In years hence, historians considering the United States in 2014 may well see it as the year of an important national tipping point.
An economy that simply cannot pull out of its slump? Catastrophic blowback in the Middle East after years of costly regional adventures? A dangerous new geopolitical challenge from Putin’s on-the-march Russia? Legalized pot? All of the above?
An April 16 newswire item signaled the seismic shift: “NBC Universal Presents unprecedented coverage of Premier League’s “Championship Sunday” on May 11. For the First Time: All 10 Matches on 10 TV Networks at One Time Plus 2 Spanish-Language Telecasts.”
Read that again. This press release header didn’t even mention any actual sport.
The headline may have left Americans of a certain age (like me) nonplussed, but for younger generations of sports fans, “Premier League” now carries a cool cache and brand awareness on par with the NBA and NFL. Drop by your local office water cooler and you’re as likely to hear the under-40 crowd make knowing references to names like Neymar, Ibrahimovic, Chelsea and Real Madrid as any talk of Lebron and the Heat’s failed efforts to three-peat vs. the Spurs.
Now of course we are in the full throes of the World Cup – and soccer is everywhere around us. Televisions from shopping malls to airport lounges blast coverage from Brazil and gift shops and sports stores are filled with the branded swag that once only accompanied great American institutions such as the Super Bowl or World Series.
Soccer’s cultural ascendancy has been a slow build, going back to the 1970s when the sport first mounted a serious march in the US, attended by buzz over the legendary Pele joining the flashy New York Cosmos and talk that the ‘world’s game’ would dominate the American sports scene within a few short years. That didn’t happen, but sturdy roots were planted through the launch of youth leagues around the country such as the inaugural Brandywine YMCA program in which I and most of the kids on my block participated.
But even as the sport gained momentum – regrettably giving birth in the 80s and 90s to the cursed “travel team” virus that has infected everything from cheerleading to science olympiad – it really wasn’t until the last few years that soccerization accelerated at speed.
Lionel Messi jerseys started popping up – and moving quickly – on the racks at Dick’s, and the self-anointed arbiter of elite American tastes, the New York Times, first launched “The Goal” blog then moved to devote an entire section to soccer. Today the Times and other newspapers regularly lead sports coverage with Premier League action, featuring exotic-sounding headlines like “Cardiff City and Fulham Stuck in Relegation Zone” and “Cheeky Berbatov goal Secures Monaco win over Nice.”
Forbes recently offered American readers “10 Leadership Lessons From Manchester United’s Hiring and Firing of David Moyes.” Who?
The 24-7 coverage of the World Cup puts paid to the undeniable fact that soccer is no longer on the fringes of American culture – indeed, it has firmly taken hold of a central place in the hearts of millions of mostly younger sports fans across the country.
How did this happen?
Good old globalization, immigration trends and generational tastes are certainly factors in soccer’s mainstream bloom here, but there is another possibly more potent factor in the shift: Microsoft’s Xbox video game.
If you are aware of the habits of 12-15 year-old-boys, you will know this is a species that dines at strange hours, can sleep like hibernating bears, is unfamiliar with the concept of cleaning and has the capacity to play FIFA soccer on Xbox uninterrupted, for days on end.
Something about Xbox (or, as it has been called in some households, “crack box”) FIFA soccer has helped create legions of loyal and knowledgeable soccer fanatics among the most coveted targets for sports marketers: young men.
Ergo NBC’s eagerness to pay top dollar to broadcast a low-scoring sport most media experts thought could never capture the interest or allegiance of American audiences.
So as the bandwagon celebrating the United States’ early victory over Ghana in the “group of death” shifts into high gear, the lasting lyrics of Karen and Richard Carpenter come to mind: “…We’ve only just begun…”