Saturday, November 20, 2004
Being a soccer fan in the United States is not an easy task, whether you're trying to follow your favorite European club, the national team, or even the regional domestic side. In the land of mass media, where we constantly get bombarded with multiple streams of information, you'd think there would be a place for the world's biggest sport.

Instead, soccer is virtually ignored, and the average person could probably give you a biography on Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, but wouldn't have the faintest idea who Brian McBride (Fulham), DaMarcus Beasley (PSV Eindhoven) or Landon Donovan (Leverkusen) are.

The economist in me would argue that if people really wanted to follow soccer, the demand would force media providers to supply. And the truth is, when I ask around my office and neighborhood, there really is no desire to watch or follow soccer.

This lack of interest always surprises me because almost everyone I meet has played soccer at some point in their life. So it's not for a lack of understanding or knowledge of the game.

Historically, the United States has a rich and long history of soccer, with the first real club side formed in 1862 (the Oneida Soccer Club in Boston) according to many historians, and the strong tradition of soccer has continued to this day.

There has been a continual array of amateur, college and youth leagues, as well as several different semi-pro and professional leagues that have tried to emerge at different points. The National Team has had some successes, especially of late, and there are now dozens of Americans playing at some of the premier clubs in Europe.

Research done by the United States Soccer Federation reports that youth soccer participation ranks fourth behind only basketball, running and in-line skating, and well above such traditional sports as football and baseball. The number of people playing soccer for six years or more in the United States stood at 19 million in 2001, and the growth trend continues. Looking at these numbers, soccer should be one of the most popular spectator sports in the United States.

The basis for a demand is obviously there waiting to be tapped into, and if people were more exposed to soccer, they might realize how wonderful the game is. As it is, the typical American will watch whatever you put in front of them, but they're not going to put any effort into it. While soccer is primarily relegated to cable channels like Fox Sports World and ESPN2 that subscribers have to purposely pay extra for, the other primary sports are on networks that everyone gets.

Every morning I listen to the sports report on the way to work, always hoping that they'll report the English football scores, or that the National Team played the night before in a World Cup Qualifier, or even Major League Soccer scores. As I listen to them go through the major sports, and finally work their way down to girl's middle school volleyball, I realize that once again they aren't going to even mention soccer.

ESPN Sportscenter very rarely shows scores or highlights (even though they broadcast some games including MLS and UEFA Champions League), although it has finally made it onto the ticker at the bottom of the screen. At the end of each Sportscenter broadcast, they show a fluff story about someone who bowled a perfect game, or the new dart champion, but soccer apparently isn't worth any time.

So we've created a vicious circle.

Media coverage is the only way in this country for a sport to gain a truly large following and increase advertising revenue, but if they don't cover it on accessible channels at accessible times, people won't watch it. Without a large fan base, the advertising dollars aren't there to justify the networks showing it. Unlike the chicken and the egg, it's clear that the only way forward is for the media coverage to drive the fan base, not the other way around.

Soccer is at an apex in this country, experiencing success on a scale not seen here before. Now is the time for the mainstream media to step up, include soccer in their coverage, and tap into the large base of potential fans.

Covering our boys abroad and the National Team would be a perfect start, feeding on viewers patriotism, while exposing them to top quality games. At the very least, media outlets need to cover local and regional clubs with as much vigor as they do local minor league and school teams.

Until soccer ceases to be an afterthought, only given if there is time left over after the "real" sports are covered or not at all, the soccer fans in this country have their work cut out for them.