Please stop lecturing us. We know that it's called football everywhere else and that it's the global game, the beautiful game. Americans call it soccer because there's a perfectly great sport here already called football, one that is not inclined to surrender its moniker anytime soon. So don't get your football knickers in a twist about it.
Soccer it is. And stop asking that question, "When is soccer ever going to be big in America?" Soccer won't ever be NFL big or Major League Baseball big, but in so many ways, soccer has become a big and growing sport. An American sport. Americans love to play it, certainly. Soccer trails only basketball in the number of participants. It's the most popular sport for women among NCAA schools. That's been true for a long time. Indeed, the game has deep roots in the U.S., arriving with immigrants from Scotland, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, who brought their work skills and their game with them.
What's changed is that this sport and this World Cup matter to Americans. These fans have already made the transition from soccer pioneers to soccer-literate and are gradually heading down the road to soccer-passionate. Almost 55,000 watched the U.S. national team play Turkey in a friendly match in Philadelphia on May 29. Supporters of the Major League Soccer (MLS) team the Seattle Sounders have turned game day into an event, marching 35,000 strong into Qwest Field in their green and blue colors, standing and singing during the whole match. Seattle is part of a second wave of MLS franchises that are transforming the fan experience. "Players say it's just like playing in Europe," says U.S. forward Landon Donovan, who just did.
And here's another thing: our team can beat your team. Last summer, Donovan and his mates knocked off European champions Spain in the Confederations Cup and gave Brazil everything it could handle before they lost in the final. "They put the world on notice. [Foreigners] just can't imagine they are playing against cowboys. They are playing against soccer players," says Dan Gaspar, an American who is Portugal's assistant coach. The U.S. plays England in its first game in the World Cup, and no one is praying for a miracle. Rather, there's an expectation that winning is quite possible, even if it doesn't happen.
Growth is happening on a number of levels spectator, media, corporate and cultural. "Soccer is the only game played around the world. We can't be that different than anyone else in the world," says Joe Roth, the Hollywood producer who is principal owner of the Seattle Sounders. We're not that different, it turns out. There are three soccer channels on cable in addition to ESPN's growing soccer portfolio. American companies such as Visa, McDonald's and Coca-Cola that have long tapped the game's commercial potential abroad are for the first time unleashing World Cup promotions in the U.S. for games being played in South Africa. Even the demographics are going soccer's way, as the young, burgeoning Hispanic-American population spreads its enthusiasm for the game.
American businessmen, who like to win at everything, have also latched onto the sport's potential. To the absolute horror and revulsion of many English fans, Americans have captured some of their prized teams, including Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester United the world's most valuable sports franchise. Even our once puny domestic league is on a growth spurt, with new MLS teams in new stadiums opening for business in Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., and with new franchises in Montreal and Vancouver that will bring the league to 20 teams by 2012.
Face it, world: the U.S. is going to play, watch, market, manage and own your sport sooner or later. "For good or for bad, America has always been the center of the universe, whether it's sports, culture, politics," says MLS commissioner Don Garber. "So it makes sense that as soccer has exploded to become a true global sport, America would hop on the bandwagon." More tickets to the World Cup were purchased in the U.S. than in any other country except the host nation. ABC/ ESPN and Univision have spent a combined $425 million for the U.S. broadcast rights the most for any single country. The 2002 rights, by contrast, went for $40 million. "It's going to become part of the conversation," says John Skipper, executive vice president of content for ESPN. His company will make it so, televising every game on either ABC, its corporate cousin, or ESPN and advertising time has already been sold out.
Even before the World Cup, soccer had seeped deeper into our culture. The arrival of David Beckham in MLS almost three years ago guaranteed headlines wherever he and wife Posh traveled. But when Vanity Fair pairs foreign soccer stars Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo on the cover, it's a sign that soccer has arrived among the cool people. In late May, the Fox network booted the baseball game between the champion New York Yankees and the New York Mets from afternoon to evening to accommodate live coverage of the Champions League final between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich. The national pastime was displaced by the planetary pastime.