A few months ago I wrote an article listing reasons why NBA fans with the impending and thankfully short lockout of the NBA season should get into soccer. After a rollercoaster season in the EPL which saw Manchester City, rivals of Manchester United, finally bring home a title after 40+ years, after seeing Real Madrid steal one from Barcelona while breaking many records along the way, and seeing one of the most dramatic finishes for Chelsea in the Champions league, and now watching the Euro 2012 Championship, I thought it was about time to try and give a few more reasons why Americans should watch.
1. The rest of the world does, why not?
Let’s be honest, Americans are sleeping on the biggest sport in the WORLD. Somewhere north of 200 million people worldwide was expected to watch Chelsea defeat Bayern Munich on its own home ground. How many watched the Super Bowl this past season? 111 million. And the numbers are going up for the amount of games being broadcast live on not just cable but terrestrial TV. I will tell you more on that in a minute. Another number one should look at is the numbers of fans worldwide. Just this past month, the Guardian news paper stated that at least 659 million people follow Manchester United alone and that is just ONE team. Can you imagine how many hundreds of millions follow other teams worldwide? Other teams include: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Arsenal, Inter & AC, Juventus and of course now Chelsea. So what is the 2nd most popular team worldwide and most popular US team? The answer would be the Yankees. Soccer lives up to the moniker set by McDonald’s when it says over a billion served, yet as Americans, we turn our noses up to it in favor of our premier and hard-hitting sports (football and basketball) and yet we missing out on a game that can have just as much drama as any other we play here. If you saw the controversy during the Euro 2012 games between England v Ukraine this week, you would know full well what I am talking about. The best part of this sport is you can go anywhere in the US and out of the country and you are guaranteed to find someone who follows the sport and you may make a new friend for life based on that alone whereas you can wear your favorite football jersey to Greece (as I did) and no one would care. Over a billion people can’t go wrong so why aren’t we picking up on it?
2. It’s accessible more now than it ever was
With all of the smartphones, tablets and other devices there are now, and a huge internet presence, there are many ways to be able to watch games anyplace at any time; even more now than just 5 years ago. This past week alone through the use of the WatchESPN app, I and many of my fellow co workers have caught the Euro 2012 tournament either while at lunch, on the way to a destination or even just sitting outside without being up under a television. Last year, Fox broadcast the 2011 Champions League final between Manchester United v Barcelona on terrestrial television even though the game was broadcast live a few hours earlier. In all, 300 million people watched that game so that gave Fox ample room to decide to broadcast this year’s finals live over the air on terrestrial Fox and then replay the broadcast on Fox Sports and did a somewhat better job than last year trying to pander this game to America. If you package it right, people will watch. Not to mention, most cable packages includes Fox Soccer as well as GolTV. NBC recently gained rights to broadcasting MLS games over the air and while right now it may not have the legs that Fox or ESPN has, there is still room for growth now than there ever was. The good news, depending on how you take it, is that there are still negotiations happening with broadcasters to see that audiences are able to get their fill. Because they know that the money is there for the taking and that people will watch. In regards to the US Soccer World Cup qualifiers, US Soccer spokesperson Neil Buethe said in an article last month: “U.S. Soccer wants the TV broadcasts to reach the widest audience possible,” Buethe told me. “But ultimately the rights holder has the option of how it wants to distribute the broadcast they’ve purchased. In conjunction with our broadcast partners, we will exhaust all our options during discussions with rights holders to have the game broadcast in the U.S.”
In my opinion, what needs to happen is many more of these Championship games either need to be shown live on Fox TV itself where many audiences who may not want nor have a sports package can watch.
But let’s not talk about all of the tournaments and qualifiers, what about a regular season game? Is there access for it? Yes there is. Depending on what teams you want to see, it may be a matter of making sure it’s in your cable package, it may be a matter of purchasing a little extra from Fox or whoever carries the rights of the league you want to see. Also it depends if you want to be out and about with fans if your local pub or sports bar carries the games and sometimes among friends and like-minded fans is the best place to be.
3. The Atmosphere at Live Games
My very first live game I went to was the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals doubleheader last year here in Washington DC. The first match was between the US Men’s Tem v Jamaica in a very tame affair. But the 2nd game between El Salvador and Panama was anything but. Say what you will, but the stadium turned into a live party and this was just pre game! The crowd got to singing and partying and the whole overall atmosphere just changed into something that I can’t say that I have seen even at an NFL game. That was one of the biggest memories I took away with me and I have noticed that at almost any game I have gone to, there is a different vibe that the crowd gives off that is unlike anything you can experience in American sports. Watch any European game on TV and winning or losing the spectators are in it willing their teams on. Translate that while actually at a game and compare it to any American venue and you would be hard pressed to say that you got that same kind of feeling even at a Steelers v Ravens game. Just recently, my wife (going to her 1st live pro soccer event) and I went to the USA v Brasil game at fed Ex Field last month and although we didn’t have great seats, my wife even stated that crowds aren’t this pumped at football games we go to. The key of course, just like any other venue is to go for the fun. Go for the camaraderie. Just learn to enjoy it regardless if you are winning or losing. Even at some of the MLS games I have been to, winning or losing, the supporters still make a ton of noise throughout the entire 90 minute affair simply because they enjoy being there and if you like that, then this is a good sport for you to get behind.
4. It needs our presence
We have exported baseball, American football and basketball. All over the world, there are fans that know the name of the Yankees, Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Lakers. American business knows how to market these teams and also know what kind of money is out there. Next to Asia we are probably among the biggest consumers and trendsetters of anything that is out there. We are also a population of changing demographics. With such an increase of people in the US of different cultural backgrounds, it’s getting more and more difficult to keep pushing soccer out of the picture when many of the people who immigrate to the US from all over the world follows soccer. Again, numbers don’t lie. When you have more people who watch one sport worldwide than nationally for another sport, common sense would dictate go where the money is. People will spend it if they have access and if there is access, you grow your presence. Just for kicks, right around the time of the CL finals, I contacted a few stores in my area to see if they carried kits of the teams playing. Sold out; and it was the same answer for the US v Brasil game and also now that the Euros are being played, many kits are on back order where you used to be able to walk right in and buy one and now the only other way to get them is via the web. I expect the same to happen once the international friendlies start up next month here stateside and if any betting person could, this probably would be the right time to open up a store to sell kits!
Speaking of, another great way to people out to games has been the international friendlies that are played throughout the summer in between the regular season. Many of the European clubs have come to the US over the past few years to give fans a taste of how they do it across seas and turnout has been excellent. I have already purchased my tickets for the 2 games being played in my area this summer and I can tell you, many were disappointed when the Chelsea v AC Milan game was moved to Florida but we are still going just to see the quality live and up close.
5. Support for homegrown soccer is growing
As much as people talk about the quality of MLS soccer isn’t on the same level as Europe’s game, it won’t gain anything unless we who live here nurture it and help it grow. One excuse I hear often from friends that won’t go to MLS games is that it’s not the same or it’s amateurish. Well guess what, it’s all we got for now so enjoy it while it lasts. Nothing gets better while you sit on the sidelines. While I wish that smaller leagues worldwide stop becoming dumping grounds for discarded and over the hill players, I DO know the value of being able to support the home teams and enjoy it for what it is. The average price for a ticket to a DC United game peaks out to anywhere around $40 to $75 dollars per game and you can get excellent seats no matter what. Try getting a lower level seat for a Redskins or Ravens game in almost equal proximity and your ticket may cost you a car payment just for YOUR ticket or one month mortgage for you and a companion. And here is to hoping that your team isn’t already having a bad year, because it makes it that much harder to justify purchasing that ticket.
Support has indeed grown over the past year as a report was released showing that the average attendance currently sits at 18,542 through 121 matches. A year ago, the average was 17,245 at through 116 matches. So to put it simply, people are coming to games. Also with the fact that teams, like the Houston Dynamo, are opening new facilities, instead of squatting in oversized stadiums designed for American football means that the MLS is serious about getting people to support this industry. There have even been louder murmurs being heard about DC United possibly moving forward to getting a new home and out of RFK and many of us are hoping this comes true.
Yes, people can complain about the way US soccer is handled including the schedules, drafting and player development, but it’s undeniable that as I mentioned earlier with the way the population is shifting in the US, soccer can ill afford to take a back seat to other major sports. Regardless of the quality, we need to support it and show the rest of the world that we take it seriously.
6. It’s a sport that transcends all races and creeds
For awhile now, I have been trying to avoid writing this issue, but I really think that if there ever was a way to really convince Americans to get into this sport, fans and supporters have to do what they can to lift up the veil of ignorance that surrounds who plays and who doesn’t. I can’t tell you how many times I have talked to others not as into the sport who has stated some of the following:
– Not enough blacks play this sport
– Too many blacks play this sport
– It’s only a sport for Hispanics
– Too many whites play this sport
– Not enough English speakers play this sport
And while I would like to throttle some of these people for saying these things, this is just a lesson on how much work needs to be done to open the minds of ignorant Americans to a global sport. Lesson number one that dispels just about all of these myths is the World Cup. The title itself lives up to its name. Players from all over the world compete to win it. From every background, rich nation, poor nation, skin color, language, religion whatever you want to point out, they all come every four years to play. Even during the regular season, observe the make up of teams. They are a melting pot of players from all over the world and American sports can’t say that we really have that.
In hindsight, sometimes I almost see the reason why that we as Americans have to try and export baseball, basketball and American football for the exposure. To be blunt, if you look at those sports over the past century, it started off mostly white, then mostly black and just now starting to really get a mix of internationals with basketball probably being one of the more viable of our exported sports. Soccer, even with its issues with racism, still has a better handle of integrating the sport on a global level and have readily shown that it can do because most teams look at quality first over anything else and that in itself is a positive that we can learn from.
If there ever was a game that could bring people from different backgrounds together, it would be this one. It’s not a perfect system however and the fight between fans from different groups during the Euros has shown this but this doesn’t mean we have to be just as ignorant. Even in the time I have been following this sport, it has helped me meet so many new people from many different places and exchange our stories about what we enjoy about this game. This is a perfect sport designed to bring people out of their shells; it’s a very sociable and easy sport to get into where if you are by yourself walking into a sports bar at the beginning of a game, by the final whistle, you will have new friends. When you really think about it, Liverpool has the right anthem for this sport, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.
So as an American, if you never have before, take time to watch one game and if possible, find a friend that knows the sport to watch it with, better yet make some time and if an MLS venue is nearby, go check it out and don’t necessarily go to try and understand the game, feel the crowd and the excitement and who knows, maybe you might just like it!