Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where Brett Favre beating the packers as a member of the Vikings will go down as one of the seminal Minnesota sports moments of this generation.
Thanks to Jackie Adkins (@JackieAdkins) for the inspiration for this post. He is a recent grad of the University of North Carolina, and a sharp young sports/marketing mind. The content here is based on a presentation he wrote entitled "Soccer: The Rest of the World's Game," which he so generously sent to me to write about.
Now, it's no shock that soccer is not as mainstream in America as other sports. Many people think it's a boring sport to watch, that there aren't many goals scored and that it's played sloppily in general (with phenomena like "flopping"). Plus, traditionally, the USA hasn't been a strong soccer nation in major competitions. We all know how we Americans love to rally around a winner...we simply haven't had that chance very often with the national soccer teams.
There are signs, though, that the sport is gaining a foothold in America and could be on the verge of explosion into the mainstream. Here are some proof points:
--Soccer is America's #1 youth game today. Yes, more kids play soccer here today than any other sport. No lie. And as these kids grow up, they'll bring their affinity for the sport into their homes, their decisions and (critical to the growth of soccer) their purchases.
--The USA National Teams are starting to enjoy some success. The Mens' National Team hosted the 1994 World Cup, had a strong showing in 2002 and recently played in the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup, considered a top prep tourney for the World Cup. And you know that the Women's Team has been a dynamo, winning in 1999 and playing well ever since.
--Soccer is the Hispanic world's #1 sport, and as more Hispanics become Americans, they naturally bring the game to the nation.
--Major League Soccer, and women's leagues, are taking off and growing. It took a while, but the fans are coming - and sponsors are buying into it.
All of these bode well for the sport, but what does soccer need to do to continue and stimulate this growth in America?
First, broader exposure to the game would help. For example, currently, not even all of the Mens' National Team games are on ESPN or other forms of cable or network national television. How can Americans rally behind the team and sport if they can't watch their premier teams compete? And this isn't the time to ask for more beat reporters, but even local soccer teams don't currently receive the level of coverage as other local squads - despite the increasing demographic interest noted above.
Second, continue to build slowly but surely. Those looking to turn a quick profit in soccer probably won't do it, and momentum could be lost along the way. Building an empire and a movement takes time - you can't do it overnight. It takes years. Keep taking steps forward, and eventually your journey will be complete. For example, it seems like the MLS has this figured out - as much as they'd like to be a 30-team league, and others want them to be that large, they've been very methodical in expansion and have picked their franchise cities carefully.
Third, soccer's fans in America have to evangelize. New fans have to be won with passion, not with scoring. So, just like with any other branding effort, people need to experience the game in ways they haven't before - that is how they will see the light. And in lieu of broadcast access and other barriers to entry, the sport's ardent fans have got to carry the torch on this one.
Fourth, the Men's National Team needs to do well in South Africa in the 2010 World Cup. In most of the world, this is considered the biggest sports event in the world - bigger than the Olympics, the Super Bowl, etc. And the USA has qualified as the winner of their region...there's nothing that would do more for soccer in America than a deep run in The Big One next summer.
Personally, I really like soccer. I've watched it, played it and announced it. Sure, there isn't as much scoring as other sports, but there's just as much (or more) strategy, talent, rivalry, passion, etc. on the pitch as any other sport. That's the real beauty of the game - just like with a great work of art, you just have to look a little harder to see it. And for those of you who have never played - try it. You might just experience for yourself what so many others have experienced. If soccer were to become a mainstream sport in this nation, awesome. I'm all for it, and I hope this post is in some small way a contribution to that effort.
That's all for now. I'm out like MLB umpires' eyesight this postseason.