As we usher in another summer, another large soccer tournament is upon us. This time it’s Euro 2012. But do Americans, separated by the Atlantic Ocean and thousands of miles, care? Apparently that answer is yes, in the form of television ratings. Through the first eight matches of the tournament, ESPN was averaging 1.26 million viewers, good enough for a remarkable 183% increase, through the same number of games, from Euro 2008. ESPN’s savvy marketing of the event and the fantastic product itself have helped but the real question is, will the sport be able to sustain its popularity in the United States, following this one month clash between European countries?
The United States’ loss to Ghana in the 2010 World Cup was seen by nearly 15 million people on ABC-TV and over 4.5 million on Univision. Incredibly, this was the same number of people that watched the 2009 World Series over six evening games that Fall. If there’s any doubt that international soccer competitions attract viewers, then that myth has been thoroughly debunked. The greater issue for the future and vitality of American soccer lie in club play; more specifically, Major League Soccer. The sport has soared in popularity at the turnstile but is dwarfed by the major three American sports on television.
One thing that most people can agree upon, which is both backed up by the ratings data and philosophically, is that American soccer fans are much more drawn to international competition than club competition. The first MLS season was 1996 and while the league plays very well in cities like Seattle and Los Angeles, the sport is constantly fighting an uphill battle with a sporting landscape saturated with professional and college football, baseball and basketball. The MLS can’t possibly have the time-aged rivalries and traditions that other sporting leagues have in this country.
One of the fundamental reasons, that has and probably always will hurt soccer’s acceptance in this country, is Americans’ proclivity to see teams score lots of points, goals and runs; not just one or two per game. The American sports fan can be a very fickle one. American football is king for a reason. The sport’s action takes place at lightning quick speeds and with gladiator-esque physical contact. Many of the wildly popular college and pro teams score points at breakneck speeds. We’re conditioned for faster pace and quicker results, not a long 90 minute wait, only to find out our club or country may only be fit to be tied. There isn’t as much of a tolerance, especially at the club level, for having to wait out an entire game which very possibly could end in a 0-0 tie. And most importantly, it is counter-intuitive to our sports psyche as fans, to watch one team clearly outplay another for an entire game and still have the very real possibility of tying or losing to a given team, based on a goal which may be more chalked up to chance or luck than anything else.
Soccer’s shared commonality with American sports like football and basketball is that team fitness can often trump talent on any given day. Or as the old adage says, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” Soccer is a grueling test of physical fitness and condition where endurance and speed are of immense significance. Foot speed with the ball and the ability to maneuver around defenders, at times, is paramount but a player and team’s ability to last for 90 minutes or potentially 120 minutes in spirited competition, is often of the greatest value.
Nationalism is the influential driving force behind the success and fan enthusiasm of the World Cup and tournaments like Euro 2012 and Copa America. Since the recession began in 2008 in the United States, these last four years have inspired a sharp, partisan divide with movements like Occupy Wall St and bantering about our nation’s immigration policy. Yet the thrilling excitement that reigned, for several weeks in June 2010 and July 2011, over our nation’s men’s and women’s soccer team was palpable. Many a sports fan knows precisely where they were, and just how those goose bumps felt, when Landon Donovan drilled a soccer ball into the back of the net to pull out one of the greatest victories in American soccer history, over Algeria. Likewise, many remember the thrilling header that Abby Wambach deposited in the goal against Brazil last summer.
Yet for the sport to continue to grow, the United States men’s and women’s national team games must air on cable television. Amazingly, the United States men’s national team match with Guatemala on June 12th was not aired by any cable channel in the U.S. and instead was only available on pay-per-view. Granted, this was due to the Guatemalan federation selling the viewing rights to Traffic Sports. That said, U.S. television stations could have purchased the rights had they felt it in their best interest. Could you imagine this happening in Mexico or England?
The World Cup and Euro 2012 have shown that the American sports fan revels in hard-fought international competition. Will fans continue that enthusiasm for the beautiful game, occurring in many of their own cities? US Soccer is sure hoping so.