Soccer could catch on in U.S. with the right product

Posted: July 16, 2014

MY SONS left a major league baseball game early Sunday to watch a soccer match. Granted, it was a World Cup final soccer match and the major league baseball game was a Phillies game, but, hey, it still counts for something, no?

They are 23 and 21 years of age and they were riveted to this World Cup, from opening match until Sunday's thriller, maintaining their interest even after the United States team was knocked out. They talked strengths and weaknesses, criticized officials, coaches and strategies, predicted outcomes, and, yeah, drank some beer.

They were representative of a 39 percent television ratings spike from the 2010 World Cup to this one, ratings that did not dip nearly as precipitously as analysts predicted they would once the American team was ousted. Sunday's final was watched by 17.34 million viewers on ABC, with an average rating of 9.1, well beyond the 6.9 average registered in 2010. It was the most watched Cup final in America on ABC/ESPN, and the third-most watched soccer game, behind the U.S. game against Portugal on June 22 (18.22 million) and the 17.95 million who saw the U.S. women beat China to capture the 1999 Women's World Cup.

Let that sit for a second. A World Cup final played between two countries not named United States attracted more viewers than the U.S.-Germany game, or the U.S.-Belgium game, or that much-touted opening grudge rematch against Ghana.

Some of this surely has to do with the timing of all these matchups. The time slots for the games played throughout Brazil could not have been better for a sport that can use all the elbow room it can get. Games began at lunch, or just before drive time. It was not unlike the early rounds of March Madness in terms of our behavior, catching a glimpse or a few minutes during your workday, a half after you got home, maybe a full game or two over the weekend.

Another factor is that more and more American viewers are young men like my two sons who played the game into their teens and understand what they are watching, at least better than their old man does. It used to be cool to make fun of soccer. Now it's cool to know the difference between Manchester United and Manchester City, to know whom the one-name stars play for when they're not playing for their country, to know the oceanic difference between the UEFA Champions League and its storied tradition, and the International Champions Cup, in its second year, that will be played in the U.S. this summer.

The first is most definitely important to soccer teams and their fans. The second is most definitely not. You will recognize the names of some of the teams this summer. But many will have left half their starters home.

Note to FIFA, FOX and any other soccer entity seeking to infiltrate the affluent sports marketplace known as the United States of America: Do not give us your tired, your poor, or your wretched refuse. If we're going all in, in between this World Cup and the next, we want your best.

So here's what I propose: Meaningful games on these shores. There are 38 Premier League games in an exhaustive regular season that starts in August and ends in May. Each is important. We send real NFL games over there. They can do the same here.

Better yet, send us a game from the real (UEFA) Champions Cup, the one with decades upon decades of history.

Hell, I'll even play for a tie here. Send us games between teams vying to graduate into the Premier League. Or real games from Bundesliga, Germany's top league.

Oh, and save the talk about MLS being just as good. At least for now.

Because the best way for that to come true is to increase demand for the product, increasing revenue flow, allowing the MLS to someday throw around the dollars that Arsenal and Man U do now.

"If you build it, they will come" used to sound like castles in the air, hollow hopes expressed by only the most starry-eyed soccer enthusiasts. This World Cup, seen through the eyes of a more knowledgeable and less dismissive next generation, suggests a foundation may actually, finally, be fastening underneath.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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