Little-known fact: soccer, affectionately known as football to the rest of the world, is the fastest growing sport among the youth of America and it is rapidly closing the gap on other sports. There are several factors that have led to the increased popularity of soccer in the U.S., but few are bigger than Mia Hamm and her supporting cast on the U.S. Women’s National team. You see, Hamm and company brought something to soccer that Americans hadn’t associated with the sport: victory.
Equally, there are many factors that have led to the lack of popularity of soccer in the United States. The biggest, however, is success; the American people have always adored their winners and have often disassociated themselves from the losers. Call it the ego of the world’s only superpower, call it sad, call it what you will – that’s the reality. For many other nations like Brazil, France and Argentina, soccer is their national pastime; it’s their number one sport, and that is what every young kid in the street plays. Meanwhile, the good ol’ U.S. of A., the melting pot for so many different ethnic groups and cultures, has absorbed the traditions and sports of its diverse citizenry. Consequently, sports like baseball, basketball and American football have all grown as sports molded around the American culture.
The increasing prevalence of these sports has contributed to the lack of development of soccer in this country. Furthermore, when you look at the nature of these sports, you quickly see a few common characteristics: sports in America are largely molded around television and commercialism. This is how we meet the athletes and it is how we then turn them into stars and celebrities. Although sports provide some of the finest entertainment in the world, it is very much a business for all parties involved. You will notice that in the three most popularly played sports, all three have considerable stoppages during game-play. The commercialism of sports is ultimately convenient for all involved: for the players, commercial time provides a resting period; for TV, commercials provide a market; and for capitalists, commercialism provides a medium for growth.
This is a major problem for soccer in America, as its non-stop nature will always hinder its television profitability, and frankly there’s no way to tell whether or not there is any solution. A few years ago, the MLS tried to tackle this issue by proposing to introduce a quarter system, but that was quickly blocked by FIFA. Witness the chain effect: there exists no incentive for television networks to play soccer games because there is no stoppage time outside of the half so they can’t get paid to cover it; by the same token, having only one announced stoppage means little commercial time – therefore companies have little interest in sponsoring the game. Consequently, soccer is rarely on TV, and you don’t see stars emerging in mainstream America, which means no local players to identify with or emulate, which ultimately leads to its lack of popularity among the youth.
Another interesting factor might be that all mainstream U.S. sports primarily require good hand-eye coordination. Not that I mean to suggest anything on the biological level, but it is hard to ignore this fact as being a possible reason for soccer’s lack of popularity here, as it requires foot-eye coordination. Who knows? But certainly the average American kid will do several more activities and sports which hone hand-eye coordination than they will for foot-eye coordination. This is a big factor affecting American soccer, because all of the best athletes are naturally going to play the sports that come more easily to them, like basketball and baseball.
But despite all this, here we are in year 2002, and soccer is the fastest growing sport among the youth of both sexes in America. This new popularity is largely due to the impressive world dominance of the U.S. women’s team over the last decade. The U.S. women have won two of the three women’s World Cup tournaments and have used their resources (a nation that supports women) to soundly dominate the rest of the world in what is largely considered the “world’s game.” This has done a lot for women’s sports on the world stage, but more importantly for the U.S. is that its women’s team put soccer on the U.S. map in a big way.
The U.S. women have shown Americans that if they actually cared, they could compete with the rest of the world in soccer and actually win, too. America loves to see superstars and winners in sports, and the women’s national team is filled with both; the team has emerged as the world’s best, and young girls aspire to emulate team members like Mia Hamm and Brandy Chastain. Because of the team’s well publicized dominance and a realization that you don’t need to be big and strong to be good, young girls and boys across America are now playing a lot of soccer. At the height of their women’s team’s success, more people were attending MLS games and a professional league for women (W-USA) has since been established. Since the wave of the U.S. women’s soccer team’s success, soccer has been getting more love in this country and there is even a fair amount of soccer on American TV now.
With the MLS currently in its seventh season and struggling (note the league’s recent contraction), men’s soccer needs a big boost, and there exists no better an opportunity for the sport to have a little life injected into it here in America than this summer’s World Cup. Since the World Cup is the must-see event in soccer, a good performance – which is to say one that sees the American team advance beyond the first round – would not only be a great achievement for the nation’s program, but it will do wonders for the MLS and U.S. soccer in general. The women gave soccer a huge push in the U.S., now it’s time for the men to do their part.