the league also has provided the US something it has never had before ­— a fully stable soccer league. MLS is attracting talent (with Tim Cahill the most recent example) and exporting talent (with Geoff Cameron and Marco Pappa being examples). More importantly, it is providing more proof that its players are more than capable of holding their own on the international stage. Honduran midfielder Roger Espinoza’s performance against Brazil in the Olympics earned him a standing ovation despite losing and being sent off. Of the twelve players used in the US’ World Cup Qualifying win against Jamaica on September 11th; nine were either current or former MLS players. Six of the twelve players used by Jamaica in that game were MLS based as well.

That being said, MLS still has work to do. No MLS team has won the CONCACAF Champions League with Real Salt Lake finishing runners up to Monterrey in 2011. Liga MX teams have dominated the Champions League winning each of the four tournaments. Out of the eight finalists in those tournaments, seven were from Mexico. While the quality in MLS is improving, the CCL remains unconquered territory. MLS’ long-term success will mean little if its teams continue to lose to its neighbors to the South.

While soccer in general now has a foothold in American sports, the question is: how does American soccer grow to a point where it equals the popularity of European and Mexican soccer? The EPL is regularly televised on ESPN and Fox Soccer every weekend morning, La Liga, Ligue 1 and others are televised on the emerging beIN Sports Network, and the Champions League is also shown regularly on Fox Soccer with the final being shown on the Fox network. Meanwhile Liga MX is broadcast on four Spanish language networks weekly. While MLS does have a few games airing on the NBC network, the bulk of its national coverage comes on cable networks such as ESPN and the NBC Sports Network where the ratings are much lower than the aforementioned leagues.

While this may seem disconcerting, it‘s not. The emergence of American soccer is going to take time. There isn’t a deadline for the powers that be in US Soccer and MLS to achieve greatness though it may seem that way to many. The success of US soccer in the past was mainly attributed to the gritty efforts of a few. Now the goal is to develop players who have the same grit as well as the ability to compete amongst the best. That is going to take some time. But the wheels are starting to move and the giant is starting to awaken.

Each success US Soccer or MLS have going forward only continues the momentum. All Luker’s poll does is show that as the growth of American soccer continues so does the growth in supporters. That creates a cycle that only continues to get bigger over time. This is seen in the attention the men received after their wins in Italy and in Mexico this year and the attention the women received in their Olympic Gold Medal run. To put it in prospective, Luker identifies 10 percent of participants as soccer fans, which may seem paltry, but in reality that is 33 million people, around 60% of the population of England and three times the population of Portugal.

It is nice to finally be able to quantify soccer’s popularity in this country, but there is still a ways to go and it remains to be seen just how popular soccer will be in America. It is nice to be able to prove that soccer is the second most popular sport amongst young men. It’s nicer to be able to prove that soccer is the second most popular sport amongst all Americans. Football is untouchable for the time being, but the recent success and growth of soccer make it a safe bet that by Brazil 2014, we will see soccer surpass hockey and seriously challenge basketball and baseball in popularity. When that happens, it would be safe to say that the sleeping giant is now fully awake.

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