September 1, 2014

Measuring the Effect of the World Cup

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If Ann Coulter is to believed, then soccer is the shrine of hawkish immigrants, hell-bent on invading and contorting great, pre-existing American culture.

“I promise you,” said the conservative columnist, “no American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer.”

Soccer has always been a background sport in the U.S., playing fifth fiddle behind the more traditional sports of football, basketball, baseball and hockey. But this summer, soccer was thrust to the forefront as the World Cup captured a massive American audience — 25 million people tuned in this summer to watch the United States play out a thrilling 2-2 stalemate against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. To put this figure into perspective, 15 million people watched the Boston Red Sox win the 2013 baseball world series, according to The Independent.

Anecdotal evidence for this nation-wide growth of soccer appreciation is widespread. CTB was packed for every game, and it was not uncommon to hear people excitedly talking about the game or sporting their red, white and blue jerseys.

“In 2010, after Landon Donovan’s goal vs. Algeria, I thought we peaked as a soccer-appreciating nation,” said senior defender Devin Morgan of the Red men’s soccer team. “But after walking around New York City this summer seeing at least one person on every block in a USA jersey, I believe that soccer is firmly on the rise in terms of popularity in the U.S.”

Average viewing figures increased by 1.5 million viewers from the 2010 World Cup, held in South Africa, and American supporters trailed only Brazilians in numbers of tickets bought. The performance of the team captured the hearts and minds of the people, and the hype was so widespread that captain and forward Clint Dempsey earned a congratulatory call from President Barack Obama. Overall, not a bad tournament.

“The energy that comes from the United States, with their thousands and thousands of fans actually in Brazil, you see where the game is going in the United States,” Dempsey said of the support from home. He went as far as to describe it as unstoppable.

“You can’t stop it anymore; it’s breaking through. The league is doing a great job. Millions of kids playing soccer throughout the country, you know, it’s growing on every level,” Dempsey said. “And a large motive of this development is always the national team.”

Many are saying that the 2014 World Cup could prove to be the turning point in American sports, the point which could see the sport emerge as a contender to the four core American sports.

“There definitely was more of a following for the U.S. during and after the World Cup, probably due to the greaterhype around the team with new players and the team’s potential to get revenge on Ghana and advance past the group stage,” said senior defender Peter Chodas.

Sentiments of this nature are generally brought to the forefront after every World Cup, as the country’s interest inevitably shifts to point at which the rest of the world is focusing — an ongoing major event and one of the biggest sporting tournaments to ever be held. But what typically happens is that this interest wavers as the warm summer months come to an end and attention shifts back to the regular seasons of other sports. It is then four years before this passion for soccer is revived for a brief one-month period.

This time it felt a little different, however. The United States received widespread international praise for its gutsy performances, including its loss to eventual quarter-finalists Belgium.

Head coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s men took the Belgians to the wire, with 19-year-old substitute Julian Green scoring his first goal for the United States in his third appearance. Green’s goal came at the start of the second period of extra time, bringing the score to 2-1 to lead to a nail-biting end to the game. The ending of the game, for this writer, was the highlight of the tournament (except for maybe James Rodriguez’s screamer for Colombia against Uruguay).

For many, it was hard not to support the underdogs, with their never-say-die attitude. Tim Howard’s record-breaking 16 saves in the game only added to the feeling of perseverance from the United States. Howard’s heroics even inspired one Internet prankster to name him ‘Secretary of Defense’ on Wikipedia, a show of enthusiasm that would have seemed unlikely to occur four years ago.

The passion regarding the game was evident.

“One moment that sticks with me pretty clearly is the time DeAndre Yedlin was called upon to replace Fabian Johnson against Belgium,” Morgan said. “He had to mark arguably the best player in the Premier League, Eden Hazard. The kid held his own and the people around me had absolutely no idea who this 20-year-old kid was.”

Yedlin has recently transferred to English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur after his performances.

Despite the swell of support for soccer during June and July, questions remain as to whether the surge in popularity will lead to any long-term benefits at the grassroots level.

One explanation for increased viewership this World Cup seems to stem more from the geographic proximity of Brazil to the United States. The time-difference was much more convenient than the much-farther South Africa. Yes, it fell right in the middle of the workday, but that did not stop many from setting up the games in their offices (and sharing it on their various social media).

One potential beneficial effect from the tournament would be to increase support for the MLS. With more children interested in the game and more enrolled in the country’s elite soccer development academies — in a manner similar to that seen in European and South American countries — the United States could emerge onto the forefront of the global game, an idea Morgan echoed in his assessment of the MLS.

“Sadly, there’s always a heavy drop-off after the World Cup,” Morgan said. “The MLS is renowned as not being a breeding ground for the best of the best: That distinction is reserved for European leagues.”

The MLS is perhaps the most sustainable model of a domestic soccer league that can be found in the world today. But the English Premier League is a more developed product that attracts more international consumers — and, simply, more money. The EPL is currently the one most followed by most Americans due to the lack of any language barriers, but this also has the effect of draining support for the domestic teams.

Without more funding pumped into the game, local athletes will continue to gravitate toward the better paying, more glamorous sports. For soccer to see organic growth at the domestic level, the MLS would need to be big — the European leagues are simply too far away for most children to follow, particularly on the West Coast.

“The culture of soccer here is different than other countries, where they live and breathe soccer from a very young age,” Chodas said.

And small improvements are not enough — the MLS needs to compete on an international level for the United States to ever have a realistic chance of winning the World Cup. Some will argue that the domestic leagues of Brazil and Argentina cannot compete with the major European ones, but those leagues are still of a sufficient quality that they can produce international-level players.

“Maybe if we can get a bunch of kids enrolled into La Masia [the elite development academy of FC Barcelona] we’ll be able to compete one day [in the World Cup],” Morgan said.

Chodas was a little more optimistic about the national team’s chances.

“I would give the U.S. a shot at beating any team on any day, but it would take a string of incredible team performances to actually win a World Cup in the next few years,” Chodas said. “However, I do believe that the U.S. will strongly compete because our team has and is becoming much stronger, especially with the youth and college soccer programs becoming much more serious.”