The pending arrival of the World Cup has led to the usual quadrennial speculation about whether this year’s event will spawn a U.S. soccer boom.
You know, the one that had been periodically predicted — and gone mostly unfulfilled — since Pele joined the New York Cosmos. In 1975.
As usual, it’s an erroneous question — but not for the reasons that previously prevailed as the sport struggled to move beyond its niche among suburban moms and Premier League cultists.
I hate to break it to you, but the boom has already happened. Soccer has infiltrated its way into the American sporting consciousness to such an extent that it doesn’t need to be validated, or accelerated, by a spectacle like the World Cup.
That may rankle the haters who denigrate soccer out of nothing more than habit — not enough scoring, not part of the American culture, blah blah blah.
It may infuriate those who are leading a backlash against the new breed of international soccer zealots in America, wickedly described in the Wall Street Journal by Englishman Jonathan Clegg as “may be the most derivative, excessive and utterly ridiculous collection of sports fans on the planet.”
But that scorn is just a healthy byproduct of soccer’s burgeoning popularity. Every survey, every demographic study, every economic indicator, confirms what your gut tells you — soccer has become mainstream. And that won’t fade away once the month-long obsession with the World Cup dissipates.
Adrian Hanauer, minority owner and general manager of the Seattle Sounders, says archly, “Once every four years, the media gets involved and realizes soccer exists. From where I sit and from what I’ve seen, everyone else but the mainstream media understands that (the boom) has already happened.”
Hanauer calls it, “Maybe not a revolution, but an evolution.”
The sport has moved beyond the realm of the hundreds of thousands of boys and girls playing in youth leagues, even though those still exist. In previous generations, people kept expecting them to morph into adult soccer consumers, but somewhere around puberty, they always seemed to revert back to the traditional sports.
But that is no longer the case, because of a combination of factors that provided a perfect storm for soccer to blossom beyond niche status.
There was the formation, and growth, of Major League Soccer, which was founded in 1993 and began play in 1996 in the wave of excitement over the U.S. hosting the ‘94 World Cup.
“In the past, those kids didn’t necessarily have a league to look up to,” Hanauer said. “The MLS provided some of that aspirational buzz and visibility.”
The rise of the Internet, and the exponential growth of social media, has fostered a community of soccer fans that no longer has to feel like isolated oddballs.
As Mike Gastineau, host of Seattle Soccer Talk on KJR and author of “Sounders FC: Authentic Masterpiece,” put it: “People don’t have to be embarrassed to be a soccer fan. It used to be something you followed behind closed doors, looking over your shoulder. All of a sudden, you could find tens of thousands of people who were also into it.”
But more important, for younger fans, the world of Twitter and Facebook has forged an accessibility, and connection, to their favorite team and players — even if they’re halfway around the world — that makes an international sport seem communal and intimate.
All this has occurred at a time when the exposure to soccer on television has exploded. On any weekend morning, you can watch the best players from leagues around Europe on a variety of networks, and millions are doing so. On college campuses, large groups of students wake up early so they can get together to watch the English Premier League. This year, the EPL attracted 31.5 million viewers on NBC (with Seattle ranking fifth among major cities).
It’s a far cry from the days when international soccer simply couldn’t be found in the U.S. between World Cups. John Ravenhill, co-owner of the George and Dragon Pub, a prime Seattle soccer hangout, remembers in the 1990s when watching the EPL was an ordeal.
“The English would get together at the University Bar and Grill in the U District,” Ravenhill said. “He (the owner) was really the only person that had satellite equipment that could capture a game here and there, like the Cup final. We’d all sit there, twiddle with the frequencies, and all of a sudden it would appear on the TV. We’d all cheer and watch the game.”
Now you can not only dial up a game virtually at will, you can play a realistic version of it on EA Sports’ FIFA video game.
As the father of a 14-year-old son who can be obsessive about his FIFA 14 — and so are most of his friends — I wouldn’t underestimate the impact that game has on his generation. Note to Bud Selig: If you want to grow MLB among the younger generation, come up with a baseball video game that the kids flock to — and then head to the TV to watch their video standouts in real life.
The anticipation for the World Cup, which begins today in Brazil, appears to be more frenetic than ever. But even in the days of tepid soccer interest in the U.S., American fans could muster a few weeks of avid attention and patriotic fervor, in the same way they suddenly pay rapt attention to rhythmic gymnastics or downhill skiing in Olympic years.
The difference now is that when the World Cup hype fades, soccer will remain what it was before the tournament: A formidable presence in America.