I had a great time following Team USA as they battled through the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup in Brazil last summer. I can honestly say that I had never been interested in watching professional soccer, live or on television, but nonetheless became caught up in the hoopla of it all. Suddenly, it seemed like everyone I knew developed a passion for a sport we had never appreciated at the professional level. Groups of people were seen walking around Ann Arbor decked out in patriotic red, white and blue repeating the adopted chant of US fans, “I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!” It was all very exciting, and I happily took my place on the bandwagon.
Many of my friends and family are huge sports fans; logging uncountable hours attending professional sporting events and/or watching them on their monitors of choice. At the start of the 2014World Cup few of these obsessive sports fans in my life could name a single player from Team USA and most could only recognize the names of Lionel Messi (the undisputed best player in professional soccer) from Brazil, or Cristiano Ronaldo (appreciated as much for his good looks as his formidable play) from Portugal. But for a few weeks last summer, we couldn’t get enough. In his article “Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games” author A. Bartlett Giamatti refers to sports as “an opiate to the masses”, and we were all high on the FIFA World Cup.
After the US team failed to capitalize on a late comeback and was knocked out by Belgium on July 1, the hoopla died down and I began to wonder, “Why hasn’t professional soccer taken off in popularity in the US?” Professional soccer is huge in other countries. Some estimate that there are 3.5 billion soccer fans across the globe, five times as many fans as baseball and football combined. The viewing audience of the final game of the World Cup between Germany and Argentina is said to have topped 1 billion people, the most to ever to tune in to a sporting event in history. In considering the question of why professional soccer has not achieved the popularity it has in other countries, part of the answer undoubtedly lies in professional soccer’s media presence and marketing strategy in the US. While much network and cable television programming in the US is dedicated to baseball, football and basketball, relatively little air time is spent broadcasting soccer events. With limited leisure time in our lives, we choose those activities that provide us with the most pleasure. As discussed in Giamatti’s article, the “only ceremony or festival is in the eye, heart, emotion, rooting, of the beholder”. Marketers of professional soccer have perhaps not done its part yet to create the “festival” in our eye, heart or emotions. We needed more background stories on the US players (Who are they? How did they get to where they are? What, perhaps, did they overcome?) to feel truly invested. I think another reason that we Americans have not embraced professional soccer is based partly in our ego-centric nature. We seem to hold tight to our perception of what is American sport (baseball, basketball, football) and what is not (soccer, cricket). Although more and more diverse at the professional level (based on the nationalities of MLB players), we still think of baseball as “America’s Pastime”. American teams are the only ones who compete in the “World” Series – not exactly a global competition. While an American team is guaranteed to win the World Series, we have never achieved dominance on the soccer field. The truth is, other countries field stronger, faster, and more experienced FIFA teams. Most are (or have been) “better” than us, and that doesn’t make us feel very good. Perhaps Giamatti was right when he expressed that, “Winning for players or spectators is no simply outscoring; it is a way of talking about betterment, about making oneself, one’s fellows, one’s city, one’s adherents, more noble because of a temporary engagement of a higher human plane of existence.” In America we like the underdog, but we do not want to be it. Another possibility is that prior to generation Y, most American children grew up playing and watching baseball and basketball, not soccer. My dad has often told me about his memories of hiding his AM radio under his pillow on summer nights to listen to the Detroit Tigers games while his parents thought he was asleep. There were few professional soccer teams in the US for which to cheer for at that time, and soccer cannot take America’s older generation back to their youth like baseball can. Unlike our parents, many of us were raised playing youth soccer in numbers never seen before. Athletic or (as in my case) not, we were suited up every Saturday morning to learn how to dribble, pass, kick and defend. According to statistics published here by US Youth Soccer, over 3 million children registered to play soccer each year since 2000, an increase of over 300% since 1980. I think that our generation, which identifies with soccer as an integral part of our childhoods, will raise the popularity of the sport in our own country. I think we can appreciate the unique skill of the game because many of us were trained in it. I feel a change is on the way. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I want to experience the thrill of professional soccer again, the World Cup was a fantastic and memorable ride!