Indulge your imagination for just a moment and ponder the possibilities of soccer being the pre-eminent professional sport in the United States. Admittedly, many traditional American sports aficionados will balk at this simple play exercise, exhibiting an over-protective pride of their beloved football, basketball or baseball, and boasting their impressive knowledge of these compelling and enduring past times. Most of us know passionate sports fans that routinely spout league and player statistics, ancient sports lore, rules of the game, player salaries, post-game analysis, and their own team strategies. Their initial reaction to the threatening prospect of “soccer as king of American sports” will often be a defiant and involuntary “no way, never happen!”
The hyper-cynicism of our omnipresent and media-fueled sports culture has created a new negativism in our leisure zeitgeist. Listen to enough sports talk radio and you’ll wonder why so many lament the failings of their teams and heroes. We are indeed a winner-take-all sports society, relentlessly demanding perfection from grown men playing games. Note our collective propensity for labeling the losers of the Super Bowl and other major championships as losers, failures, bums, etc. It is a small and forgotten detail that these losers are successful conference champs and possibly centimeters, seconds, or maybe a bad call away from being dominant champions. International soccer, both club and country versions, share our negativism and post-mortem doom and gloom. Granted some countries were hailed for their surprisingly good showing in the World Cup, but most are viewed as abject failures for not winning the tournament. Our soccer brethren around the world are kindred bad spirits wallowing in what went wrong. The desire for winning and the supplementary spite in the wake of failure are global constants that bind us all. It’s a small world after all.
A proxy for soccer’s imminent and death star like emergence in the US is auto racing. I recall, in the 1970s and 1980s, non-southern and national sportscasters reluctantly reporting on NASCAR results at the very end of their broadcasts, if at all. They knew little to nothing of auto racing, and would make jokes about what “corn flakes or detergent car” won the race due to their proficiency for turning left continually for 600 miles. Mean-spirited analogies about ant farms were common when reporting “the news” about races. Obviously these journalists did not grow up around racing. And then one day these same sportscasters, writers and producers got the memo. The network brass got wind of the advertising money and counted the patrons skipping church and instead worshipping at these events. As NASCAR grew from a regional weekend dynamo to a sponsor-fueled, nationwide megasport, the national sports media syndicate took notice and jumped on board. No more mean jokes about NASCAR allowed at the anchor desk. Soccer’s global footprint dwarfs auto racing, and “the memo” from the brass has been read or is most certainly on the way to the uninitiated sports personality. To be sure the uber-traditional sports cavemen will resist, but to their peril. Whether it is watching your child’s youth soccer match, or seeing thrilling highlights on ESPN’s Sportscenter, most naysayers will come around as their ratings and readership will be impacted in the long run.
The forces driving soccer to pre-eminence in the US are clear: staggering multi-generational youth participation numbers; success and traction of Major League Soccer; our penchant for big, glitzy sporting events like the World Cup; convenient two-hour television-friendly scheduling of games; our inclination for cynical sports viewing and reporting; and most importantly, globalization. The common denominator for all these forces is, of course, money. And there is a lot of competition for our limited leisure time and money given so many other enticing sports entertainment options. So do not blame soccer for a decline in baseball. Don’t fault lacrosse either for siphoning youngsters away from youth baseball leagues. Celebrate both the traditional and the new. Embrace the unfamiliar. There is room for every activity as long as it provides compelling entertainment value relative to other options.
Lastly, even the most persistent soccer hater out there should see some promise in the following: If soccer becomes America’s premier sport, consider the great athletes that may choose soccer, as kids, for their life’s work. Surely the prospects of the US winning a true world championship should get your competitive nationalistic heart pounding. Cue the goosebumps as I suggest some recent American athletes as professional soccer players, and compile a 23-man fantasy World Cup US Men’s National Team roster:
Goalkeepers: Calvin Johnson, Kevin Durant, Tony Gonzalez
Forwards: Adrian Peterson, Hershel Walker, Barry Sanders
Center Midfielders: Michael Vick, Johnny Manziel, Derek Jeter, Doug Flutie, Aaron Rodgers
Outside Midfielders/wings: Carl Lewis, Jerry Rice, Michael Johnson, Tyson Gay
Center Backs: LeBron James, Ronnie Lott, Bo Jackson, Ken Griffey, Jr.
Outside Backs: Michael Jordan, Deion Sanders, Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen
About the author:
Dr. Wayne is an Associate Professor of Business Administration at Rivier University in Nashua, NH. His research and teaching interests include sports and entertainment marketing, new product development, entrepreneurship, and strategy. He also serves as the Faculty Athletics Representative for Rivier University.