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The Fate of US Soccer?


With the World Cup now complete (and apparently determined by a cephalopod mollusk), the question many in the US are asking is: will the success of the American team yield positive results for MLS (or even American soccer in general)? 

From the Wall Street Journal:

Sunday’s World Cup finale drew the biggest-ever U.S. audience for a soccer match, with a total of 24.3 million viewers tuning in to watch Spain eke out a win over the Netherlands.

Even more impressive is that more Americans watched the final match than the American elimination match versus Ghana – 19.4 million viewers.

While these are numbers US Soccer should be excited with, there’s still a long way to go to drum up excitement for the world’s most popular sport. 

In the US, soccer is a sport played by millions of kids. There are tournaments and travel teams. Trophies and ribbons. But then something happens; kids stop playing Soccer and migrate towards the more “American” sports of Baseball, Basketball and Football. There’s no real reason for this, but I think what happens is that kids succumb to peer pressure. Why play a sport that is seen by your friends as un-American? A sport that doesn’t let us use our arms? No, thanks. You mean I can’t be famous for playing soccer like I can for playing in the NBA, MLB or NFL? 

Columnist Dave Eggers attributes the decline in Soccer as we grow older to two concepts:


  1. “The abandonment of soccer is attributable, in part, to the fact that people of influence in America long believed that soccer was the chosen sport of communists.”
  2. “The second and greatest, by far, obstacle to the popularity of the World Cup, and of professional soccer in general, is the element of diving. Americans may generally be arrogant, but there is one stance I stand behind, and that is the intense loathing of penalty-fakers.”

But if we’re to rely on television viewing numbers (hey, we’re all about metrics these days, aren’t we? 24 million people is nothing to scoff at – unless you’re the NFL; what, with your 105 million viewers for the Super Bowl? Ok, fine, you’re the Alpha Dog in the American sport world. We get it.) there’s hope for US Soccer. Or not. 

In February 2010, the US was enthralled with a different non-US sport: hockey. Yes, we Americans have enjoyed playing and watching hockey for decades, but the sport has melted away in recent years – largely due to the players strike for the 2004-2005 season. Unlike baseball’s resurgence in American culture after the 1994 strike (it was only a short 3 years later – 1998 – that the juiced up home run derby invigorated the American psyche), the NHL has yet to reach the numbers they had in the previous decades.

But in the 2010 Olympics, about 28 million viewers watched NBC’s coverage of Canada’s OT win over USA in the gold medal game. And then the other skate dropped. 

From the Daily News’ Rob Raissman:

Just look what went down here on Thursday night. The Penguins, featuring the NHL’s marquee faceman, Sidney Crosby, invaded the nation’s biggest media market to play the Rangers in the Garden on MSG.

This was not a well kept secret. The Gulag Network does a fine job promoting hockey. So the stage was set. Crosby, coming off his game-winning Olympic goal, was available to millions of cable subscribers on MSG. The game was terrific. Henrik Lundqvist turned back 50 shots, but the Pens won, 5-4, in OT. In games like this, viewers who are surfing usually stick when they come across electric action.

Add to this all that Olympic buzz and you’ve got the recipe for a nice rating for MSG, right?

Not quite.

The game pulled a .96 rating. Let’s put this in perspective. On Thursday afternoon the Mets played an exhibition game against the Cardinals on SportsNet New York. The Mets won, 17-11. By the third inning, there was a bunch of strangers playing. The game was not even in HD.

The grapefruit matchup still recorded a 1.13 rating. When a marquee contest like Penguins-Rangers can’t beat a meaningless exhibition baseball game in the ratings department, well, so much for all that Olympic noise. By the way, Thrashers-Islanders on MSG+ Thursday night notched a .23 rating. So, the combined Rangers/Isles rating (1.19) barely beat out that meaningless Mets game.

So will the same fate await Major League Soccer? 



About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


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