Thursday, Jun. 03, 2010

Yes, Soccer Is America's Game

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.

Inevitably, the viral, communicative power of the Web and video gaming is also part of the change. EA Sports is seeing startling changes in its FIFA 10 soccer game. On any day, about 750,000 Americans compete online — second only to the British — and their choice of teams and players reflects what's happening in soccer. "That's where I learned about all the players in the world," says Donovan. Games like FIFA 10 and Konami's Pro Evolution are transmitting the soccer culture at a new level. When Arsenal plays Chelsea or Barcelona plays Real Madrid, the game is repeated online by hundreds of thousands of gamers in the U.S. "We don't see it as ethnic," says Peter Moore, president of EA Sports. "We see FIFA 10 as a game that creeps into every neighborhood in America. The world champion FIFA 10 gamer, by the way, is an American.

Moore's reference to ethnicity hints at a deeper issue. The browning of America is changing soccer's complexion too. The Hispanic-American population — young, growing and passionate about soccer — doesn't have to be converted from other sports. One of the soccer teams that is most popular in the U.S. is Mexico's. The future might look something like Herculez Gomez. He's the leading scorer in the Mexican league — and a forward on the U.S. national team. Gomez, 28, was born in Los Angeles to Mexican-American parents and could have played for either country.

The Mexican team isn't the only foreign outfit that draws big in the U.S. Last year, in what it called the Summer of Soccer, MLS's marketing arm promoted international matches involving teams such as Mexico, Barcelona and Real Madrid. Two million fans showed up in a 51-day period. "It's almost inconceivable that another American sport can consistently sell out American football stadiums for exhibition games year in and year out. More people are attending soccer in the U.S. than in most countries around the world if you put all those games together," says Garber.

The ability to see soccer's best players on television and on tour is another factor in its popularity in the U.S. Paradoxically, that can be a challenge for MLS, which has to compete with not just other U.S. sports leagues but also European soccer. "This is the only sport on a global basis where the best players do not play here," says Tim Leiweke, CEO of the Anschutz Entertainment Group Inc., which owns the Los Angeles Galaxy. "Sometimes in the U.S., we struggle when we are not the center of the universe." So MLS is about to spend big on the global stars its fans already know. This summer, French star Thierry Henry will sign for New York's Red Bulls. He joins L.A.'s Beckham and Seattle's Freddie Ljungberg as marquee players.

People such as Skipper and Roth represent the kind of soccer aficionados who are in a position to move the sport along. Roth played in the ethnic cauldron of New York City and in college and then coached his kids after he moved to California. In the Seattle Sounders, he saw the game's future. And profits. "You see the same kind of demographic you see in Europe, as opposed to soccer moms taking their kids out for babysitting," he says. "That's not a model that works, because it's not real."

Skipper is from North Carolina and, like many Americans, was introduced to the game through his kids' teams. Then, on an assignment in London for ESPN, he watched a match and returned a fan. When he got the top programming gig, soccer moved up on the priority list. "I got this job in October 2005. When I was writing up my plan for the job, I wrote that I thought that soccer was going to happen, and if we were going to be involved in making it happen, we needed to have the World Cup."

Even in the White House, the game has changed. The second George Bush was a former baseball team co-owner. The current President is a hoophead, but his press secretary played soccer in high school and college. It's one reason the U.S. team merited a White House visit before it took off for South Africa and why there is hope that Obama may show up at the U.S. vs. England game.

Roth says he waited decades for the opportunity to invest in soccer, until he saw all the elements coming together. Soccer participation is huge in the Northwest, and players there have in turn become sophisticated fans who will not settle for a second-rate experience. "We are going to have the two most important events in the history of the game in the U.S.," says Roth. "We are going to break all records for the audience watching the World Cup. And you are going to see some of the greatest players in the world join Beckham."

That's not going to set off a soccer revolution. No one in Philly is going to trade Eagles tickets for tickets to the new MLS franchise, the Philadelphia Union. But the Union will play in a new soccer-friendly stadium with 12,000 season-ticket holders. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who has witnessed enough false dawns in this sport to gain perspective on it, still sees the game's evolution as a 50-year process that began in 1984 with its success at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The goal is to win the World Cup, which isn't likely to happen this year. By that measure, soccer is halfway from its potential.

But even Gulati feels the fever rising, especially in e-mails he gets when the U.S. team loses a game. "We have 310 million people in this country, and we're not used to being second best," he says. And in this game we call soccer, we no longer are.