Yesterday’s World Cup championship game between Germany and Argentina was one of the most highly anticipated finals in the events’ history, and the whole tournament has been high drama worthy of a Vince Gilligan or George R. R. Martin screenplay.
Yet, try talking soccer at the water cooler at work and immediately be bombarded with eye rolls and dismissive comments about how irrelevant soccer supposedly is in this country.
Maybe you just make a comment on Facebook or Twitter about how you’re loving the World Cup or how exciting DeAndre Yedlin is (more on him later.) Be prepared for a slew of snide comments from those with “superior sports knowledge” about how they hate the game and can’t stand the low scoring/flopping/draws/pretty boys or one of a million not-so-unique responses.
I’ve never seen American sports culture so polarized over an issue since the height of the Manning v. Brady debates. When did it become so cool to hate on soccer and why all the backlash over the success of this World Cup?
The anti-soccer crusading hipsters have come out of the proverbial woodwork.
Before rushing to judgment and calling me a soccer apologist, it’s important to know a couple of things.
First, I couldn’t stand to play the sport growing up. Probably because I was freakishly tall and uncoordinated. (I probably should use am instead of was there.) I was awful at the game. I dreaded the days in P.E. when we had to play and never thought I’d get any enjoyment out of the sport in my lifetime.
Also, I really have no stake in the future success of soccer in this country. My journalistic and broadcasting background is in good ole’ American football and basketball, with a little baseball thrown in for good measure. I can’t envision a scenario where soccer’s success or failure will have any relevance on my career or personal happiness. Truly, I think nearly everybody in this country could say the same, save the relatively few involved in MLS or college soccer programs.
But to deny the massive momentum and rising popularity soccer has is like standing out on the highway with a blindfold and saying, “There’s no traffic here because I don’t see it.” I hope you’re prepared to get run over.
The sport is massively popular among young people, so much so that it has passed the NBA, MLB, and college football as the favorite pro-sport for people aged 12-24. Just do an internet search for “soccer youth popularity” and you’ll find a lifetime’s worth of possibly reading to do on the subject. A helpful graph from ESPN in 2012 shows the trends:
Keep in mind that is favorite pro sports, not research on how many kids play each one. Youth soccer has always outpaced youth football in total players simply due to cost and accessibility factors. This graph shows something much different and more important – identification with professional sports leagues. By any measure that is insane growth, nearly tripling in just a decade. ESPN also did a more in depth analysis of the popularity of soccer among our nation’s youth in a recent article.
Oh, I can hear the howls of the TV ratings snobs already. “That doesn’t prove anything, what kids like doesn’t mean jack in the real world,” surely said some ad-exec while reading this. Well, turns out the TV ratings for this World Cup have smashed records. That includes even the poorly timed USA-Belgium match that occurred while every nine-to-fiver in this country was on the clock, or at least pretending to be before sneaking off to their local bar to watch.
Not convinced? Maybe you think those ratings are inflated by USA pride and nobody really cares about soccer, they just care about the stars and stripes. Then that doesn’t explain why the American-less quarterfinals dominated national TV yet again.
By the way, those USA specific ratings crushed the average ratings of Stanley Cup finals and beat the NBA Finals and World Series. That’s a huge feat and can’t be ignored.
Now, if there’s one thing that’s as annoying currently as the anti-soccer hipsters are the pro-soccer elitists. They spout their own breed of intellectual buffoonery in telling the rest of us why soccer is the world’s most popular sport, while listing all the reasons the rest of us dumb Americans and just don’t get it. A friendly piece of advice; lay off the lectures because you are helping expand the stereotype of the Annoying Soccer Fanand doing the sport no favors. Even the tyrannically anti-soccer Keith Olbermann made some great points in a recent special comment on how we can better Americanize the sport as it grows. He’s right. Let’s stop pretending to be Manchester West and make the sport our own.
While it’s clear soccer is on a path to eventual mainstream acceptance, it’s also understandable why the older generation would be skeptical. They’ve heard this all before, especially in the 1970’s when the short lived New York Cosmos tried to shove Pele’-fever down the throats of national viewers and fans in New York.
While the naysayers are correct in pointing out U.S. soccer is at nowhere near the success level predicted back then, they are wrong in ignoring the great growth the sport has seen in the four decades since. The U.S. didn’t qualify for the World Cup nine straight times starting in 1954. That was a 36 (!) year run of futility that left our country more than apathetic to the sport.
All that’s happened since then is seven straight qualifications beginning in 1990, culminating in the first ever back-to-back advancements out of the group stage these past two World Cups. No, USA soccer isn’t Brazil, Germany or even Belgium yet, but the trend says that’ll happen sooner than you might think.
That brings me back to DeAndre Yedlin, the young 20 year old phenom, who broke out on the international stage these past few weeks. The kid is a made-in-USA product who grew up in Seattle and the local club soccer scene there. Yedlin embodies all the reasons why young people are gravitating to the sport in record numbers. He is young, flashy, and represents the potential rise of our nation’s soccer status – not to mention his awesome hair and good looks that will draw in plenty of fringe fans along the way.
That’s what soccer in this country has really been waiting for; a charismatic and likeable young icon who is homegrown and can be the face of soccer. That’s Yedlin, and if not him, then maybe 19 year old Julian Green who became the youngest player to score a World Cup goal since the great Lionel Messi did it 12 years ago, also as a 19 year old.
For as much as I admire Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, or Tim Howard there is a reason they haven’t captured the hearts of young America. Dempsey is seen as too ‘country’, Donovan as old news, and Howard as just plain too old. When Brandi Chastianis perhaps still our country’s biggest soccer star, there’s a need for somebody like Yedlin.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Chastain and that was perhaps the most memorable single sports moment of my lifetime and is a big reason why I found a love for watching soccer, especially at the international level. Her moment personifies one of the biggest reasons soccer will likely supplant baseball and hockey into the ‘Big 3’ of American sports – it is a highly visual medium for its star players, an area where soccer has no peer other than basketball.
Football rules our sports culture, but its big names are relatively anonymous. If I asked Saints’ fans to pick Brandin Cooks, Jahri Evans, and Cam Jordan out of a lineup could they do it? Other than a handful of highly visible national endorsers like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Richard Sherman the stars remain hidden.
There’s a reason why reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly has only 48,000 Twitter followers while Yedlin has over 250,000. Soccer allows its stars to shine, and that is a great thing for the sport in America when charismatic players like Yedlin are about to carry the banner into the future. How many people under the age of 30 do you think are now career fans of his.
That’s why this World Cup mattered. It came at the perfect time for American soccer, when new national TV contracts on FOX and ESPN will start showcasing young stars like Yedlin across the country. Soccer is primed for huge growth, perhaps even outpacing the exponential success it’s had in the past decade. In 10-15 years it’s likely soccer will rival or surpass the NBA in terms of regular season TV ratings and outpace it in per-game attendance.
Is it really inconceivable that in a few decades soccer could be shoulder to shoulder with football in national popularity and TV ratings? Remember, in the 1970’s very few people thought the NFL would morph into the dominant and transformative culture force that it is now. It’s interesting that the first few Super Bowls drew ratings that are very similar to those of this World Cup, and that was in an era where network television dominated. History has a way of repeating itself, and if we consider this World Cup to be soccer’s big coming out party then we are in for one hell of a ride over the next half century.
Not to say everybody will be on board, nor should they be. If you don’t like soccer, whatever your reasons, that’s fine. I don’t watch NASCAR, golf, and am starting to get turned off by college football but I do watch volleyball and the World Series of Poker. That doesn’t delegitimize the sports I don’t like or legitimize the ones I do.
This whole cultural debate over the relevance of soccer is not only counter-productive but also proves a point: Would we all be talking about a niche sport that very few care about for the past month?
Soccer is here to stay. Stars like Yedlin are going to lead it through unprecedented national growth. Then perhaps in 2030 or 2034 we can all get behind the U.S. Men’s team at the World Cup as they lead our proud nation to its first ever championship.