By Uche Oynebadi
A FEW years ago, discussions about international soccer would in no meaningful or convincing way include the United States. But, not anymore. Today, only someone who is both blind and deaf or simply unconcerned about what goes on in soccer circles will pretend that the United States is not a factor to watch.
This summer, practically all big clubs around the world took part in the Guinness 2015 International Champions Cup, with a good number of the matches played in the U.S.A. The crowds that watched those soccer matches were unprecedented in the annals of soccer in this country. And, of course, we cannot ignore the fact that the U.S.A. is the reigning 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup champions, a feat the team has repeated three times.
It was only last year that we had a prominent US television channel, NBC, involved in consistently showing the British Barclays Premier League. In prior years, I would struggle to keep abreast of international soccer only through the British Broadcasting Corporation’s sports programmes on the Internet. This year, the Fox Sports channel has added live broadcast of the German Bundesliga. And it is no longer by the stroke of luck that you can watch live matches in the European Championships. If you have more disposable income, you could tune to other top leagues and soccer tournaments around the globe.
The point is that I have seen the gradual transition from being nearly apathetic about soccer in the U.S. to a nation where the beautiful game is gaining tremendous momentum. Gone are the times when I could have sworn that African national teams in the league of the Super Eagles, the Black Stars or the Bafana Bafana would be “sure bankers” to take the US national team to the cleaners any day. Here is the lesson. While in Nigeria there are squabbles and internal politics that stymie the growth of the once “golden” Super Eagles, here in the U.S. every effort is being made to put the national team at the forefront of international soccer.
It was no fluke that in 2011the country hired former international star and Germany’s Jürgen Klinsmann to coach its team. We all saw how the team proved its mettle at the last world cup in Brazil. When the U.S. beat its World Cup nemesis, Ghana, by a 2-1 goal margin in Brazil in 2014, you should have seen how the victory was celebrated in the country. Some of my rather uninformed friends here thought the U.S. had won the tournament, just because of how the media hyped the match.
Cast your mind back to the 1970s, for those who are old enough to do so, when soccer was literally not on the sports map in the U.S. I watched a documentary in which the producers showed that organizers of Baseball, the icon of the American sporting activities, were up in arms about bringing soccer to the U.S.
That was when the New York Cosmos were negotiating to bring in the legendary Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the man who we all know as Pelé, to play for them and help popularize the game in the U.S. Even then, the Brazilian government did not want to export its soccer demi-god to America, and it took the diplomatic skills of then U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to secure the deal.
Today, take a look at some of the players who are associated with the U.S. Major League Soccer: David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, Kaka, Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard, Obafemi Martin etc. The list goes on.
While it makes sense to argue that these soccer players are at the dusk of their soccer fame, they are not really imported because they can still perform their youthful magic on the pitch. The reason is more that they are being paid to help promote the game. Sooner or later, even the likes of Ronaldo will not be very welcome to play soccer in the U.S. when their days of glory are manifestly over.
It is a fact of history that the Russians were the first to touch base in space when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin accomplished the feat in 1961, to the chagrin of the American scientific community.
But, just one month after that historic event, Alan Shepard, did the same to restore the U.S. integrity in space exploration. But, they did not stop there. Stunned by the Soviet feat, President J.F. Kennedy challenged his compatriots to excel in probing outside our universe. In July 1969, an American, Neil Armstrong, with his Apollo 11 crew, became the first human being to set foot on the moon.
What the American soccer managers are doing today can be likened to how they handled their space project. Seeing that they are late comers to the beautiful game, Americans are now paying more attention to soccer development. In some years to come, they will surge past a number of countries that began the race before them. Some people may laugh at them today for importing “aged” players to play in their league. But, sooner than later, they will be in the league of countries that dictate the pace in world soccer.
I’ll leave readers of this column with excerpts from an article from the authoritative Wall Street Journal that makes the same points as this column (see http://www.wsj.com/articles/has-soccer-finally-made-it-in-the-u-s-1436395661)
“Major League Soccer, the top North American men’s professional league, has had average per-game attendance of 21,023 this season, an increase of almost 40% over the past 10 years. The league’s title game, the MLS Cup, pulled in 1.6 million viewers in December (2014), its biggest audience since 1997, the league’s second season, according to Nielsen.
“English Premier League games, which were broadcast on NBC Sports Network this past season, averaged 425,000 viewers, while European soccer’s Champions League final between Barcelona and Juventus in June drew 2.2 million viewers on Fox. Last summer, an exhibition game between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium drew a crowd of 109,318, the largest ever for a soccer match in the U.S.
“The number of networks carrying soccer has grown to about a dozen now from five in 2010, according to Nielsen. Television-ad rates show that soccer has already started to rub elbows with other mainstream sports: The average cost of a 30-second commercial during the women’s final on Fox was about $210,760. That was more than the cost of an ad for the final game of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final in June on NBC, according to media cost-forecasting firm SQAD. The men’s World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina on ABC in 2014 earned $465,140 per spot, on average. That was more than the final game of the NBA Finals in June but well below the NCAA men’s basketball final.
“If participation is an indication of future fandom, the prospects look good: Soccer has surged in the past three decades for boys and girls, and it now trails only basketball in combined numbers.”
Keep an eye on US soccer.