Soccer taking off in America?

Bill Simmons, aka the Sports Guy over at ESPN, writes in his latest column that he finally believes soccer is taking off in America (see Questions #19 and 20). This is a common debate, particularly at World Cup time: have Americans finally latched on to the “world’s game”?

Simmons develops several arguments, which I summarize here:

1. Many fans weren’t just excited about Landon Donovan scoring during injury time against Algeria – more understood what it meant.

2. The US performance in this World Cup brought Americans together and there are not too many other athletes or teams that can do this.

3. Moments like this make big impressions on young children who then carry their fervor into their adult life.

4. Media and technology now make it easier to access soccer.

In summary, Simmons writes:

Soccer is no longer taking off. It’s here. Those celebratory YouTube videos that started popping up in the 24 hours after Donovan’s goal…tapped into a collective American sports experience unlike anything since Lake Placid….Those clips choked me up. Those clips gave me goosebumps. Those clips made me think, “I forget this sometimes, but I’m glad I live in the United States of America.”

It is interesting that Simmons says this now. He says he knows what cynics would say: people have been saying this for years.

I think he is right in one sense: more Americans do now seem interested in soccer. TV ratings have been good, particularly for the US matches. ESPN has carried every game and its easy to find highlights and commentary on many outlets. Americans like rooting with each other for Americans – this is what happens in the Olympics in four-year cycles and that typically includes sports no one watches between Olympics. There are few moments that bring Americans together for a common purpose and sporting events like the World Cup are rare. Additionally, the US now has a reasonable soccer league, MLS, that has developed into a decent feeder league for First Division European leagues.

In another sense, Simmons is making a strange argument. What does it mean to say that “soccer is here”? Is it now a top-three American sport? Of course not. It may have already eclipsed hockey (check out the consistent broadcasts and ratings on Spanish-language TV) but it would need sustained interest, not just four year spurts, to come close to football, basketball, and baseball. The YouTube videos Simmons writes about of Americans celebrating Donovan’s goals (successfully edited together here) are positive; but they are just a small sample. In fact, most of these videos feature middle to upper class white males sitting in a bar when they should be at work. We are nowhere near national holiday status for big matches.

The whole discussion about whether “soccer is here” is tedious. America is a big country: we have lots of room for lots of sports. In reality, there are still just a few sporting events that draw national attention from the casual fan or even disinterested people. The Super Bowl is the best example while the NBA Finals, World Series, and Olympics lag behind.

Soccer doesn’t have to be as big as it is in other nations to be considered “here” but it does have to be a consistent draw in person and on television. Perhaps by the next World Cup, MLS will be thriving (increased attendance, more players headed to Europe) and the soccer generation who have filled youth leagues for decades will be older and more attentive. Perhaps not.

But if one is truly a fan of sports and competition, it’s hard not to get interested in the World Cup. In addition to national pride on the line, it features the world’s best players and a truly international cast.

0 thoughts on “Soccer taking off in America?

  1. Not sure what’s taken the rest of America so long. I come from an America where on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, entire families gather at soccer fields, indoor for much of the Chicago winter. The players aren’t grade-schoolers but grown men, some well into their 40s. The spectators are wives, girlfriends, kids, babies, many wearing jerseys numbered to match their player on the field. There are concessions, chants, and huge crowds for the finals. Sometimes English is the only language everyone there has in common, but on the field, teammates communicate in Spanish, Polish, Romanian, Albanian, Italian, Korean, Greek. The older players tend to form teams around common ethnic roots, but the younger leagues increasingly bring together players who find each other at school. One of my husband’s teams called itself “ESL United” and included members of all the above-mentioned heritage groups, plus a British expat and a Caucasian American-born guy.

    For a lot of this country, soccer has been here for generations, and the MLS and even Team USA are well aware, based on the targeted foreign-language marketing they use to fill the stands. But I guess until soccer captures the masses of “mainstream” Americans who speak primarily English, are farther removed from their immigrant roots, and otherwise follow basketball, football, or baseball, we won’t be able to say it has truly arrived.

    I agree that one reason soccer has arrived is because, as you and Bill Simmons point out, Americans have discovered that it unites us like virtually no other sport. I witnessed the US exit from this World Cup standing in the middle of a suburban shopping mall, crowded around a Comcast display with over a dozen people from multiple ages and backgrounds, all trying to explain to each other FIFA’s current rules for extra time and what it would take for the US to win it. As the clock dragged on and the US battled to regain a foothold in the game, there were collective gasps and cheers, followed by huge sighs. When the game ended, everyone was left staring at the strangers around them, and we all shared looks of sympathy as we parted ways. Even in defeat, Team USA had a way of bringing together people who ordinarily wouldn’t have crossed paths, let alone spoken to one another, and who quite frankly barely understood each other in English. I’d say that’s how we know soccer has arrived here.

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  2. I think you hit the nail on the head. A segment of Americans has already been attached to soccer. What Simmons and others are really questioning is whether the average white male sports fan will become true soccer fans.

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