A few months ago I wrote an article listing reasons why NBA fans, with the then 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 UEFA European Championship, I thought it was about time to try and give a few more reasons why Americans should watch soccer, especially with the prospect of Sunday’s Euro 2012 final between Italy and Spain:
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 were expected to watch Chelsea defeat Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League Final. How many watched the Super Bowl this past season? Just 111 million. And the viewing audiences for soccer are continuing to rise worldwide, as well as in the United States.
Another statistic you should look at is the numbers of fans worldwide. Just this past month, The Guardian newspaper 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? So what is the 2nd most popular team worldwide and most popular US team? The answer is the New York Yankees.
Soccer lives up to McDonald’s slogan when it says over a billion served. Yet as Americans, we turn up our noses in favor of our hard hitting sports such as football and basketball, and yet we’re 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 game between England against Ukraine last 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. Plus, you may make a new friend for life based on that, whereas you can wear your favorite American football jersey to Greece (as I did) and no one would notice or care.
Over a billion people can’t go wrong so why aren’t we picking up on it?
2. It’s more accessible now than it ever was
With all of the smartphones, tablets and other devices, 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 needing a television.
Last year, FOX televised the 2011 Champions League final between Manchester United v Barcelona on terrestrial television. In all, 300 million people worldwide watched that game so that gave FOX ample room to decide to broadcast this year’s final live over the air on terrestrial FOX. 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’s still room for growth now more than there ever was.
3. The atmosphere at live games
My very first live game I went to was the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal doubleheader last year here in Washington DC. The first match was between the US men’s national team and Jamaica in a very tame affair. But the second game between El Salvador and Panama was far better. 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, while the whole overall atmosphere changed into something that I can’t say that I have ever seen even at a NFL game. That was one of the best memories I took away with me. Plus 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 no matter if the team is winning or losing, the spectators are into it, willing their teams on. Compare that to any American venue and you would be hard pressed to say that you get that same kind of feeling, even at a Steelers against Ravens game.
Just recently, my wife (going to her first live pro soccer event) and I went to the USA versus Brasil game at FedEx Field last month. Although we didn’t have great seats, my wife even stated that crowds aren’t this pumped at American 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 minutes 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 knows 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 emigrate to the US from all over the world follow 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 that you should 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 Champions League Final, 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 Brazil game. And also now that the European Championships 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 Internet. I expect the same to happen once the international friendlies start up next month in the United States.
Another great way to get people out to games has been the 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 overseas. And the turnout has been excellent. I have already purchased my tickets for the two games being played in my area this summer and I can tell you, many were disappointed when the Chelsea versus 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 how 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 at around $40 to $75 dollars per game and you can get excellent seats no matter what. Try getting a lower level seat to 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’s 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 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 stadiums, instead of squatting in oversized stadiums designed for American football, means that MLS is serious about getting people to support this industry. There have even been louder murmurs being heard about DC United possibly getting a new stadium and moving out of RFK. Many of us are hoping this comes true.
6. It’s a sport that transcends all races and creeds
For awhile now, I have been trying to avoid writing about 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. From every background, rich nation, poor nation, skin color, language, religion and 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 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 they just now are 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 own issues of 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’s soccer. 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 watched soccer 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 check to see if a MLS venue is nearby. Go check it out and don’t necessarily go to try to understand the game. Feel the crowd and the excitement. And who knows, maybe you might just like it.