Sunday, July 29, 2012
Why Soccer Could be the Future of American Sport
Can you imagine the American-based National Football League holding the Superbowl in, say, Italy?
Could you imagine 29 Basketball teams allowing one Argentine team to play with them, and then having the audacity to call their national tournament the “World Series of Basketball?”
Can you imagine a Boston Bruins hockey player falling on the ice, and being immediately helped up by a New York Ranger?
Probably not. But that’s because American Sports are…well…American, and insular. Only during the Olympic season, and during rare, fleeting American media coverage of major global matches such as Soccer’s World Cup, are Americans even aware of sports in other nations.
And yet, in this insular world, the winds of change are blowing. For those not glued to the London games, this past weekend saw a series of sporting events, here in the United States, that indicates a growing challenge to “The Big Four” (American Football, Baseball, Basketball, and Hockey) and the insularity of American sports.
Yesterday (Saturday, July 28), France held its Trophée des Champions, the equivalent of France’s Soccer Superbowl….in Harrison, New Jersey.
In spite of threatening weather, 15,000 fans turned came out to the New York Red Bulls Stadium to watch Olympique Lyonnaise battle Montpellier to mark the official start of French soccer season (the cup is played at the beginning of the ‘next’ season, rather than at the ‘end’ of the season).
"New York is a magical place, and we were more motivated to play in New York and for a Cup final," Said Lyon forward Jimmy Briand, who scored the tying goal in the 77th minute and also converted the decisive penalty kick to give Lyon the title.
The game is traditionally played in France, but the last three cups have been settled in other French-speaking foreign nations: in Montréal, Canada; Tunisia; and Morocco. This marks the first time that the French have chosen to pay their ‘soccer superbowl’ in Anglophone America, and is indicative of the winds of change blowing on the international – and American – sports scene. The match was televised in almost 200 nations around the world.
“I think this was a solid first step for the French Federation to grow their brand with the American fan base and with American companies looking to expand even more into soccer,” said Chris Lencheski, CEO of Front Row Marketing Services, the Comcast-owned company that helped with the tour and the French Cup. “The U.S. is becoming more and more soccer savvy, because of the efforts of MLS and the continued marketing prowess of foreign clubs, and it makes great sense for the French to be in the mix as well. Today was a great example of how strong French soccer is, and it played out not just before a crowd in New York but before a global audience online and on TV. It was a great day for their league and for the sport.”
Meanwhile, the NY Red Bull Soccer Team was not on hand to witness the match at their home stadium. The Red Bulls, the top-seeded Soccer club in Major League’s Soccer’s Eastern Conference, was playing the Montréal Impact in their Saputo Stadium.
I openly admit: I have recently become an MLS junkie. We had the Red Bulls-Impact game live-streaming on our laptops last night, while the Western Conference powerhouse LA Galaxy (home to now-famous import David Beckham) match against FC Dallas was on the Flat-screen TV six feet away.
But I also know I am not alone: In 2011, MLS reported an average attendance of almost 18,000 per game, with a total attendance of 5,468,951. Prior to the 2010 season, MLS had never broken 4 million in attendance, and only barely did so in 2010 (4,002,053). That’s a one-year increase of 37 percent, and that’s just stadium attendance; it doesn't include media spectators.
Even more important: At an attendance of nearly 18,000 fans per game, Major League Soccer is now attracting more fans, in the stadium, than 17 NBA teams and 15 NHL teams (*see list at end of post). Last year, the NY Red Bulls averaged 19,700 fans per game; the NY Rangers pulled 18,000; the NJ Nets, 14,000; and the NY Islanders 11,000.
Why the impressive growth in soccer in the U.S.?
Perhaps traditional American sports fans are tired of ego-driven million-dollar salary contracts.
Perhaps they’re tired of having Corporate money shoved in their face at every turn.
With each new NFL or MLB stadium expansion or rehab, from Green Bay to Citi Field to Fenway Park, more space is given to premium suites that are out of the reach of ordinary fans; in contrast, Major League Soccer teams have devoted entire seating sections to independent Fan Clubs that bring drums and chants and banners and passion. The fans-in-the-stands are actually respected and appreciated, and it shows.
As I watched from my chair last night, four times I saw soccer players extend a hand and help up a fallen man from the opposing team. I watched guys on opposing teams exchange shirts with each other at the end of the match in a display of sportsmanship and camaraderie.
And I realized I am part of a growing number of Americans embracing a truly global sport, played the way professional sports used to be played, with a respect for the players, each other, and the fan base that has long gone by the boards in America’s “Big Four.”
(Photo: Bill Gaudette, NY Red Bulls Goaltender)
*NBA teams with lower average attendance than MLS: Clippers, Suns, Nuggets, Wizards, Pistons, Raptors, Rockets, Bobcats, Hawks, Bucks, Timberwolves, 76ers, Hornets, Grizzlies, Nets, Kings and Pacers.
NHL teams with lower average attendance than MLS: Bruins, Sharks, Lightning, Oilers, Hurricanes, Predators, Panthers, Stars, Avalanche, Devils, Ducks, Blue Jackets, Jets, Coyotes, and Islanders.