Keith Strudler: U.S. Gets A Win At World Cup
Take that, Ghana. After ending the run for the US men’s soccer team in the last two World Cups, we’ve finally struck back, defeating the Black Stars in our opening match of this event – and yes, national soccer teams do in fact have official names. That precious victory puts them in reasonable standing to survive their competitive preliminary group, known as the group of death, and advance to the round of 16. They’ll be up against Germany and Portugal, both of whom are more highly regarded than the Yanks. Regardless, the US took a critical first step in beating both the competition and their demons, reminding the soccer world that the last remaining superpower could in fact defeat a team from the world’s 85th largest economy.
With just one victory, the American team has created an entire populace of bandwagon soccer fans, who turned Monday’s game into something resembling St. Patty’s day; during the World Cup, everyone’s a soccer fan, at least as much as they are Irish. Added to the core of existing real soccer fans in the US, who do in fact exist, and you get the impression this thing really matters around here. The Americans first game was the second most watched soccer match in this nation’s history, after the 2011 Women’s World Cup Final. It rivaled an average NFL regular season game, which is sporting royalty in this nation. Of course, comparing an American World Cup game to a regular season football match is like comparing Thanksgiving dinner to a sack of White Castle. They’re just not the same. But however you want to read the numbers, know that this Cup has caught the fancy of the American audience, particularly now that they’re in good standing. When you also consider American viewership for non-American matches thus far, say the Brazilian match, plus the people watching on the Cup on Spanish language Univision, and there’s something of a small revolution a foot, all puns intended.
We’ll know a lot more about the fortitude of this front line when and if the US is eliminated from the tournament, something most experts expect to happen before the Cup’s final rounds. We’ll see how many viewers love the beautiful game, and how many simply love having a few pops and cheering for the US. That’s a determination that will happen over years, not days, and it’s escaped our comprehension for some time, since soccer was supposed to be the next big thing back when I was still playing for the JCC in the 80’s. We’ll learn if we’re truly evolutionary or destined to repeat ourselves.
I’ve said many times before that I don’t think America is ready to truly embrace soccer as part of its sporting aristocracy. And I stand by those sentiments. Only I’m not sure we’re now talking about that same America. Today’s soccer fans, if that’s truly the correct case, are younger, more global, and more independent than sports fans of generations past. They’ve embraced the game in authentic ways we’ve not seen before, filling stadiums across both coasts. And they can list the roster of Man U as easily as I can the Miami Heat. So while the America I knew could never fully embrace soccer, the one I may soon know just might.
But we might have a clearer path to an answer. In fact, a directive might come when we simply follow the money. In the past few years, ESPN, FOX, NBC, and pretty much everyone with a camera has bought into soccer on American television. Prime network space historically reserved for American games, from hoops to NASCAR, now show English Premier League games. And after outbidding ESPN, FOX will spend more televising for the next two World Cups than you would buying the LA Clippers. And they’re not doing it because they played at a church league when they were nine, the last time most of my generation touched a soccer ball. They’re doing it because they think it’s good business, a place to attract young eyeball and high end sponsors, the holy grail of sports media solvency. It’s the kind of bidding furor you don’t see over things like, say, pro hockey and women’s golf. So for all the time I might bet against the world’s game, there’s about a zillion reasons I might be wrong. And most of them are green.
We’ll know more about all that after Sunday’s match of the US against Portugal. If nothing else, it’s a chance for the bandwagon to soldier on.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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