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Last week, Ahmed wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece on why Americans suck at soccer. I believe he enlisted seven points to back his claim — some based on truth whilst others said in jest. Of course, a lot of people thought he actually believed most of what he wrote and hence received a less than complimentary response.
[I don’t do humour all that well, so I’ll assume a serious tone in writing this piece. Therefore, you will be justified if you attempt to rubbish the rest of this.]
There have been countless debates on the state of the world game in the United States, and the growing noise has been more apparent ever since I set foot on American soil, a couple of years ago. I was of the impression that Americans didn’t really care for the game, but closer observation and time spent in the country taught me otherwise.
Let me get the obvious out the way first: Soccer is the most popular recreational sport in the US. Everyone grows up playing the game here. It is only in the teens, when they reach high school where peer pressure and lot of other factors, which we will get into in a minute, causes the more athletic and capable ones to use their skills in more glamorous sports like Basketball and American Football (we’ll call it football here after).
And now this becomes a vicious cycle. If you are in the east coast or up north, soccer competes with baseball, ice-hockey, football and basketball — lot of glamour games where there is promise of big money and profile. So young soccer players move on to greener pastures. And as long as these established sports keep their collective hold of the sporting market and public perception, soccer will get second, third or fourth choice athletes who couldn’t quite cut it at other games.
But we are here not to debate on the state of soccer; not even how to just improve the state of the game — but to make it take off in a big way, sort of like giving it steroids to really launch and fly [Note: Steroids, metaphorically speaking]. And I’ll say it now itself — bringing Beckham was not it.
My solutions, I believe, haven’t been discussed on Soccerlens previously, although I have seen it mentioned in other sources.
Let me give some background here. According to stats I managed to dig up, this giant of a sports network has a penetration of 58% of the American household. This translates to about 65 million homes, and if you assume, conservatively, an average of 1.5 people per household watch the channel, it adds upto about 97.5 million people. That’s close to one-third of the country’s population.
If ESPN pick up rights to the English Premier League, soccer will explode over the course of a nine-month Premiership season. FOX Soccer Channel and Setanta are doing a good job, but their penetration is minuscule. And, actually, even they have managed to generate buzz about the game.
ESPN is the one big answer to any questions raised about how to make soccer huge in the United States
One may talk as much as he wants about MLS having done little despite ESPN’s coverage, the fact that the Premier League (and La Liga) display football at a much superior level to the MLS — with packed houses and deafeningly loud crowds — makes a Premier League game instantly watchable. I have seen MLS games and they don’t do much to me, except perhaps, the atmosphere when Chicago or Toronto play in their respective stadiums.
Another factor that goes against the MLS is its scheduling where, at times, it’s played late night on working days. The same could be said of ESPN’s coverage of the Champions’ League where it plays in the afternoons on weekdays. The Premier League that way is perfect: it’s in the mornings on a weekend, usually before any of the NFL/NBA/college football games kick off and so fans would be able to take in a few games of soccer rather than having to watch them instead of other sports.
A case in point is the coverage of the Euro 2008 championships, which was a success thanks to commentators like Andy Gray and Adrian Healey (in addition to the peerless Derek Rae). I actually had people, soon after the tournament, asking me which clubs some of these soccer stars play for; some of them have actually started furiously refreshing Newsnow for updates on transfer rumours!
Americans love television, and if ESPN brings top level soccer to the living rooms of a big chunk of the American audience, and for a good part of the year (unlike the once in four years nature of the Euros and the World Cups) soccer is in for a revolution.
The Trickle Down Effect
So how is all this going to help US soccer? As I said, Americans need idols to look up to. Growing up playing soccer is one thing, but growing up playing soccer whilst watching your top stars play for the big clubs makes it an entirely different situation.
[As an aside, I think girls should find guys playing soccer in high schools hot. Otherwise they are going to play football or basketball… you know the adage of a woman always behind a successful man!]
To put it simply, more people playing soccer would increase, by way of probability, more quality players coming up. Which would enrich the MLS.
Men’s Team in College Soccer:
I was astounded when I heard that a men’s soccer team in college sports is a rarity in the US. For those who aren’t aware, the major factory of youth athletes in the US is the college sports system.
There is a reason why the US women’s soccer team is among the best in the world — and the reason, in no small part, is the presence of women’s soccer teams in colleges. I can’t believe why there are no incentives given by MLS clubs to colleges to develop a men’s soccer team.
Yes, some colleges do have men’s teams, but most of them don’t give them their due and exist more out of the community than being officially sanctioned by the respective University — typically relying on the likes of the NSCAA for sports scholarships. It benefits the MLS to have an actual college draft system from the big colleges that actually have good athletics programs, rather than using feeder clubs.
At the end of the day, Americans are natural athletes and have a strong sporting culture, however you see it. Their will to succeed can rival the best; about that there is little doubt. The question, however, is how many of them can actually start caring about soccer enough to generate a buzz, and hence increase the talent pool of American soccer.
RR runs Red Rants — a Manchester United blog.