Odd to say in win-obsessed America, but no matter the result in Mexico City later today, soccer in the United States has already won. While the first ever win by the U.S. Men’s National Team at the Azteca Stadium would be the icing on the cake, a cathartic summer of success has brought soccer into the mainstream of American sports, and importantly, sports media. I never thought I would hear the hourly national news bulletin on NPR reporting on a U.S. soccer match hours before kickoff. Soccer has truly arrived.
Being a soccer fan in America has been hard. Even though it is now by far the sport with the highest participation at youth level across the United States, soccer has never even come close to rivaling football, baseball, and basketball. Major network and cable coverage of the game has been virtually non-existent and print and broadcast media outlets have largely ignored soccer outside of major tournaments and events. And the disdain isn’t reserved to American media – most international media enjoy nothing more than ridiculing American soccer. Fans in the U.S. have been literally under siege.
But the difficulty of following soccer in America has fostered among its devotees a growing underground network of intensely loyal and knowledgeable fans. The Internet and soccer focused cable networks have brought unparalleled access to the world game for all those who choose to find it. And those kids that started playing soccer in large numbers in the 70’s are grown up now (that means me unfortunately) and have money to spend – and they are showing it. The most significant developments underlying the strength of soccer in America are happening off the field and this is why the sport can survive a defeat in Mexico.
Global soccer powers have been touring the United States in their summer pre-season for years, but this summer was different. From the first big game in Seattle when Chelsea squared off against the Sounders, American football stadiums have been packed with tens of thousands of fans decked out in hometown kit as well as Milan, Madrid, and Chelsea gear. The energy and atmosphere during the games belied any sense that they were mere exhibitions and demonstrated that there is now massive potential for U.S.-based support for soccer played at the highest level. Everyone noticed, most importantly ESPN and advertisers.
ESPN has a de facto sports media monopoly in the U.S. Of course the major networks broadcast football, baseball, and basketball games, but every sports fan goes to ESPN first and SportsCenter is to sports in America what Walter Cronkite was to the evening news – it defines and drives coverage, reporting, and viewership. And ESPN has clearly made a conscious effort to promote soccer. At least one great goal or save from around the world always makes the daily Top Ten Plays, always, and the sport now has a regular place on the omnipresent update trackers that run across the bottom of the screen on each of the network’s channels.
These off the field developments are the necessary predicate for on the field success. The emergence of soccer as a legitimate national sport in America will mean all those kids who play the game will see a future in the sport. All the best athletes play multiple sports as kids – I played soccer, baseball, and basketball but there was never any question that soccer would be the first sport I dropped as got older and better. I dreamed of a big league baseball career, but I can never remember even considering professional soccer even though I played on an elite traveling team. That’s because as far as I knew, there was no professional soccer. Now a kid from suburban Maryland plays for AC Milan.
Today is a day of many great first for soccer in America. I had never heard it promoted on NPR. The tiny channel that is broadcasting the game in English has forced its way on to every major cable television provider in the United States just for the day because demand was so high. ESPN is running a pre-game show even though it is not broadcasting the match on any of its networks, a first for soccer. Now go on boys, go out and get that first win in Azteca.