Soccer's fever pitch likely not to last very long

Posted: July 14, 2014

THERE IS no question that soccer (futbol) fever has swept America in the last month. We all saw thousands of people gathered at outdoor venues to watch the gallant effort of the U.S. men's national team in the World Cup.

The outpouring of public enthusiasm was contagious and drew in people who had no concept of the difference between a midfielder and a striker. This incredible enthusiasm was also reflected in TV ratings. Twenty-four million people watched the U.S. team's thrilling match against Portugal, which ended in an agonizing tie, and 24.5 million watched the U.S. team get eliminated by Belgium in the Round of 16. These rating surpassed the average for the 2013 World Series telecast (14.9 million average viewers), the 2014 NBA Finals (15.5 million average viewers) and the 2014 Stanley Cup final (just under 5 million average viewers). The World Cup ratings were beaten (crushed, in fact) only by the NFL. The first game of the NFL playoffs averaged 34.7 million viewers and the Super Bowl averaged 108 million-plus viewers.

The incredible wave of enthusiasm that the U.S' run in the World Cup created raises the question of whether soccer has finally arrived in the United States to take its place as our fifth major professional team sport. On one hand, you could make a strong case that the answer is a resounding NO. Consider that the Brazil-Germany semifinal game was watched by 6.6 million viewers on ESPN and another 5.8 viewers on Univision. Compare that to the viewership of the game in England, where it was watched by 51 percent of all viewers, and France, where the viewership was also over 50 percent. These numbers led the New York Daily News to say that "after the U.S. was eliminated, America's TV ratings collapsed like a writhing midfielder" and "Do Americans care about the World Cup? Not when the Americans are no longer playing!"

Even more telling is the fact that on the weekend following the U.S.' elimination, telecasts of Major League Soccer games had virtually no increase from the same weekend in 2013, and average attendance at MLS games also saw no increase. The dropoff appeared to be immediate and severe when our national pride was not on the line in a world competition. Most analysts compared this effect to what happened after the miracle victories of the U.S. men's Olympic hockey team in 1980, which produced very modest growth in attendance and TV ratings for the NHL.

According to ESPN, MLS ratings are lower than the WNBA, where the average viewership is 230,000 a game, compared with 220,000 for MLS in 2013, (down from an average of 310,000 in 2012). Interestingly, NBC's telecast of the English Premier League does better, averaging 390,000 viewers. NBC Sports Network averaged 102,000 viewers for MLS, compared with 392,000 for hockey.

So does all of this mean that soccer will fade into the background as a minor sport in the United States until the World Cup in 2018? I believe otherwise, that soccer will continue to grow both in attendance at games and viewership on TV. It will not see shocking increases, but it will grow slowly and steadily for one simple reason - far more young people are playing soccer today than football. And as they grow into adulthood, many of those increasing numbers of soccer players will turn into an increasing number of soccer spectators. It is inevitable. If you played a sport, you are much more likely to watch that sport in person or on TV. And the universe of former soccer players in America will grow exponentially.

Can the MLS do anything to improve the state of affairs? Probably not. It simply does not have the clout to make the changes that should be made in the international game to make it far more spectator friendly (particularly on TV). If I were the CEO of FIFA, I would make the following changes:

* Enact simple rules penalizing flopping or embellishment, so that we can, once and for all, put an end to all the ludicrous dives soccer players do when their jerseys happen to brush together. It's embarrassing and makes the game seem almost comical.

* Adjust the yellow- and red-card system so that only the most aggressive acts of violence result in being disqualified for the current game and subsequent games. If similar rules were in place the year the Flyers won the Stanley Cup, the Broad Street Bullies would not have been able to field a team for the next game.

* Let the spectators in the stadium and on TV clearly know how much extra stoppage time will be played and let that time tick down on a clearly visible running clock.

* Most important, for elimination games, get rid of penalty kicks. The winning team in the elimination rounds of the prestigious, once-every-4-years world championship that is the World Cup should not be decided by absurd-looking, far-too-close-to-the-goal penalty kicks. Rather, if an elimination game is tied at the end of regulation, there should be a sudden death playoff. Consider how thrilling it was to watch Keith Primeau's game-winning goal for the Flyers that beat the Penguins in the fifth overtime!

* I'm not sure what the solution is here, but there simply has to be a way to create more shots on goal. Consider that in the World Cup semifinal between the Netherlands and Argentina, there were only eight shots on goal combined. Which means there was one shot on goal every 15 minutes - absolutely stultifying.

My guess is that none of these changes will ever be enacted, because FIFA thinks nothing is wrong with soccer and how it is played throughout the world. I don't get it. But maybe they are right, when you consider that 87 percent of all Germans watching television watched their World Cup game against Brazil. But I believe that for America, if these changes aren't made, the road to soccer's enduring popularity will still be a long and tortured one.


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