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World Cup soccer: the sport that will not be ignored

The question's been asked and re-asked for decades. When will soccer finally "make it" and start to seep into the American mainstream? • ESPN thinks it knows the answer. • Now.

The World Cup starts Friday in South Africa. It's the biggest soccer event on Earth, and some would say the biggest sporting event, period, and ESPN's stated corporate priority for this calendar year is to make you watch.

ESPN, along with partner ABC, is showing all 64 games and 230 hours of original programming and has dispatched more than 300 staffers. Network execs are tossing around phrases like "pulling out all the stops," "beyond any event we've done in the past" and "the most comprehensive marketing plan in company history."

Soccer, whether you like it or not, will be harder to ignore than ever before.

"It's in the air," Francisco Marcos, the founder of the minor-league United Soccer Leagues, said last week in his office in Tampa. "It's in your face."

The soccer critics in this country say the sport hasn't really worked here because American audiences won't watch what isn't an American game. But the message within ESPN's commitment is this:

American audiences?

American game?

That doesn't matter as much anymore. It's no longer just a question of whether you want soccer. Soccer wants you. Taste-making now is a two-way street.

The roots of this change are found in census numbers, the borderless connectivity of the Internet and the immense power of satellite television, the young portion of the population some pollsters label the First Globals, and a tremendous, in-progress shift in demographics the Brookings Institution calls "an impending national transformation."

• • •

Baseball was the national pastime. Football is the national pastime. Soccer? It may be the world's pastime — but not ours.

"Hating soccer is more American than apple pie," USA Today's Tom Weir once wrote.

"My son is not playing soccer," syndicated sports talk show host Jim Rome once railed. "I will hand him ice skates and a shimmering sequined blouse before I hand him a soccer ball."

"Soccer," said the late Jack Kemp, a former NFL quarterback and conservative congressman, "is a European socialist sport."

The history of soccer in this country goes from Brazilian icon Pelé playing late in his professional career in the '70s in the long-since defunct North American Soccer League to the national team making the World Cup in '90 for the first time in 50 years to the United States hosting the World Cup four years after that to the national team beating the juggernaut team from Spain in a tournament just last year.

Critics look at those moments and see temporary blips of interest. Supporters look at those moments and see a slow but steady path.

More than 8 million American kids play soccer. That's a bigger number than the number of kids who play baseball or football. But that's not new. This has been going on for a generation — Saturday mornings in the suburbs, orange slices and "soccer moms."

The longtime conundrum for this country's soccer lobby has been how to turn those young players into adult spectators. Into consumers.

One evening last week in Clearwater, for instance, at the tryouts for the Clearwater Soccer Club, one of the most competitive youth clubs in Florida, a 13-year-old girl who's serious about her soccer was asked if she could name a player on the national team preparing for Saturday's World Cup opener against England.

Not one.

Not even Landon Donovan, one of the team's best players, arguably the face of American soccer?

Sorry.

But here's the thing. The TV rights fees in this country for this World Cup and the next, in 2014, in Brazil, add up to $425 million. ESPN's paying $100 million for the English-language rights. Univision's paying $325 million for the Spanish-language rights.

No country in the world is paying more for World Cup TV rights.

Somebody has decided America is the most lucrative soccer market on the planet.

Why?

• • •

New York City, 1970: Marcos, the USL founder with the office in Tampa, was a Portuguese immigrant two years out of college. He paid something like six or eight bucks to get into Madison Square Garden to watch World Cup games on a big-screen TV on a closed-circuit feed set up, he said, "for the foreign freaks."

Fast forward 40 years. A couple of months ago, on a Continental flight from Tampa to New York, he watched England's Manchester United play a European Champions League game on a screen on the back of the seat in front of him, live.

A lot has happened in the time between those two scenes.

The '78 World Cup wasn't on TV in this country. Not one game. That went up to seven games in '82 and then 22 in '86.

By '06, all the games were on TV here, and ratings shot up 80 percent from four years before. The ratings for the title game were better than the ratings for the NBA Finals and the World Series.

In an interesting wrinkle, though, the games involving the American team did not draw the highest ratings here. People in this country were watching more soccer than ever before, but they were watching the teams from Mexico, Italy and Brazil.

Conventional wisdom had been that soccer wasn't going to get big in America until America had a top-shelf professional league. That hasn't happened. MLS is second-rate.

But Americans have started watching soccer. The best soccer in the world. On Fox cable networks, on ESPN cable channels and now even on network TV, they're watching games from Serie A in Italy, La Liga in Spain, the Bundesliga in Germany and the English Premier League.

Kevin Alavy is the director of a global sports consulting company in London called futures sports + entertainment. He called the other day from a conference in Moscow. "Look at the ratings" for the English Premier League, he said. "The U.S. quite often is one of the top three markets in the world."

The United States was the world's 13th-largest viewing market for the World Cup in '02. It was eighth-largest for the World Cup in '06. ESPN expects that trend to continue this year and then really spike in 2014 in Brazil when the time zones are more or less the same.

"How do you hold it back," said Peter Mellor, the USL's national technical director, "when the world's game is saying we want a piece of America?"

"We're looking at this as a once-in-every-four-years event when the globe stops," ESPN spokesman Mac Nwulu said last week.

Even in America?

"No," he said. Not yet.

"But that's where we think it's going. And that's why we're making this commitment. We're looking at market forces."

"The demographics are what they are," Marcos added, "and they are what they will be."

• • •

The Brookings Institution last month in the report with the "impending national transformation" title said racial and ethnic minorities have made up 83 percent of America's population growth over the past decade. The majority of the child population in all large metro areas is now nonwhite. The country, the report says, is on its way to becoming "majority-minority."

Census estimates put Hispanics at 28 percent of the population by 2050. Hispanics tend to be soccer-mad.

"You have critical mass with the Hispanic community, which is starting to bleed over into the general market," said Jose Cancela, the principal of Hispanic USA, a communications firm in Miami. "You're starting to see their love of soccer permeating into the U.S. marketplace as a whole."

And the American player who made arguably the biggest difference in the national team's last tune-up match before heading to South Africa?

A 22-year-old named José Torres.

Mexican father, American mother, born in Texas. He plays his professional soccer in Mexico, but he plays his international soccer wearing red, white and blue.

"When the ratings come in off this World Cup," Cancela said, "they're going to be as powerful as the coming census numbers."

And then there are the so-called First Globals.

That's what pollster John Zogby calls the 70 million Americans born between '79 and '91. More than any generation in the history of the country, he writes in his book The Way We'll Be, they see themselves as citizens of the planet. They're more globally tolerant and aware, he says, and more comfortable with multi­cultural mores.

It's not that the First Globals don't like America. They just don't like it to the exclusion of other countries. They reject the idea of us-vs.-them.

"They have grown up in a world of United Colors of Benetton," Zogby said last week from his home in upstate New York.

"We have a better outlook on how the entire world thinks," said Keefe Manwaring, 27, a graphic designer from St. Petersburg. "And I think that translates into any industry. It's only natural that soccer is getting more popular."

Franklin Foer argues in his book How Soccer Explains The World that America's soccer divide essentially mirrors its culture wars. The proglobalization group is open to soccer. Those who skew more isolationist are not.

"It's hard to be tapped into the globalized world," Foer, the editor of the New Republic, said from his office in Washington, "and not like soccer."

One of Zogby's polls asks Americans how important they think it is for something to be made in America. Consistently, the lower their age, the less important they think that is.

• • •

Take Mike Wilson. He's a First Global.

The 24-year-old nursing student grew up in Valrico and now lives in Tampa. Over the past couple of years he has become a rabid fan of soccer. English soccer. His favorite games are English games. His favorite players are English players.

On Saturday, he'll watch the U.S.-England game in South Tampa at MacDinton's, known as one of the nation's best soccer bars. He can't wait.

"I live in the U.S., I love the U.S., but when June 12 comes," he said, "I'm going for England."

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

World Cup soccer: the sport that will not be ignored 06/04/10 [Last modified: Sunday, June 6, 2010 2:37pm]

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