HELLO, WORLD

Soccer in the U.S. doesn’t need a team in the World Cup. It’s al­ready here to stay, says broad­caster Roger Ben­nett.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @rog­ben­nett

In 1990, I spent one of the sin­gle great­est sum­mers of my life as a coun­selor at a sleep­away camp in Maine. I was that req­ui­site creepy English guy with cut-off denim shorts who spent seven weeks at­tempt­ing to fathom the Amer­i­can tra­di­tions of lan­yard-mak­ing, Devil Dogs and sky­hook wed­gies. Yet my dom­i­nant mem­ory re­mains Amer­ica’s cruel in­dif­fer­ence to the sport I love: soccer.

At the World Cup that sum­mer, English foot­ball mo­men­tar­ily shed its self-sab­o­tag­ing in­stinct dur­ing a glo­ri­ous march into the semi­fi­nals, which sent the jin­go­is­tic tabloid-driven cul­ture back home into a bom­bas­tic frenzy. It felt as if the em­pire was on the verge of com­ing back to­gether. Yet the day of the semi­fi­nal against West Ger­many was one of the most frus­trat­ing of my life. I had sched­uled a day off with an­other Englishman who ran the camp’s wa­ter­front. We drove fran­ti­cally around the dusty back roads of ru­ral Maine, hit­ting one long­neck-tot­ing road­side bar after an­other. All were broad­cast­ing the Portland mi­nor league base­ball game. Not one was willing to use its gi­ant satel­lite dish to pull in the World Cup match that the rest of the world was glued to.

With no In­ter­net back then, I had to wait for the next day’s Bos­ton Globe to find out that Eng­land had pre­dictably lost, on penal­ties (also pre­dictably). But what scarred me most was the bar own­ers: Not only did they refuse to change the chan­nel for two des­per­ate English soccer fans, but they took a per­verse, sadis­tic de­light in do­ing so. I had trav­eled the world, vis­it­ing Africa, the Mid­dle East and

South Amer­ica. For the first time in my life, I was stunned to en­counter a cul­ture that wore its wide­spread ha­tred of soccer as a proud mark of honor.

I re­count this story be­cause 28 years later, I am a freshly minted Amer­i­can cit­i­zen, liv­ing in a na­tion that will be skip­ping the 2018 World Cup, which kicks off in Rus­sia. Last Oc­to­ber, the United States — the na­tion that gave the world the Dream Team, the Mir­a­cle on Ice, Rocky, Rudy and the Karate Kid — crashed out of qual­i­fy­ing on the last day, fail­ing to make the world’s great­est sport­ing spec­ta­cle for the first time since 1986.

But as my Maine World Cup ex­pe­ri­ence sug­gests, the sport’s his­tory in the United States has been com­pli­cated — a spec­tac­u­lar story of bold pre­dic­tions, booms and busts, in which soccer has for­ever been hailed as Amer­ica’s “game of the fu­ture,” or al­ter­nately, like pogo stick­ing, the Ru­bik’s Cube and es­ports, as an overnight fad.

So does the United States’ epic fail­ure to make this month’s tour­na­ment sig­nal an­other sud­den down­turn in the sport’s pro­file here? I have bad news for ru­ral-Maine-bar-own­ing read­ers: Amer­ica, for so long soccer’s fi­nal fron­tier, has qui­etly be­come a true epi­cen­ter of the game.

Since the United States hosted the tour­na­ment in 1994, the sport’s rise has been steady and in­ex­orable, World Cup to World Cup. The tor­toise rather than the hare, but with a pop­u­lar­ity that has grown deeper and stronger as a re­sult. (The U.S. women’s na­tional team, of course, have been far more suc­cess­ful than the men, win­ning three World Cups, in­clud­ing the most re­cent one in 2015.) Four years, ago, 26.5 mil­lion Amer­i­cans watched the men’s World Cup fi­nal be­tween Ger­many and Ar­gentina. That’s more than the 22.5 mil­lion who tuned in to Game 2 of the NBA fi­nals last Sun­day (and far more than the 6 mil­lion who watched Game 5 of the Stan­ley Cup fi­nals Mon­day). More than 3 mil­lion Amer­i­cans watched the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal be­tween Liver­pool and Real Madrid last month. The au­di­ence for the English Premier League on ca­ble-only NBC Sports is triple what it was on ESPN net­works and Fox Sports in 2012-13, ac­cord­ing to NBC, and a record 39.3 mil­lion Amer­i­cans watched the last sea­son un­fold (my “Men in Blaz­ers” co-host Michael Davies and I are part of that cov­er­age); broad­casts on NBC Sports and Tele­mu­ndo of the Man­ches­ter United-Man­ches­ter City game set a record for U.S. view­ers watch­ing a reg­u­larsea­son English soccer match, at 1.72 mil­lion. Amer­i­cans bought more tick­ets to this month’s tour­na­ment than any other na­tion ex­cept Rus­sia, the host, even though the U.S. team didn’t qual­ify. In a re­cent Gallup poll, 11 per­cent of adults be­tween 18 and 34 cited soccer as their fa­vorite sport, the same share as bas­ket­ball. Both beat base­ball’s measly 9 per­cent. Es­pe­cially for peo­ple un­der 30, the pop­u­lar­ity of the English Premier League, the Cham­pi­ons League, the Mex­i­can na­tional team and Liga MX — and even the growth in Ma­jor League Soccer, where 48,200 fans reg­u­larly pack an NFL sta­dium to cheer on their run ’n’ gun team in At­lanta (yes, At­lanta!) — has been pro­pelled by a few key fac­tors.

Global soccer is the per­fect sport for the In­ter­net era. Just as base­ball thrived in the golden age of ra­dio and the NFL boomed once tele­vi­sion sup­planted it, soccer has flour­ished in the United States be­cause the In­ter­net has em­pow­ered Amer­i­cans to con­nect con­sis­tently to the sto­ry­lines of the global game in real time. Fans in Man­ches­ter, N.H., can fol­low the soap opera that is Man­ches­ter United as the team des­per­ately at­tempts to re­gain its mojo, and sup­port­ers in Madrid, N.M., could de­code the Krem­li­no­log­i­cal go­ings-on as Real Madrid coach Zine­dine Zi­dane quit the club in a mo­ment of glory, as closely and with as much in­sight as those who live within walk­ing dis­tance of those two clubs’ sta­di­ums.

That blos­som­ing love af­fair is not un­re­quited. Over the past decade, the world’s pow­er­house teams — Barcelona, Madrid, Man City, Bay­ern Mu­nich and Ju­ven­tus — have be­come ob­sessed with Amer­ica, sens­ing the vir­gin ter­rain, au­di­ence size and cor­po­rate-spon­sor den­sity as the per­fect tar­get at which to evan­ge­lize their brands. The 109,318 fans who packed Michi­gan’s Big House to watch Man­ches­ter United and Real Madrid play a mean­ing­less Au­gust pre­sea­son game four years ago is an eye-pop­ping num­ber by Euro­pean stan­dards; the av­er­age Premier League match drew barely a third of that this past sea­son. A foot­balling arms race has en­sued as they bat­tle to win over Amer­i­can fans’ hearts, minds and fleshy wal­lets. Euro­pean clubs have es­tab­lished cor­po­rate of­fices in New York and an­nounced plans to field teams in the U.S. women’s pro­fes­sional league. Man­ches­ter City even bought an MLS fran­chise as a brand ex­ten­sion.

While those foot­ball colossi dream of tak­ing over Amer­ica, a pha­lanx of U.S. en­trepreneurs is charg­ing head­first into the busi­ness of the Euro­pean game. It’s easy to see why. Global view­er­ship num­bers are dizzy­ing — be­yond the United States, an es­ti­mated 700 mil­lion peo­ple around the world can tune in to watch Liver­pool play Man­ches­ter United in reg­u­lar-sea­son games, dwarf­ing the view­er­ship of the Su­per Bowl. And there’s none of the hand­cuff­ing rev­enue-shar­ing preva­lent in U.S. ma­jor leagues: If the Bos­ton Red Sox sell a jer­sey, they have to split the pro­ceeds with the other 29 Ma­jor League Base­ball teams, but if a Liver­pool jer­sey sells, the club keeps all the money for it­self. Al­most a third of the Premier League teams have Amer­i­can own­ers, in­clud­ing the Los Angeles Rams’ Stan Kroenke at Ar­se­nal, the Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers’ Glazer fam­ily at Man­ches­ter United and the Jack­sonville Jaguars’ Shahid Khan at newly pro­moted Ful­ham. This year’s Cham­pi­ons League semi­fi­nal fea­tured Liver­pool and Roma — two Euro­pean leg­ends, both owned by Bos­ton-based busi­ness­men, John W. Henry and Jim Pal­lotta. The game should have been played at Fen­way.

All of this has been re­in­forced by the quiet explosion of EA Sports’ jug­ger­naut FIFA fran­chise (Forbes es­ti­mates that the game ac­counted for 40 per­cent of the com­pany’s rev­enue in 2016, with 15.5 mil­lion copies sold that year) as the silent hand that has grown the sport in the United States. Un­like its NFL and NBA videogame coun­ter­parts, whose pop­u­lar­ity is an ex­ten­sion of fans’ pre-ex­ist­ing love for those leagues, the FIFA games have be­come a gate­way drug for soccer in Amer­ica, seed­ing a fa­mil­iar­ity of the game, its nu­anced play­ing styles and its stars across a gen­er­a­tion of young, red-blooded Amer­i­can sports fans who might once have dis­carded soccer as a child­hood rite of pas­sage. The United States has be­come the brand’s sec­ond-big­gest ter­ri­tory, EA Sports tells me, eclips­ing Ger­many and trail­ing only Eng­land.

So even with­out the Yanks in Rus­sia, Amer­ica will be watch­ing. Yes, we’ll be de­prived of giddy col­lec­tive mo­ments such as when Lan­don Dono­van smote Al­ge­ria, but take it from an Englishman, whose team failed to qual­ify for two World Cups in my life­time — in Ar­gentina in 1978 and in the United States in 1994 — that won’t ruin it at all. Those tour­na­ments turned out to be the two most en­joy­able World Cups of my youth. Be­ing able to watch and sa­vor with­out the impending fail­ure of my team hang­ing over the whole thing was like get­ting out from un­der a sport­ing Sword of Damo­cles.

This is your per­mis­sion note, then, to cut work for a month, Amer­ica. Do what you do bet­ter than any na­tion in the world: Sa­vor the cir­cus. Slink out of your cu­bi­cles en masse. Day drink. Watch, revel and in­hale the World Cup in its full glory. It is the world’s great­est te­len­ov­ela, re­plete with Ron­aldo, Messi, Ney­mar, heroes, vil­lains, echoes of wars past, dodgy hair­cuts and Fort­nite goal cel­e­bra­tions. And it will be on tele­vi­sions across our na­tion. Even in the ru­ral bars of Maine.

Roger Ben­nett is co-host of NBC Sports’ “Men in Blaz­ers,” co-au­thor of the World Cup book “En­cy­clo­pe­dia Blaz­er­tan­nica” and cre­ator of the “Amer­i­can Fi­asco” World Cup pod­cast.

SPORT­ING PRESS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST EZ BD

TONY DING/ICON SPORTS WIRE/CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES

BOTTOM: An ex­hi­bi­tion match be­tween Real Madrid and Man­ches­ter United drew 109,318 fans to Michi­gan Sta­dium in Ann Ar­bor in 2014.

ICON SPORTSWIRE/GETTY IMAGES

BE­LOW RIGHT: Fans cel­e­brate after Mex­ico beat the United States in a 2016 World Cup qual­i­fier in Colum­bus, Ohio.

COURTESY OF ROGER BEN­NETT

BE­LOW LEFT: Roger Ben­nett, cen­ter, at Camp Kingswood in Bridg­ton, Maine, in July 1990.

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