Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The “3 R’s” for Soccer in America from this World Cup

It’s amazing to me how many people can become “life long” soccer fans (following the Algeria win) and in the same week become doubters of the ability of USA’s brand of soccer to ever find a place in America. The best way to weed these people out of the mix is to recognize the impact this world cup continues to have on America even with the USA out of the competition. There’s plenty of room under the tent for soccer fans in America, whether life long or new, just make sure to understand the facts so you can be a steward of the game.

Below are my “3 R’s” for the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) and the 2010 World Cup and their impacts on soccer in America.

1. RESPECT – The performance of the USMNT in the group stage of the World Cup was “respectable” but that does not necessarily garnish the respect of the leading soccer teams in the world. However, beating Spain 2-0 and nearly beating Brazil (FIFA ranked 1 and 2 teams) within a week of each other last summer at the Confederations Cup made headlines. The USMNT winning their CONCACAF qualifying group over Mexico also showed that we were the most dominate team in North America. Holding England to a 1-1 draw, going undefeated in group play, and winning Group C all provided more respect to the USMNT. You don’t lose that respect just because of a lost to Ghana, who’s FIFA ranking in the 30’s doesn’t truly represent that team’s ability. The fact is that 8 years ago the USA was still considered a fledgling soccer team which most powerhouse nations would consider soft in a draw for group play at the world cup. Winning a group is something that Italy, France, England, or Portugal cannot claim in this world cup, and they are all in the top 10 in the FIFA rankings. How does this translate into something that is actually tangible for the future of US soccer? I’ll give the single most important fact; it helps the US retain its best players. You only have to look at New Jersey born Giuseppe Rossi or Salt Lake City’s Neven Subotic to understand this point. Both of these young players were excellent prospects in the U-17 US soccer system, with actual skills as opposed to Nike-hyped skills like Freddy Adu (who could have played for Ghana ironically enough). Both of these young American players could have started for the USMNT in this world cup; however they both chose to play for their native lands, Italy and Serbia, respectively. Rossi was cut from the Italian team after training camp and Subotic saw the bench during most of Serbia’s failed run through Group D. If these players had made a different choice they could have been helping us in that match against Ghana. These players aren’t eligible to play for the US in the future, but the decision to play for the US or a native country continues to play out at the development level in US soccer. Look at the case of Andy Najar, 17-year old starting midfielder for DC United and a native of Honduras. Najar has not had a start for the US or Honduras men’s national teams yet, so he is faced with the same choice as Rossi and Subotic. With the recent success of the US team, star youth players who have options to play for multiple countries are now thinking twice about leaving the US system. America is a melting pot, we will always deal with dual-citizenship issues, but now we have a leg to stand-on when it comes to retaining our best talent. Coupled with a development system that now has youth programs in almost all 50 states and America has become an incubator for home-grown talent as well.

2. RATINGS – ESPN and Univision took a bit of a gamble when they bought the rights for the 2010 and 2014 world cups for a record $425M back in 2008. That’s blows away the broadcast rights for any other country by more than $100M per world cup. Their bid was a 100% increase over their previous price for the 2006 world cup. But the marketing machine known as ESPN and the advancement of various viewing platforms (multiple tv stations, ESPN3.com, ESPN radio, ESPN mobile) has made this a very profitable world cup for ESPN. The US v Ghana match was the highest rated men’s soccer match in US history, drawing just over 20 million viewers (ESPN and Univision combined). That beat the previous record from the US v England match of 18.1 million viewers set two weeks earlier. The non-soccer fan will quickly point out, “20 million? Who cares? That’s nowhere close to the Superbowl.” Anyone who tries to compare soccer to football is insane and should be locked up. By the numbers, the Superbowl averages around 100 million viewers on any given year. Soccer will never replace football; actually, it will never replace any sport in America. Instead it can co-exist with the plethora of sports options in this country, and to some extent, it already has. One only has to look at the NBA finals which were concluding during the first week of the world cup. The finals averaged 16.9 million viewers through the 7 game series between the two most storied franchises in basketball, the Lakers and Celtics. That’s primetime billing on ABC on highly viewed nights pre-selected by the NBA. Compare that to the 2:30pm Saturday start times for both the 18.1 million viewers for US v England and 20.0 million viewers for US v Ghana and it becomes very clear that soccer is making an impact in America. Overall ESPN/ABC/Univision’s ratings are up 78% compared to the 2006 world cup. Beyond television ratings, the volume of hits to ESPN’s World Cup webpage, ESPN radio’s web stream, and ESPN mobile subscribers show that ESPN’s gamble has paid off and will continue to through the 2014 world cup.

3. ROOTS – The US almost didn’t get the chance to host the world cup back in 1994 primarily because FIFA said there was no professional league in the country. As part of their world cup bid, US Soccer promised a professional, nationwide league would begin play in the spring of 1996; Major League Soccer was born. Since the league began as a “side show” following the 1994 world cup it has grown into arguably the 3rd or 4th most popular sports league in America. MLB, NFL, NHL, and NBA have all been rocked by the recession the country has faced over the last 3 years. Player and coach’s salaries being reduced, teams relocating (OK City Thunder), teams going bankrupt (Phoenix Coyotes); but not for MLS. Toronto, Seattle, Philadelphia and soon Portland, Vancouver, and Montreal all will have joined the MLS by 2012. The roots of American soccer finally have an identity that people across the country can see and feel. And it’s not just about putting a team on the field in a major market either; it’s about fan support. One only has to look to the Seattle Sounders, who have had to expand their season ticket allowance twice since joining the league and average over 36,000 per home match. MLS is averaging 16,680 per match throughout all of its venues and teams, which may not seem like a lot, but that’s a better average than 12 NHL and 14 NBA teams drew this past season. Even scarier is the Seattle Sounders average almost as many fans for home matches as… wait for it… the Boston Red Sox (36,146 vs 37,543). Include the fact that no less than a dozen major professional European and South American teams are holding their pre-season matches, not in Europe, but in America. Inter Milan (Champions League Winner), Chelsea (EPL Winner), Boca Juniors (Argentina League Winners), Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton, Tottenham, Celtic, Sporting Lisbon, just to name a few. The roots of soccer in America have grown deeper with this world cup and this country of 300 million people is the most fertile land for growth in soccer anywhere in the world.

Respect, ratings, and roots are not something that can be bought, they can only be earned, keep this in mind when you discuss the US Soccer and the World Cup. And lastly, do us all a favor and sign the petition to bring the World Cup back to America in 2018 or 2022 by going to: http://www.gousabid.com/

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