By Chris Licata
Vernon, Conn. – On Sunday, over one billion people around the world watched Italy defeat France in penalty kicks to become the 2006 FIFA World Cup champions. However, only a handful of American Web sites featured the triumph as their top story. Is America really this uninterested in soccer?
This year’s World Cup in Germany drew a total of 3,353,655 fans throughout all 64 contests, giving them an average of 52,400 a game, according to estimates by British Broadcasting Company’s sports department. With fans from all over the world in attendance an American soccer apologist may use the game’s international attraction as an excuse for its popularity. However, while these numbers are staggeringly large, they are not without rival to American sports.
Last year, according to ESPN.com, the New York Yankees became the third Major League Baseball team in the league’s history to draw over four million fans with 4,090,440 in 81 games (the only other times it was done was from 1991-1993 with the Toronto Blue Jays and the 1993 Colorado Rockies). At an average of 50,499 spectators per game, the Yankees success in 2005 is nearly on par with that of the entire World Cup – and this figure is taken from only one region of the country.
The simple explanation, and the one most commonly used, is that soccer is just not that popular in this country. However, the United States holds the FIFA World Cup attendance record from the 1994 tournament (which was also the last year the tournament was played with 24 teams). That year, the United States, a country with little-to-no interest in soccer, welcomed nearly 3.6 million spectators at an unbelievable average of 69,000 a game, as stated by the United States Soccer Federation. Considering this record was accomplished eight years before the men’s team had their miraculous run to the final eight in 2002, the number is even more impressive.
The notion that Americans dislike soccer comes mainly from the decrepit Major League Soccer. A quick Wikepedia search shows the average regular season and playoff attendance mark for the MLS is an abysmal 15,108 per game. Even the MLS championship drew only 21,193 people in 2005, though that was a sellout crowd. Heck, the league doesn’t even own the rights to MLS.com.
So why is it that in an international competition Americans can come out in masses, but for their own league they are in a constant battle to outsell the Tampa Bay Devil Rays?
The answer lies in the fact that Americans like soccer, and like much of the rest of the world, dislike bad soccer. Unfortunately for this country we are surrounded by bad soccer. The United States Soccer Federation’s Web site indicates that this year 12 of the 23 members of the national team that competed in Germany play with European clubs. In fact, of the starting 11 in the United State’s final game against Ghana, eight players were from European clubs.
With the exception of Landon Donovan, who plays for the Los Angeles Galaxy, none of the stars of the U.S. team play in the MLS. The best and brightest soccer players in this country are constantly being shipped overseas to English, Dutch and German leagues. This creates a perception (if not fact) that anyone who is any good at soccer in this country won’t be playing in the MLS.
If 1994 showed us anything, it was that if you give Americans good soccer, they will show up. Even in terms of watching the games on television, Americans are proving to become interested in soccer. During Team USA’s 2002 opening round win over Portugal, a record number of Americans tuned in at 5 a.m., the FIFA Marketing Group reported. Furthermore, according to a Reuters report, ABC and Univision reported 2.5 million viewers per game, a 65 percent increase in viewing from 2002.
Americans love their sports. Give them good competition and they will fill even the biggest of stadiums. Last year the NCAA reported that four different football teams averaged over 100,000 fans per game. Two of those teams (Ohio State and Penn State) went to BCS bowl games. Michigan had the highest attendance in the nation at 110,915 per game and experienced an off-year at 7-5. Even the Tennessee Volunteers, who failed to even make a bowl game, averaged 107,593 fans – good for second in the nation.
Until MLS can keep the cornerstones of their national team in this country, it’s unlikely that the league will ever rise to the level of the big four sports and NASCAR.
Americans are waiting, but will MLS ever deliver?