State of Soccer in USA

AIDAN KELLY: While the Women’s World Cup alone is not going to revolutionize the game, it is a cog in the forward moving wheel of the American soccer evolution.

We’ve had the exploding participation rate, growing to around 17 million registered players. In the last 20 years, for example, girls playing high school soccer has increased almost 200 per cent and there are now 322 Division 1 women’s collegiate programs offering the sport (and 204 men’s programs.)

We’ve had  the women’s team’s success in the ’91 and ’99 World Cups, not forgetting the Olympics.

We’ve had the U.S. host the ’94 World Cup. We’ve had the birth of the MLS, David Beckham, Thierry Henry and its subsequent growth.

We’ve had the birth of the WPS, an influx of the soccer mad Latin Americans, that  Landon Donovan goal and, now, that Abby Wambach goal. It all adds up.

The quarterfinal game between the U.S.A. and Brazil elevated the Women’s World Cup into the consciousness of the nation for the remainder of the tournament. As a result, the subsequent  final earned the highest television rating for any soccer game on an ESPN network.

With an average of almost 13.5 million viewers, it was the sixth most watched soccer telecast ever in the United States. It also set a Twitter record, with 7,196 tweets per second, not to mention the added online viewership.

However, this is just the latest chapter in the growth of the women’s game here, and the game in general. The next immediate step needs to be the turnaround in the fortunes of the fledgling WPS, struggling to get a foothold as part of the American sporting landscape after three years in existence (four teams have already gone belly up).

The legacy of this particular World Cup could be its salvation of the WPS. Some 36 of its players participated in the tournament and the exposure it gave the sport could be the tonic the WPS requires right now. Might it encourage much needed prospective new owners?

We’ll be having this discussion again – maybe after next year’s Olympics, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, or when Beckham buys an MLS franchise — but before we do, the game at grass roots level will continue to flourish, and the interest will ensure even higher TV/internet viewership figures for the next big tournaments and greater gates at future MLS fixtures.

MIKE SILVA: Every four years after the Olympics we hear stories about how soccer can grow in the United States. The discussion lasts a few days, and then our sports culture returns to normal with the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL (in that order) taking up the free time we have to dedicate to sports.

All that might be changing if you look closely at attendance and television ratings of Major League Soccer. According to Fox News Latino, “In 2010, MLS average attendance was 16,675 spectators per game, a 4 percent increase over 2009. The NHL drew an average of 17,072 fans per game last season, a 3 percent drop from the year prior.” The MLS franchise in Seattle, the Sounders, draws an astounding 37,264 per game. If you do a quick analysis of the average per game attendance for MLS versus the NBA and NHL, there is very little difference. One caveat is that MLS plays less than half the games (30 total) of either of those sports. Regardless, the numbers are still impressive.

Television ratings are also very solid. The league’s televised 2011 opener between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Sounders on ESPN was up 129 percent in ratings and 112 percent in viewership, drawing 604,000 English-language viewers. The game’s Spanish-language broadcast on ESPN Deportes drew another 79,000 viewers, an increase of 84 percent from a year ago.

Although soccer is largely ignored by the mainstream media, the internet and technology allows fans to follow the sport. No longer are you relying on talk radio and the nightly news. A simple Google search will allow you to catch up on information about the league on sites like ESPN.com, but also blogs created by passionate individuals. This is exactly the type of behavior that will help the sport grow and become more part of the conversation. The internet can be the tool that soccer lacked in prior attempts to break into the US market.

Can soccer ensconce itself in-between the NBA and NHL for our attention? It appears it’s finally making a serious run. With the labor unrest of the NBA you could argue that it has a real shot to move to #3 in popularity.

The key will be how the product evolves with this momentum. The NHL was considered “hot” and some people thought could challenge MLB after the 1994 strike. That was short lived as they had labor unrest of their own and quickly fell back to the fourth tier sport they have always occupied. MLS doesn’t have labor issues, but they need to continue to produce a quality product on the field, market it effectively to their niche audience, and manage the temptation to over-expand. The last thing they need are teams in markets that can’t support it. Those empty stadiums and bankrupt owners will smear a brand that is very delicate. The mainstream media will certainly pick up that story.

Soccer clearly has a niche in this country. Can the MLS use this momentum to grow the sport and put it in the conversation daily? Only time will tell, but the early returns are positive.

HOWARD MEGDAL: It was impossible to come away from Wednesday night’s MLS All Star Game at Red Bull Arena with the impression that soccer hasn’t put down real roots in the United States.

Sure, there were plenty of people there to see Manchester United, a team that travels well all over the world. But thousands came to see David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Juan Agudelo, Omar Bravo… and none of these players are on Manchester United.

In a way, it was refreshing to see what happened when the MLS All Stars fell behind 4-0. (The score shouldn’t be taken as indicative of much beyond the obvious fact that any team practicing together for a day or two will have trouble with a Man United team about to start the season.) The crowd thinned out. The noise emptied from the building.

In other words, this wasn’t an overseas home game for Man United, as so many of their matches here have been in the past. This was a home game for MLS, which clearly has a home here in the United States.

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