We’re officially in striking distance of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. A decent enough hamstring strain has the potential to linger into the opening group stage games at this point. One of the traditions around World Cup years in the United States is the media asking whether or not this cycle is going to be the time where it all clicks and propels the sport onto the major national scene. True soccer fans and the Average Joe seem to be united in their outrage at this particular question being constantly thrown in their faces every four years. I’d like to argue that maybe soccer fans should embrace the question and hope for this to be the major breakthrough into the consciousness of the Average Joe or Jane.
These games will all be while we are awake and engaged. World Cup 2010 was decent enough for people living on the east coast, but still was not ideal. The typical weekday 2010 schedule was 7:30am ET, 10:00am ET, and 2:30pm ET. Those times basically wiped out two West Coast viewing opportunities immediately and had an entire slot taking place during a usual ET commute. This year, Noon ET is the earliest start time for a World Cup 2014 game. That’s absolutely huge on a national scale. The opening Saturday should make a strong impression as mother ship ABC will be broadcasting two soccer matches from noon until 5:00pm ET and that leads into two more on ESPN from 6:00pm until 11:00pm ET.
Social media will have an impact on this front. I can only go on personal experience, but Twitter specifically started as a platform for following celebrities, athletes, and news outlets and has evolved into much more than that. I’m now over the 500 mark as far as who I’m following and that includes my friends, people with similar interests, writers, satire accounts, and things that are just plain hard to categorize. It ticks a lot of boxes and affects my life in ways that it didn’t do in 2010. I’ve long since ditched following Kim Kardashian and any boring athletes and follow the ones that have unique and interesting takes. Average Joe won’t be able to escape the World Cup tweets in June and people are too attached to their accounts to avoid it for a whole month. ESPN is such a strong brand that has massive amounts of credibility with the masses that the World Cup will be staring at you in some form in every direction that you turn. Their strong production and incredible on-air talent selection should be a major boost as far as engaging fans as well.
Timing is crucial for anything to gain traction and the World Cup is in a near-perfect slot to take advantage in this country. The NBA Finals will be winding down as the World Cup starts and the games will never go head to head. I’d venture to guess that water cooler and call-in radio talk will be split down the middle with the NBA Finals in the first week and then the stage belongs to soccer. What that leaves is Major League Baseball alone. The big three of American sports have all embraced replay reviews and dozens and dozens of commercials to increase their revenue. Soccer must be licking its collective lips when it comes to that as the gameplay will stand in stark contrast to the downward spiral American sports have gone in. Tournaments are also perfect for capturing the imagination of any group of fair weather fans and this can be seen in the differences between regular season college basketball ratings and the NCAA tournament.
Well, why should the typical soccer fan in the States care if those “simple-minded,” previously conditioned Average Joes (their words, not mine) start to embrace the sport? We can watch all of the major leagues without buying a mega satellite and can find our fill of information in a dozen ways. For me, there are multiple reasons. A UEFA Champions League semifinal was just used as a platform this very week to experiment with a commentating team that literally made me mute the television and go on a journey through standard definition Spanish channels using the SAP button to try to find a reasonable way to enjoy the game. That’s ridiculous. I love Gus Johnson when it comes to basketball and American football as well, but it’s just tedious to listen to him call a soccer match. It wouldn’t have gotten to this point if this sport was more popular in this country. Too much outrage wouldn’t allow it. It goes to show how far the sport has to go for any broadcasters that aren’t named ESPN or NBC.
The scope of the popularity isn’t enough for any networks to dedicate a prime time slot to a daily highlights show at the moment. ESPN FC has been very good, but it is at 5:30pm ET on most days and you need to set a DVR Series recording to catch it if you are commuting home from work at that time. Not everyone can do that. It also gets bumped constantly. FOX Soccer used to have a show at 10pm nightly, but it has gone in the bin with Fox Soccer Channel. Saturdays are generally the most schedule packed days and the nightly Saturday shows are league specific and never all-encompassing. ESPN FC on Sunday nights is the best way to get caught up on the weekend of games, but they are covering a massive amount of leagues and it leads to abbreviated highlights. It also doesn’t help that it airs at midnight on a Sunday and you have work the next day.
A successful World Cup could push Major League Soccer and CONCACAF to improve. I’ve really, really tried to get into my local New England Revolution and MLS as a whole this season, but it’s been a chore. The style of play has bored me and the stadiums around the United States and Canada haven’t impressed me as far as atmosphere, the Pacific Northwest excepted. New York City FC being slated to play in Yankee Stadium is not a step in the right direction. A lack of television ratings nationally also means that MLS-specific highlight shows just do not exist. Those have been a huge part of my Premier League educational growth. The CONCACAF Champions League intrigued me from afar, but MLS teams don’t have the depth to compete strongly on two fronts and it leads to a poor atmosphere and weak performances for most MLS teams in the competition. Increased fan exposure and revenue could probably do wonders for the future of our local teams. They may have missed the boat as far as the drama of promotion and relegation, but there is still a massive ceiling to be explored on the American-based soccer front.
The United States Men’s National team being drawn in the Group of Death can be looked at a few different ways. ESPN’s Soccer Power Index gives the US a 34.3% chance of advancing to the knockout stages. This means that it could be a very short ride for the team and they could even be out of the running by the time the Germany game rolls around. It becomes quite the captivating story, though, if they are able to manage strong results. Portugal (47.9% of advancing-SPI) may just be a perfect storm opponent for the United States to encounter. Average Joe knows Cristiano Ronaldo and that he is one of the best players in the world. Portugal isn’t incredible as a team overall, though. Moutinho, Pepe, and Coentrao are other notable players, but the US could very feasibly get a result against them. The game being on a Sunday at 6pm ET comes into play and it starts to look incredibly appetizing for the people who eat up narrative and the YouTubers who patch together scenes at bars across the country with emotion inducing songs quilting it all together. Alternatively, this truly is a melting pot of a country and people will latch onto their heritage or star players anyways. It’s going to get massive traction either way.
Ultimately, a lot of people I link up with in the States can trace their soccer fandom to being sparked by their parents being expatriates, playing the sport themselves, or a World Cup. Heck, the World Cup 2010 is what hooked me. Frenzied atmospheres, smooth and uninterrupted gameplay, FIFA the videogame, big personalities, coworkers doing brackets, and USMNT drama were the pillars of what drew me in. I think this World Cup 2014 has a bigger potential net to catch people with. Millions will watch. It’s what happens in the aftermath that intrigues most of us. If everyone was similar to me, I could guess what the outcome would be, but Average Joe is still following Kim Kardashian on Twitter.