US tours prove need for quality

Sold-out stadiums and high TV ratings indicate strong and growing interest in soccer - but fans want only the best

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 August, 2014, 8:14pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 August, 2014, 11:06pm

Dick Young did more to change the profession of sports writing in the 20th century than perhaps any other American. From the 1940s through to the mid-80s, his searing and influential prose sought to demystify the previously deified players for the first time. And while his honesty was refreshing, he was also crude, caustic, churlish and overwhelmingly xenophobic.

So it was no surprise that at a press conference to announce the seminal signing of soccer god Pele with the New York Cosmos in 1975, the uber-patriotic Young used the opportunity to loudly voice his disapproval of the Brazilian and the game he mastered. "Soccer is going to ruin baseball, it's a game for foreigners," he howled as a stunned gathering looked on. "America is a baseball country and if you don't like the way Americans do things you should get out of America."

Forty years later it's a safe bet to assume Young is rolling over in his grave after the unprecedented summer of soccer that has gripped large parts of the US

Forty years later it's a safe bet to assume Young is rolling over in his grave after the unprecedented summer of soccer that has gripped large parts of the US.

A spirited showing by the national team at the World Cup in Brazil produced the highest ratings ever for televised soccer and was followed by tours from the top teams in Europe, including English sides Liverpool and Manchester City playing in front of a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium, baseball's most hallowed cathedral. From Florida to Colorado and over to California, Michigan, Illinois, New York and Washington DC, attendance for games has been staggering.

English clubs have been all over the US this summer with teams like Swansea, West Bromwich Albion, Fulham, Aston Villa and Tottenham involved in friendlies. But it's the big boys of English footy who have been bringing out the mega crowds. One week after playing in front of 86,000 at the Rose Bowl, Manchester United drew the largest crowd ever for a soccer game in the US when 110,000 fans showed up to see them play Real Madrid at the University of Michigan. The game sold out in less than two hours. United also drew 55,000 to a match in Denver and 62,000 in Washington DC.

Clearly, this is no longer Dick Young's America.

For years, the international football community has been waiting for the lucrative American market to embrace the game. Hosting the 1994 World Cup was the impetus for the formation of Major League Soccer (MLS). However, with a line-up of faded stars and second-tier players, MLS was major in name only.

Today, the league has franchises in 19 markets in North America and is significantly more established, but with average attendance below 20,000 per game, it's a far cry from the record numbers turning out to see the likes of United and Liverpool.

What the summer tours have proven is that Americans do like to watch soccer. But as in most other countries, they prefer to watch soccer of the highest quality. Their baseball, American football, hockey and basketball leagues are the best in the world. Not so with soccer and no league has done more to fill that void than the English Premier League. Weekly broadcasts of EPL matches are starting to become viewing staples with ratings routinely dwarfing MLS matches.

The most difficult hurdle for Americans to overcome in watching soccer has long been the penchant for theatrics and embellishment amongst the players. And while the EPL has its fair share of duplicitous thespians, it is easily the most stout and transparent of the major European leagues.

The insular Young was certainly correct back in the 1970s when he said soccer was a game for foreigners. However, the modern reality is that the US has now become a country for so-called foreigners. There are 55 million Hispanics in the US, the fastest growing ethnic group. And just as a black man in the White House has personified the growing diversity in America, so too has the growth of soccer come to symbolise the seismic demographic shift. But the Hispanic love of the game is not the only reason soccer is the fastest growing sport in the country.

It costs upwards of US$1,000 to outfit a kid for American football or hockey. It's a cost that is out of reach for many Americans, as opposed to simply tying up a pair of shoes and kicking a ball about. With a limited amount of sporting dollars to spend, in order for soccer to grow, another sport has to shrink and only time will tell which game will suffer. One thing is certain though: there is no going back to 1974, the US is now a soccer country. And while it's not quite an obsession, it's well on its way.