Getting America to Love Soccer (and why it still doesn’t)

By | April 10, 2010

In recent years soccer has been among the most participated youth sports in the United States. Given this reality, the assumption had been that soccer’s popularity in this country would grow exponentially, and would inevitably rival the nation’s three traditional sports powerhouses – football, baseball, and basketball – for exposure among the country’s leading media conglomerates, especially those that are featured in basic cable, and satellite packages. However, while soccer has become more popular in the United States than ever before, it has failed to reach the cultural prevalence, and commercial weight that many pundits had predicted. The failure to attain its expected popularity is particularly surprising considering the progress that the US men’s national team has made since the US hosted the world cup in 1994. Since then the US has competed in three world cups (making the quarter-finals in 2002), has won 3 gold cups, and achieved second place in last year’s confederations cup.

Various explanations have been offered for the nonfulfillment of soccer’s promise in the US. Some attribute it to the influence traditional American sports have on the sports media. Traditional sports in this country command enormous audiences, and as such, teams are able to demand incredibly high prices for television rights. This, of course, limits the amount of money sports channels have to acquire the soccer rights of various world soccer leagues, especially the most popular ones, such as the Barclays Premier League, La Liga BBVA, and Serie A. There are a few sports conglomerates that are able to dish out the kind of money that is required to secure television soccer rights; nevertheless, these are the same conglomerates that purchase the rights to numerous sports, and a plethora of sporting events, and as a result, they lack the time slots to adequately televise soccer games, as well as the programs that promote the sport. Only adding to this problem is the fact that many of today’s American sports pundits have a visceral distaste for soccer, and take any and every opportunity to denigrate the sport.

There are critics who place most of the blame on the youth soccer system in this country for the problem. As it currently stands, soccer in the US is aimed primarily towards upper middle-class Americans who can afford to pay for their children’s participation on a team (in order to participate in some teams, parents have to shell-out close to two thousand dollars to play. And very often, many of those children share their time between soccer and other sports). Logically, these price tags make it nearly impossible for children from low-income families to play soccer competitively. These same children tend to come from immigrant backgrounds that have traditional ties to soccer, and are therefore more likely to get seriously involved in the sport. Their diverse backgrounds also influence distinctive styles of play, which make soccer far more diverse and pleasurable to watch.

However, perhaps the biggest problem facing soccer in the United States is our professional league’s lack of quality. Admittedly, MLS fans are right to argue that the league is in its infancy – this year marks its fifteenth anniversary – and as such it is unreasonable to expect the league to offer more than it can at the moment. Furthermore, they argue that the MLS is not below standard, as it competes yearly in the Concacaf Champions League. Unfortunately, the infancy argument stands for now, but it won’t in another few years, and the way the league is currently being run will prevent it from taking the leap. The league’s major drawbacks are that it relies on talent being developed collegiately; it lacks a serious youth development program; and like its predecessor, the NASL, depends too heavily on foreign stars that are fast approaching the twilight of their careers. As for the success of MLS teams in the Concacaf Champions League, one has only to look at their opposition. Most of the Mexican teams that compete in the cup are mid-tier teams that are unable to qualify for the Copa Libertadores, and the remaining Central American teams play in leagues that are inferior to our own.

So, how do we solve these problems and get Americans to really embrace soccer? If we wait for the sports media conglomerates, we may be waiting for a while. Which is funny, seeing that ESPN has just purchased the television rights to the Barclays Premier League; yet, while the network broadcasts many games in England, it only sporadically does so here – I believe weekend morning soccer on ESPN has been trumped by the thrilling spectacle that is bowling. Youth development programs don’t look to be changing much, so we can forget about that. And the MLS seems destined to continue to rely on college talent (or lack thereof), as well as on the talent and experience of slightly above average, fast deteriorating foreign stars. It seems that avoiding a drawn-out solution may be impossible.

Thus, here’s my (temporary) solution, and ironically, we have an American sports media conglomerate, and a very American tradition to thank for it: ESPN, and college basketball’s bracket challenge. Fortunately, ESPN does have the rights to the World Cup, and as a result, the games will be easily accessible to a broad audience in the United States. Moreover, there are world cup brackets available for printouts on various soccer-specific websites. Combine the two, and there is reason for being optimistic that the world cup will ignite some soccer passion even in the most reluctant fan. I’ve seen people who had absolutely no interest in college basketball, fall in love with the sport during March Madness just because they had money riding on their bracket. This year my mother-in-law, who had never even watched a college basketball game before this March, was almost in tears when Deshaun Butler (she calls him Deshaun, such is her newfound devotion for the game) tore his cruciate ligaments during West Virginia’s game against Duke. If college basketball brackets are able to turn people onto a sport that they once considered insignificant, imagine what a world cup bracket might do.

There isn’t a sporting event in the world that elicits as much of a passionate response in its fans as the World Cup. Turn someone onto that energy with a measly bracket, and a few dollars, and you may have just produced another soccer fan.