Perhaps American soccer is already here - The Explorer: Sports

Perhaps American soccer is already here

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Posted: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:24 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

Man, there was sure some kind of hubbub on Sunday.

Something was in the air, and not the shimmering humidity of an oddly damp-feeling day in Tucson.

Nope, the electric crackle of sports excitement hung in the atmosphere, but not everyone seemed to notice.

One bar within walking distance of the University of Arizona played the pre-game hype for a face-painted and thirsty crowd, empty pint glasses twinkling on bar-tops and outdoor tables.

At 11 a.m.

But the bar next door, where this reporter has taken ease more than once to watch an NFL or NCAA contest, did not deem the event important enough to wheel the big screens onto the patio, instead counting on oh-so-passe (and rather tiny) tube televisions to carry the action — inside only.

There in sudsy microcosm lies the tale of USA soccer's trip to the FIFA Confederations Cup championship game last Sunday.

Sports fans were excited, buzz grew in bars and workplaces (at least those this writer frequents), and of course, the piece-de-resistance, 2009's greatest honor: a Twitter "trending topic" listing.

And yet, some just weren't having it.

A writer for NBCSports.com, someone much more experienced than this friendly neighborhood sports guy, penned a column about U.S. Soccer's advance and subsequent disappointing 3-2 loss to Brazil.

His basic message: "So what? Soccer isn't anything in America, and it never will be." Honest. No exaggeration.

What this gentleman, and that unenthusiastic bar-next-door don't seem to realize, is this: soccer is already pretty darn big stateside.

Generation after generation of American youth have strapped on shin guards, many before they learn to pedal a bike. Every weekend, squadrons of camping chairs alight next to grassy fields in city or county parks, and enough oranges to feed a small army are neatly sliced and Ziploc-ed into energy-boosting snack packs for young soccer addicts.

NBC's columnist did acknowledge that soccer is "the favorite sport of 5-year olds," but contested that by the time U.S. kids reach high school, they've flipped the switch, moving to baseball, football or some other, more Stars-and-Stripes-approved sporting endeavor.

Well, through on-the-job research exhaustively covering prep sports for the past year, I feel I can state with a modicum of certainty, that just isn't so.

An over-the-years winnowing of participants in any sport is only natural — plenty of tee-ballers don't swing a bat for their local high school.

Soccer kids love soccer. If anything, they just add other sports to their agenda, instead of giving up "footie" just because it's not the one their parents and society watch on TV.

Teenagers give up something because it doesn't involve walking the traditional path?

Not bloody likely.

And what about the next level?

While it's true that college soccer does not garner the type of ratings and attendance college football or basketball revel in every year, it shares niche cable networks like ESPNU and CBS College Sports with college baseball, at least until the College World Series kicks in.

And after that?

The NFL is on top, and it's not moving, not soon anyway. Which is great. Pro football is exciting, the short season makes every game into a near-playoff, and the athletes are huge and hit each other very, very, very hard. Pure gold.

MLB has its tradition, its die-hard, born-in fans, its anecdotes and folklore.

But the numbers show the U.S.'s preeminent soccer organization, Major League Soccer, is creeping up on the NBA, at least in the area of attendance.

ESPN's attendance tallies for the 2009 NBA season are as follows: calculating in all 30 teams, average home attendance was 17,497 persons per game. The team that drew the most fans at home — the Detroit Pistons with crowds averaging 21,877.

Street and Smith's Sports Business Journal reported the average attendance throughout the MLS's 2008 season (the most recent statistically available) was 16,549 spectators per game. The league's biggest draw, the Los Angeles Galaxy, outdrew the Pistons, notching 26,009 turnstile spins per game.

So nearly the same number of people, on average, want to attend MLS games as want to take in an NBA contest.

The NBA is usually looked at as one of the big three, and yet MLS's top-ticket team consistently outdrew that league's No. 1 home team.

Why then, do so many refuse to give soccer a "major sport" tag?

There are a few things that set pro soccer apart from what Americans look at as big-time sports.

First off, TV contracts are not as forthcoming to MLS squads, and none of the big four (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX) regularly bring soccer games to viewers.

Small regional cable channels like the Colorado/Pacific Northwest's Altitude Sports and the New York-based MSG network have MLS games, but just those of teams near to their area (in the case of the networks listed, the Colorado Rapids and New York Red Bulls).

ESPN broadcasts tournaments like the Confederations Cup, mostly national-team fare, and does carry the MLS Shootout package, a pay-per-view option for soccer fans.

Fox Soccer Channel is a haven for those seeking goals and penalty kicks, but is many times unavailable with a basic or extended basic cable subscription.

ESPN2, available to many subscribers with less expensive plans, broadcast games in 2008, and averaged 253,000 viewers per game.

But without a multitude of nationwide television contracts, U.S. professional soccer isn't exactly throwing bills around the way the NBA, NFL, MLB or P. Diddy in a hot tub does.

In fact, according to the MLS Players' Union, only four players in 2009 were scheduled to make over $1 million, with the highest base salary being paid to David Beckham of the L.A. Galaxy at $5 million. Seven out of the 24 men on the Galaxy's roster made less than $40,000 and the lowest earner was midfielder Kyle Patterson, pulling in a meager $20,100.

And that's just soccer in L.A. — the Kansas City Wizards entire payroll doesn't equal Beckham's salary, and their top earner was Davy Arnaud, with a base salary of $220,000. In contrast, the NFL's Washington Redskins just signed defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth to a seven-year, $100 million contract.

And during the offseason, the NFL, NBA and MLB generate arrest stories at a pretty high clip, ensuring continuing attention, with Denver Broncos' wideout Brandon Marshall hording more than his share of ink.

"MLS player arrest" did not return one hit in the first 20 of a recent Yahoo.com search.

Of course, this is the chicken-or-egg question — does the big money, big attention and fame contribute to reckless behavior and/or heavier scrutiny by police and media outlets, or is it simply another instance of editors assuming that no one would care about an MLS defender beer-bonging Patron tequila while driving?

Or maybe this is a moot point, because with the money most of the soccer guys get, they'd more likely be busted astride a rusty Schwinn with a bottle of Miller High Life.

But really, are bloated salaries and offseason peccadilloes reason enough to anoint some sports as "major," while guffawing at the achievements of others?

Instead, look at fan enthusiasm, the strength and dedication of the athletes, and the sportsmanship they show, especially while representing the United States.

By that yardstick, soccer sure seemed major on Sunday.

No one is claiming that soccer is on a level with the NFL, MLB, NBA or even the NHL in the hearts and minds of America.

It's unrealistic and blatantly untrue, but to simply write off an entire sport as unworthy and unable to achieve widespread fan support in the U.S. ignores just what happened against Brazil this weekend.

Across the country, beer steins shot towards the roof after our guys scored twice, clanking together in celebration. Waves of collective groaning echoed when the opponent scored or stole the ball. Cheers rang out when a masterful pass or block flickered across the screen. And a heavy, stale malaise settled over the bar when the American team (as national team member Carlos Bocanegra put it in a post-game video blog), "ran out of gas" and gave away the ghost in the second half. When it was over, optimism slowly rippled across the room.

"Less than a year until the next one," said one onlooker. The next one being the 2010 World Cup.

It was all there. It was Sunday football. Just a different kind.

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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