With the World Cup upon us, the last couple of weeks I’ve been interviewed by some overseas sports media television and radio outlets about the state of soccer in America. From those visits, I can confirm that the Brits, Aussies and South Africans wonder, as we all do here, if soccer will ever take off in America.
My response to that question in those recent interviews, as it has been the past decade, has always been the same on the subject.
The only possible way to interest Americans in pro soccer is for the English Premier League to establish teams in U.S. cities and perhaps Toronto.
That prospect of course is always met with guffaws, not only across the pond but stateside. But without that step, soccer will never sell here as a genuine, bonafide pro sports league where the results of games and leagues actually matter.
The pro sports comparison I always use to soccer in America is the growing popularity of pro hoops in Europe. Pro basketball has slowly grown in prominence across The Continent over the years, spurred by a more coherent television coverage strategy, better quality of play and a marked increase in the development of local talent.( Talent the NBA has taken full advantage of in the past decade.)
But similar to MLS in America, European pro hoops is still considered minor league compared to the attention professional soccer commands.
But that could change if David Stern has his way.
In the past few years, Stern has talked openly, and very seriously, about locating full-fledged NBA franchises in some of Europe’s big cities. That prospect has since been taken off the front burner because of the current state of the world economy, but the commissioner is clearly determined to someday have regular NBA league play in Europe.
Unlike uniquely American football and baseball, the simple game of basketball, though also inherently American, resonates in Europe. Soccer is another sport that easily crosses over cultures, with the astonishing popularity of the World Cup clear evidence.
With that in mind, I’ve no doubt that an EPL team in New York would flourish and lead to the launch of teams in other U.S. cities. The proximity of New York to England along with the ethnic makeup of The Apple makes it a no-brainer. But easy travel and population demo isn’t enough for an EPL team to challenge the deeply-rooted devotion of local sports fans.
Though thanks to technology, the scene is rapidly being set for an EPL team to gain genuine traction in garnering the complete and utter devotion of American sports fans.
You can largely credit that to the advent of the internet and satellite television doing more for the popularity of soccer in the United States than the NASL, MLS, World Cup TV coverage and 40 years of youth soccer - combined.
Understand that being a fan of a pro sports team in the United States is all about attaching a certain level of esteem to the endeavor. The more important an American fan perceives his/her team to be, the closer he/she follows that team and accompanying league.
Americans know that MLS is minor league. They knew that in the ’70s with the NASL and they’re even more aware of it now with all the stateside coverage of the English Premier League and the baby stadia being built by MLS.
For that reason, the results of MLS games and seasons aren’t relevant to American fans. The vast majority of U.S. sports fans will never, ever consider MLS anything more than minor league entertainment. No different than taking the kids bowling or a night out at the movies.
What could change that is an American entry into the EPL. Thanks to internet and overseas TV, there are now millions of kids growing up as fans of the best soccer leagues in the world. Not to mention plenty of young adults, who follow the results of the EPL religiously. Many of those same folks largely ignore MLS.
Because Americans now have a much clearer understanding about Manchester United having every bit the following and tradition of a U.S. team like the Yankees, they give Man U more credit and attention than they do our own American teams.
That isn’t to say that those Americans who now follow the EPL know the actual game of soccer better than a rabid MLS fan. They probably don’t. But for most of us here, devotion to a team is more based on tradition, attendance, viewership and stadia than it is insight into the sport itself.
Why do you think MLB, NFL and NBA teams are so obsessive about their facilities? If the Lakers played their home games in the dilapidated L.A. Sports Arena, do you think the team could charge $3,000 for courtside seats and have a waiting list? Hell no.
Before you dismiss the chance that we could ever have EPL teams stateside, please note that Americans now own majority and/or significant minority stakes in Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and many other Britain-based teams. All of those purchases happened after the internet and satellite TV effectively connected the sports sensibilities of the continents.
Also note ESPN now suddenly being so aggressive in acquiring broadcast rights to European soccer and the World Cup. Bristol has duly noted the growing emotional attachment between a young generations of Americans and the EPL and Champions League.
I’m not going to argue specific details about why EPL expansion could or couldn’t happen here. If you’ve followed sports and big business long enough, you know that if the right people at the right time want something to happen, it’ll happen.
If only in my lifetime!