Thursday, June 24, 2010

World Cup fever; Soccer is solid niche sport with bursts of popularity

So now we have World Cup fever. Sort of.

There’s always a buzz when the United States is doing well in an international event—especially if it is on television and there’s no doubt this World Cup is on TV—non-stop. My friend Sally Jenkins wrote a column about being in a New York bar yesterday morning and the electricity inside when Landon Donovan scored the goal that saved the U.S. from being eliminated after an embarrassing 0-0 tie with Algeria. Instead, the Americans escaped with a 1-0 victory to reach the knockout round where it will play Ghana on Saturday in a very winnable game.

That’s all good. With ESPN’s non-stop promotion of the event during the last year and with the U.S. team managing to make it this far, there will be tremendous focus on soccer the next couple of weeks. There’s even a chance the U.S. could reach the semifinals to play one of the world’s true powerhouse teams. A win over Ghana would lead to a game with Uruguay or S Korea, both good teams but not in the same class with Argentina, Germany, Brazil—the teams that (along with defending champion Italy, which is struggling) usually dominate international play.

So, it is a day for U.S. soccer fanatics to celebrate. As I’ve said before, I like soccer and I love the electricity of The World Cup. I’ve covered soccer, back in my early days at The Post. I would never claim to be an expert on the game, but I like it and I’ve liked most of the people I’ve encountered through the years. Just a couple of weeks ago I ran into D.C. United Coach Tom Sohn and his assistant Ben Olsen at a TV studio and they patiently explained to me why the U.S. had a very good chance to win or tie in its opening game against England.

Having said all that, soccer is going to remain a niche sport in this country unless—and even then it isn’t guaranteed—the U.S. wins the World Cup. The closest we’ve ever come was a third place finish in 1930 and there aren’t too many folks around with memories of that occasion. In fact, from 1934 to 1986 the U.S. team didn’t even make it to the World Cup tournament. Since then expansion to 32 teams, being named the host team (1994, which gives you an automatic berth) and improvement in U.S. soccer have allowed us to at least make the tournament the last six times it has been played.

In 1994, playing at home, the U.S. reached the round of 16. In 2002 it got to the quarterfinals. If it could reach the semifinals, there’s no question TV ratings would be as high as they’ve ever been for soccer and, with all the ESPN hype, there would be as much talk about it as there has ever been. Some of that will carry over, no doubt, but it doesn’t mean attendance at MLS games is going to suddenly double or TV ratings will triple. One thing soccer people have always had trouble doing is understanding that, YES, soccer is the world’s sport but NO, it is not the United States’ sport. Even with all the ESPN hype it is worth nothing the U.S.-England game didn’t get nearly the rating the four letter people had been projecting.

Football—American football—is our number one sport and that isn’t going to change. Baseball and basketball come next and then there’s hockey and golf and once there used to be tennis. Soccer is always going to fit somewhere in that second tier, moving up or down depending on circumstances. This is certainly a chance for it to move up.

Some history here: When I covered the North American Soccer League in the late 1970s, the Cosmos were a true phenomenon. They had brought Pele here and followed that by bringing genuine international stars like Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia to their team. They drew huge crowds in Giants Stadium on a consistent basis. The Washington Diplomats traded for Johan Cruyff, who had arguably been the No. 2 player in the world behind Pele in the early 1970s, and even the Dips drew well in RFK Stadium—averaging more fans in 1980 than D.C. United averages now, including a crowd of more than 53,000 one Sunday afternoon for a game against the Cosmos.

“Soccer—the sport of the 80s,”—that was the NASL’s slogan. Then Pele retired, the league over-expanded and by the mid-80s, the NASL was completely gone, one of the great league collapses in sports history. It wasn’t until after the 1994 World Cup that MLS was launched and, even then, it was done so with the notion that salaries would be modest and the pursuit of big-money superstars would be controlled. For most of the first 10 years that’s exactly what the league did. The big experiment—bringing in David Beckham, created buzz for a while until everyone realized Beckham couldn’t play anymore, even on those days when he did limp onto the field.

In 1999, the U.S. women’s soccer team created great interest—why?—because it was WINNING and because some of the players were extremely attractive. Most people forget the U.S. and China played to an incredibly dull 0-0 tie in that World Cup final and remember Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt after scoring the winning goal in the shootout. (Seriously soccer fans how can you hope to have your sport taken really seriously if you continue to decide World Cup knockout games in shootouts? It’s the equivalent of deciding postseason baseball games with a home run Derby; postseason football with a field goal kicking contest or a major golf tournament with a chip-off. Ridiculous. You have to play to a real soccer result).

After that U.S. victory, women’s soccer was going to be the next big thing. I remember a dopey New York publishing guy named David Hirshey going on Tony Kornheiser’s radio show saying there was going to be an “explosion,” in women’s soccer (the fact that he was publishing a women’s soccer book may have influenced him). So a league was launched and it failed in a couple of years and now there’s another league where they play mostly in high school stadiums in front of crowds of maybe 5,000.

You see there is NOTHING wrong with being a solid niche sport that has an occasional burst like the one going on now. Hockey isn’t that much different: People were riveted by the Olympics this year and ratings DID go up during the Stanley Cup playoffs but nowhere close to what the big three get in ratings in postseason—or for that matter what the NFL gets for a routine Sunday afternoon.

So, soccer fans, enjoy these next couple of weeks. Maybe the U.S. will pull off a Miracle on Turf. More likely it might reach the semis, which would be a fabulous achievement. People WILL be paying attention and will be talking about it. But don’t be disappointed or rant and rave when normalcy returns and crowds of 15,000 show up at MLS games and the TV ratings are in the 1’s and 2’s again. Actually, that’s progress and it’s okay.

Just don’t think soccer is going to be the sport of the teens. The last group that made that mistake was the NASL and we all know how that turned out.


John recently appeared on The Jim Rome Show ( to discuss 'Moment of Glory.' Click here to download, or listen in the player below:

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John Matthew IV said...

Not just World Cup knockout games are decided by shootouts but World Cup FINAL games are.

That is silly.

Wimbledon proved they do it right yesterday and more today.

Play the game until someone wins. Don't change the rules midway through.

Chris said...


I enjoy ready your column daily. However, today you seemed more intent on bashing ESPN than getting your facts correct. If the USA advances to the next round they will play Uruguay or Korea, not Mexico. The knock-out round brackets work just like the NCAA basketball tournament brackets. Secondly, the USA advanced to the quarterfinals in 2002, not 2006. No, neither fact changes the point of your piece, but in a story about soccer more fact-checking on the sport and less disdain for a cable network would be nice. ESPN didn’t invent soccer. The sport can be praised and criticized on its own merits.

FOTB Staff__ said...

Brandon, good catches. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

More fact checking: USA qualified for the World Cup in 1934 and 1950 (and, as has been much publicized, beat England 1-0 in the group stage in 1950):

ManUFan! said...

Soccer is here to stay. More Soccer games are available on TV week to week than any other Sport in the United States..(that's a fact) Internet Fans have taken the Sport to new levels, ESPN is doing a much better job. No it's not perfect, but it's much improved.

As John states don't worry football Fans, The NFL is the Sport of Kings in the USA..and rightly so.

Soccer has a place especially in early to mid morning programming... USA Soccer should not over reach after this World Cup.. it's doing just fine in Chat Boards, Internet Streams and huge Youth Soccer Programs.

Anonymous said...

God I pray that Ghana beats the USA, so all this soccer talk would go away.

Geoff said...

One more catch. Perhaps the most famous upset in World Cup history was played back in 1950 in Brazil. U.S. 1 - England 0.

Anonymous said...

"ESPN didn't invent soccer." Correct, in fact, its stable of reporters, who today claim to be educating America on soccer, are, through the years, the biggest "haters" of the sport of football.

But, by 2020, the ethnic demographics of the USA will make soccer, baseball and basketball the top American sports.

Ed Tracey said...

Following up on those who note the error in omitting the US's 1950 1-0 victory over England: have a look at this (recent) ESPN video, about the son of Joe Gaetjens (who scored the only goal). It is truly a hard-hearted person who cannot be moved by this account.

Cory said...

I agree with most of your analysis, John, but not with the presumption that soccer will never reach higher than niche status. MLS is 14 years old. The English Premiership wasn't what it is today when it was first created. Just like everything, it took time to grow -- even if the English did create the game. It, like anything, took time to develop.

In the MLS, when the salary structures change, when revenue streams begin to grow, when elite players sign in our market during their primes, that's when soccer will vie between the Big 3 of football, basketball and baseball.

Perhaps it will never challenge American football, but it certainly can compete with basketball and baseball -- a diminishing product -- in time. Baseball isn't getting the same types of players it was 20 and 30 years ago. Soccer is starting to grow in popularity, steady but surely, and could have a solid US soccer foundation by 2020, if not sooner.

And in turn, with more success in the national team you will see slight boons in the MLS market. The player pool will get better and teams as a result will be more engaging to watch.

We just have to use these four year cycles to widen interest in the states. Every World Cup period presents a new opportunity to gain more trust in fans and gain new opportunities elsewhere.

Niche now. A BIG sport sometime later.