3 August ~ To get an idea of what the casual football fan in the United States might read on the web during the World Cup I used Google Alerts, which provides up-to-date content on the topic of your choice. I was sent an email once a day on the topic of "soccer" with up to 20 results from a smattering of American publications, including several from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and several from smaller publications like the Augusta Chronicle.

As might be expected, many (although not most) articles were editorials about the relative popularity of football in the US gauged by the American reception to the World Cup. Those both pro and anti-football adopted a binary view of whether or not football has or will "make it" in America. It's as if the sport itself was a refugee stepping off an ocean liner in search for shelter and gainful employment, and not a reasonably successful sport with established men's and women's professional leagues, record numbers of youth participation, and a national team that qualified for the last six World Cups.

The majority, and those more in favour of football's steadily growing popularity, boasted of better than modest TV figures (the final actually had more American viewers than any game in the NBA finals), the steadily increasing expectations of the national team, and the sustenance of a professional league, albeit one that seems incapable of producing a globally marketable talent.

American readers were subjected to very few of the well-worn cliches about the incompatibility of football with American culture (almost always in the singular) and the snarky pieces about how intrinsically boring football is. These embattled authors fetishize the privileged places of baseball, American football and basketball, and act as if any media coverage of football is tantamount to being force-fed foie gras. Yet US sports networks have invested heavily in selling the World Cup to Americans.

The St Petersburg Times' Michael Kruse points out that ESPN made their coverage of South Africa 2010 "the most comprehensive marketing plan in company history," seemingly in response to demographic figures and cultural trends which suggest that American society is ripe for the creation of a substantial football market. The writers who savage the sport are well aware that media powerhouses are targeting football consumers and yet, the World Cup still inspires only the most obtusely patriotic responses from a segment of the American sports press who view football's very existence as a threat.

One way to deal with this threat is to make it disappear completely, which is precisely what ESPN's Jeff MacGregor attempts to do by asking "does soccer matter?" in the US. MacGregor insists that: "Nothing else is possible until that question is answered. That's soccer's existential American crisis. Or America's existential soccer crisis." In turning the "has soccer ‘made it?'" question into a debate about whether football even exists for Americans beyond the spectacle of the World Cup, MacGregor gives football-hating a patina of intellectualism. For some the success of the sport in the US is still seen in all or nothing terms. Sam Fayyaz

Comments (6)
Comment by The Exploding Vole 2010-08-03 13:56:30

It can be difficult to differentiate between interest in soccer and an opportunity to wave the flag.

Comment by GCostanza 2010-08-03 16:08:12

Think you're looking too much into why people are fans or interested in the game ??

There's usually less to that than all of the above.

Comment by danielmak 2010-08-04 05:54:48

I'm not really following the last part about whether football does or doesn't matter. The point seems to be moot because it does matter. The problem is comparing the popularity of football to that of other major sports in the US. Football will not be as popular as the NBA, NFL, or MLB but doesn't need to be. As it stands, MLS draws crowds that many Latin American, Asian, African, and Eastern European clubs would love to draw (and MLS is worse than most of the leagues in those territories). Some people use the popularity of the WC as a gauge but the WC is not an appropriate measuring stick to assess interest because most people in the States treat it as an event, like the Olympics or the Academy Awards; they tune in for the spectacle. With all of that said, the interest in football is clearly growing. TV coverage has increased dramatically in the past 10 years, which helps grow the sport and is a response to a growing interest. More people are wearing club kits. And the pre-season friendlies involving European clubs are drawing very large crowds. So it seems to me that the debate is among fans who want the sport to grow dramatically (i.e., unrealistically) and fools who haven't seen that the United States is not the same United States that existed 15 years ago. Football (errr soccer) is an American sport now.

Comment by Lincoln 2010-08-04 11:13:26

To be blunt though, who cares? This is another article on the same subject matter of how popular "soccer" is in the US. Why are we meant to be so interested? I like the Seattle Sounders and enjoyed mixing with football fans over there who make real efforts to watch their team in the Premiership, but I don't give a monkeys about whether Earl and Maude watch the games from the trailer in Kansas more than they watch NBA or NFL. Yes they have massive corporate power but not more so than Japan and Korea, and potentially China and India.

Comment by dubisaweapon 2010-08-05 16:31:47

It is hard to gauge whether football will ever be seen as having "made it" in my homeland of the USA, but this past World Cup may likely be a watershed moment for the sport. There is no greater idealized sporting moment in American folklore then the come-from-behind, last-minute victory, and the US National Team nearly provided two of those in the group stage against Slovenia and Algeria. Donovan's last-gasp goal against the latter, which transformed us from losers to topping the group, is exactly the kind of highlight reel moment that Americans love and it is something I'm sure a lot of fans will remember for many years to come.

But I do think that a lot of the internal judgement about football's success here is misguided. The success or failure of our MLS is a commonly used measuring stick, but it is somewhat ridiculous to think that it can compete with baseball, basketball, or our American football. Aside from the high-priced imports of Henry, Beckham, etc. the MLS is a second-tier league with some players making less then $20,000 per year. Compare this to our "big three" sports, which are clearly the pinnacle of their respective sports (obviously not much competition, but you get the point) and it is no wonder we tune into these instead.

There has been a seismic shift though. When I was a youngster playing "soccer" four or five times a week I couldn't tune into the EPL, La Liga, or Serie A even if I wanted to. Now I have Fox Soccer Channel, GolTV, and ESPN bringing me countless matches from all over the world, and a homegrown league that is slowly getting better and better. Being able to watch the best players in the world is going to go a long way towards convincing some of our more athletic youngsters to stick with this game and before you know it we will have a Messi, Ronaldo, or Rooney of our own.

Comment by Incandenza 2010-08-06 04:44:56

Please, stop worrying about us one way or the other. Some people will never like soccer, and that's fine. Lots of us do like soccer, though, and we're don't pay any attention to the people who yammer on about it negatively.

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