Soccer in the U.S. doesn’t need a team in the World Cup. It’s already here to stay, says broadcaster Roger Bennett.
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.
BOTTOM: An exhibition match between Real Madrid and Manchester United drew 109,318 fans to Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor in 2014.
BELOW RIGHT: Fans celebrate after Mexico beat the United States in a 2016 World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio.
BELOW LEFT: Roger Bennett, center, at Camp Kingswood in Bridgton, Maine, in July 1990.