The United States didn’t just lose a soccer match – it also lost a chance to make the world’s most popular sport more relevant in this country.
There was a lot of excitement in the U.S. over the World Cup this year and the interest here was at an all-time high. Soccer has been immensely popular in the U.S. as a participatory sport, especially in youth leagues, for a long time, but for the first time it seemed as if the casual sports fans really cared and really paid attention.
And that’s the real secret to long-term success – attracting people who don’t even play the sport. Millions of women watch NFL games on a weekly basis even though almost none of them have actually worn those kinds of shoulder pads. For that matter, the majority of men who watch NFL games has never played football on a truly competitive level and don’t understand the complexities and nuances of the sport.
As the kids who played soccer in those youth leagues got older they started watching European leagues on television, and there’s no question it’s more popular than ever here, but professional soccer in this country is still pretty much a minor-league sport — at least if you measure that by television ratings and merchandise sales, the two things that have made the NFL a multi-billion dollar business.
That’s why the 2014 World Cup was so important and why the Americans’ failure was so damaging. People were excited about the U.S. team, and not just hard-core soccer fans. All the U.S. had to do was win some games and hang around long enough for the bandwagon to fill up and pick up speed. More than 18 million television viewers tuned into the U.S.-Portugal match, a 2-2 tie, and that was the most-watched game by a U.S. audience in history. And the 2-1 loss to Belgium had more than 16 million U.S. viewers, the second most ever.
It’s clear that more people in the United States are interested in soccer and even though national pride is part of it, people were patriotic before and didn’t tune in like this.
But then the U.S. team was eliminated by Belgium just when the tournament was getting interesting. And not only did the U.S. lose, it was eliminated by Belgium. A true soccer fan knows that Belgium historically has good teams and this year was no different. Still, the most powerful nation in the history of the world, with a population of 318 million, couldn’t beat a country with a population of 11 million? It’s one thing to be eliminated by Brazil or Argentina, but Belgium?
So, the Americans finished the World Cup with a record of 1-2-1, and to give that a little perspective: They ended up with a winning percentage of .333, which is worse than the Phillies (.428).
There’s no guarantee that a longer run in the World Cup would have pushed soccer into the same stratosphere as football, basketball and baseball, the Big Three of professional sports in the United States. Most of us remember the excitement generated by the U.S. women when they won the World Cup in 1999 and star players like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Briana Scurry and Julie Foudy became household names. But the popularity boom that soccer fans were hoping for after the U.S.’s dramatic charge to the World Cup championship didn’t happen, at least as a spectator sport on the professional level.
Still, it did make soccer more popular on a grass roots level, among boys and girls. The success of the 1999 women’s team didn’t revolutionize the sport in America, but it was a big step in the right direction.
And a successful run by the 2014 men’s team would have been a big, big, big step in the right direction. They didn’t even have to win it all, as the women did in 1999. If the Americans had just made it as far as the semifinals it would have given that bandwagon a lot more time to build up a lot more momentum, and nobody knows how far that could have driven soccer in America.
Contact Kevin Noonan at email@example.com.