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Are Americans Becoming Soccer Fans?

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In the past week or so, we have seen 60, 70 & 80k+ crowds for matches in the States from the Gold Cup to friendlies to World Football Challenge. Is this average joe blow American waking up to football as a spectator sport or is it changing demographics helping out? I should note that ESPN is doing Sportscentre live from Mexico City on Aug 12th as part of a pre-match show and they're not even showing the match!!!

WSJ article touches upon some of these things:

Are Americans Becoming Soccer Fans?

Parochialism Persists, But Ticket Sales, TV Ratings and U.S. Team Heroics Show Progress


When it comes to sports, one of the stubbornest examples of American exceptionalism is the use of the word “soccer.” Some six billion people around the world have chosen to call it “football.” We don’t care.

But in recent months, this sport—the one with the ball and the net—has taken a few steps forward. As Major League Soccer, the leading American professional league, holds its All-Star game Wednesday at Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah, there is growing evidence that America’s parochial attitude toward this game is quickly fading.

Last month, the U.S. men’s national team captured the world’s imagination—and about four million American television viewers—as it nearly knocked off Brazil to claim the game’s third most important international trophy, the Confederations Cup.

Sunday’s Gold Cup final between a largely second-string U.S. team and Mexico drew nearly 80,000 fans to Giants Stadium in New Jersey, while an estimated two million Americans will attend games this summer featuring some of the best European club teams. U.S. broadcast rights to the UEFA Champions League sparked a bidding war between ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel, and an MLS expansion team in Seattle has become the city’s hottest summer ticket. By next year, MLS will have nine soccer-specific stadiums, offering the same cozy atmosphere of arenas throughout Europe.

Those signs of strength, combined with one of youth sports’ highest participation rates, have even the game’s staunchest traditionalists believing that much-hyped, always just-around-the-corner U.S. soccer boom may finally be upon us.

“The American investors who are investing abroad should invest here,” said Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, president of FIFA, the game’s world governing body. Mr. Blatter became convinced of the country’s soccer potential on a recent trip when he saw vast fields near Chicago filled with boys and girls playing the game with their mothers and fathers in tow. “It’s the best market.”

The question isn’t whether Americans will ever see soccer as more than a fine sport for children to play—but whether it can become what it is to the rest of the world: a vigorous and passionate spectator sport. And if it does succeed in generating loyal fans, what form will it take?

To be a soccer fan in most of the world is to abandon simplicity and yield to a global alphabet soup of federations, associations, leagues, competitions and cups. It is to cheer wildly for a player on your national team only to call for his head two weeks later when his professional club arrives to play yours.

For MLS commissioner Don Garber, the challenge is teaching Americans a new way of following a sport. “At their base level, sports are local and they are tribal,” Mr. Garber said.

“It’s got to be about that experience of a father and a son or a daughter going to a game and sharing something as they root for their local team together.”

The best example of this is the league’s Seattle franchise. In its first season, the second-place Sounders (7-3-8) have smashed MLS season-ticket sales records. Attendance for its home games— averaging about 30,000—is the best in the league by nearly 10,000. The raucous fans, who chant and sway throughout the games at Qwest Field, produce better turnout on average than Seattle’s baseball team, the Mariners. Majority owner Joe Roth, the former chairman of Walt Disney Studios, says his dream is “to make the Sounders a mainstream sport in an American city. I think we’re on the way.”

In its 14th season, MLS has moved far beyond the North American Soccer League, the country’s first attempt at top-level professional soccer, which lasted from 1968-1984. By next spring, MLS’s nine soccer stadiums will include the $200 million Red Bull Arena just 10 miles from the Manhattan skyline. Expansion franchises now sell for $40 million.

Nevertheless, attendance at most MLS games hovers around 15,000, and the league’s television audience on ESPN remains small. Because salaries and opportunities for improvement are so much better abroad, the best American players tend to leave as soon as they get the chance.

Striker Clint Dempsey and defender Oguchi Onyewu had heroic performances in the Confederations Cup. Mr. Dempsey left the New England Revolution for Fulham in England in 2007. Mr. Onyewu, a star in the Belgian League this year, signed with A.C. Milan earlier this month. At the All-Star game, pitting the MLS stars against England’s Everton FC, the Galaxy’s Landon Donovan may be the best American player on the field, but Everton’s goalie, American Tim Howard, is a close second.

“You must have a league that is credible,” Mr. Blatter, of FIFA, said of the U.S., which doesn’t even hold its season when the rest of the world does. “You have good players, but you must keep them here.”

In many ways, the greatest danger for America’s domestic soccer league is the changing nature of the world. The global sports-television market now allows avid fans in the U.S. to ignore MLS and instead follow the world’s best teams from afar. The U.S. team’s loss to Brazil in the Confederations Cup set an American record for a non-World Cup television audience. And more than two million U.S. viewers watched the Spanish club team Barcelona topple Manchester United on a Thursday afternoon in May in the Champions League final on ESPN.

“It’s so much more of a sophisticated fan than it was even five years ago,” said Charlie Stillitano, senior executive with CAA, the agency putting on this summer’s World Football Challenge, a four-team round robin tournament featuring A.C. Milan, Inter Milan, Chelsea and Mexico’s Club America. “It used to be you’d get the Irish or the English or the South American fans coming out. Now you’ve got third- and fourth-generation Americans who are just fans of the sport.”

Top European clubs, sensing an opening in the U.S. market, have been establishing beachheads here and looking for ways to develop players—if not fans. The horrible south Florida economy earlier this year put the kibosh on plans by FC Barcelona and partners to start an MLS expansion team in Miami. Joan Oliver, CEO of FC Barcelona, says the U.S. is a “strategic market” and the club is still looking for opportunities.

In 10 or 15 years, Mr. Oliver thinks MLS teams can be competitive with leagues in Brazil and Argentina, though he says parity with European leagues may remain more elusive. Interest in the sport will be catalyzed, he says, when a superstar American player finally manages to break out in Europe.

“You need a Lance Armstrong of soccer to show the American market that they are able to be No. 1,” he says.

In the meantime, huge challenges remain. During its U.S. tour last summer, FC Barcelona held a training session one evening in Central Park. The team, including superstar Thierry Henry, practiced in a part of the park’s North Meadow that serves as the outfield for several softball fields. As warm-ups began so did the calls from the clueless nearby beer league softball games for Barcelona to “Get the ---- off the field.”

Ultimately, success and credibility in soccer, as in any sport, comes down to winning. The formula for professional soccer success in the U.S. probably is not that different than in Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Portugal or Spain, where a single team, or perhaps two, usually dominates the domestic league then challenges the world’s best for a championship.

“We’ve seen what happens and the excitement it generates when the national team plays deep into an international tournament,” Mr. Garber said. “What we need is one of our clubs to do the same thing against the best foreign clubs, and we’re probably a little ways off from that.”

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quote:Originally posted by red card

In the past week or so, we have seen 60, 70 & 80k+ crowds for matches in the States from the Gold Cup to friendlies to World Football Challenge. Is this average joe blow American waking up to football as a spectator sport or is it changing demographics helping out?

Yeah, I think demographics are helping-out big-time! MLS attendance is down 13% this season compared to 2008 (if you exclude Seattle).

You can't read too much into the attendances involving UEFA and Mexican clubs playing friendlies. What's more telling is the week-in, week-out attendances and TV ratings.

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