23 June 2008

Soccer Haters: Guess Who is in your Rear View Mirror?

Good lord, American fans, how many times have you heard it? "Soccer will never make it in the US" "Soccer is a game for kids and girls" "Soccer fans in America have been saying for years they will catch up" "Soccer tried this in the 70's" "Soccer sucks"...etc.

What the people who suggest “soccer will never be popular in the US” are trying to say is, 'soccer as a professional spectator sport will never be popular in the US'. Near term - probably, long term - maybe, never - highly unlikely.

What most conscious people have known for about a decade or so now is that football is the most popular participation team sport (approx. 18 million) in the US and the numbers are still trending upward.

One may not find a statistical correlation between participation and spectatorship in the US; but overall the game makes more sense to more Americans than ever. What does that mean? It means for the first time in the history of soccer in American, there are people who have spent their lives playing and watching football, who are having children and raising those children with a deep understanding of the game.

When I played as a kid in the 1970s, our coaches were our fathers. Our fathers, through no fault of their own, knew nothing about soccer. There was never a match on television, never a professional team to latch on too, never a program in high school to try, and so on. The history is captured nicely that Beach Boys classic, Be True to Your School:
"I got a lettermans sweater
With a letter in front
I got for footbal and track
Im proud to where it now"

Yet our dads did their best, they persevered, they bought what few books they could find, they attended what few coaching classes were offered. And somehow, kids like me learned to play this game and learned to love it!

The popular spectator US sports will still benefit from a long and storied social and cultural history that football in the States just does not have – i.e., peanuts at the ballpark, tailgating and Superbowl parties, binge drinking at your NCAA game, saturated television coverage and the massive advertising machine behind it, etc.

But the "generational understanding gap" is closing. Unprecedented numbers of soccer fans can all sit at the pub and enjoy a match, confident we understand exactly what to look for. Add to that unprecedented access via cable and internet to great leagues and great players all over the world and decent leagues in the US, and the sport that my father (and mother) didn’t even have the chance to play, will continue to grow in cultural significance, albeit slowly.

Finally, factor in the influence of immigration on US US culture and you begin to see some serious handwriting on the wall.

For all the naysayers who insist the game will never arrive in the States, I say it depends on how your measuring. If you look at the numbers and not the dollars. you will discover that the beautiful game has been here for quite a while. 18,000,000 players and growing, can’t be wrong.

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