Tag Archives: soccer-football series

Five reasons why soccer will eventually surpass football in the US – #5: Americans love a winner

Part five in a series.

As Americans continue to succeed in the global game, expect fans to jump on the bandwagon.

Back to my original thesis, noted in part one: Americans love a winner, and the more success we achieve on the global stage, the more fans here are going to latch on.

…soccer might well have a bright future as a spectator sport in the US if we become an international power. That’s right. If our national team were one of the world’s top five sides, I assure you – I guarantee you – American consumers would fight for a front-row seat on the bandwagon. We’ve been told we ought to like soccer because everybody else does for all these years (and what do we hate worse than being told what we ought to do?), and meanwhile we’ve struggled to even qualify for the World Cup. We’ve gotten our knickers dusted on a regular basis by third-rate countries like freakin’ Brazil. And you want to tell me that if all of a sudden we were dominating the sport the way we dominate basketball that people wouldn’t be lining up for tickets and merchandise?

We’re already seeing more and more American players succeeding internationally (and not just goalies, either), with several Yanks playing key roles in England (Eric Lichaj, Geoff Cameron, Tim Howard, Maurice Edu), Germany (Tim Chandler, Fabien Johnson, Steve Cherundolo, Danny Williams, Jermaine Jones), Spain (Oguchi Onyewu), Italy (Michael Bradley) and Holland, where Jozy Altidore was leading the league in scoring up until recently.

Meanwhile, the most accomplished field player the nation has ever produced, Clint Dempsey, is starting for Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premiership (which is currently engaged in Europa League competition).

Dempsey finished fourth on the FWA Footballer of the Year list behind winner Robin van Persie and Manchester United pair Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes, who came in second and third, respectively. Dempsey became the first American to reach the milestone of fifty goals in the Premier League, with a free-kick against Sunderland in the last home game of the season.

On 7 June 2012, Dempsey was voted the Fulham ‘Player of the Season’ by fans for the second straight season.

The national team has endured some growing pains since the arrival of new coach Jurgen Klinsmann, but they have talent and he has a proven knack for getting the most of the players at his disposal. Nothing is guaranteed, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see the US advance past the round of 16 in the next World Cup, and winning an elimination match would be a massive tipping point moment for American soccer.

In sum, then, soccer is posed for massive, sustained growth in the US at the same time our current alpha spectator sport is being eroded from the ground up by incredibly complex problems that suggest no obvious solutions. No one is predicting that football is going to go away for good, but it’s hard to see how it can maintain its status in the face of the dynamics described in the first two installments of this series.

While I love football (despite not being very good at it when I played as a youth), I’ve also come to understand the passion attending world football culture. Last year’s Champions League run by Chelsea FC was one of the most blindingly exciting things I have ever experienced in all my years of sports, and all those young people investing themselves in the supporters clubs are onto something. It’s more than a group of folks in matching shirts getting together to watch games, it’s genuine community.

I look forward to the coming years and the growth of “proper football” in the United States. And I hope that dedicated fans of American football will understand that this isn’t an either/or proposition: it’s okay to love them both.

Five reasons why soccer will eventually surpass football in the US – #4: The children are the future

Soccer’s American base is young, passionate, and more globally minded than any generation in history.

In part one we saw ESPN analyst Rich Luker explaining that in the 12-24 demographic, soccer is already bigger than any sport except American football. And yesterday, in part three, we saw that the bright young entrepreneurs driving MLS are tightly focused on the sport’s emerging supporter culture, which in some places already rivals just about anything you see in Europe.

In Portland, Paulson sat through a debriefing with his new team’s previous owners. “They were baseball guys who told me about the Timbers Army and simply said, ‘Be careful of those guys. It is an us-and-them situation. Whatever you do, stay out of their section.’ It took going to one game for me to realize they were one of the best things we had going. They were organized, authentic and had the makings of a real historic supporters movement. We opened up lines of communication with an approach that made it clear: We may not always agree with you, but we will always respect you.”

“I quickly learned that soccer is not like other sports where the fans just care about winning,” Paulson concludes. “Here they care about everything. Once I tried to change the logo without any input and practically had a mutiny.”

The guy in the seat next to me on that flight I mentioned yesterday? He told me all about that infamous Timbers logo dustup. He was proud that the Timbers Army was able to work with ownership to reach an accord on the club’s brand, which he felt belonged to the fans. He still hates Nike, though, because the proposed look and feel was all Seattle in his view. In other words, everything Paulson is telling ESPN here is dead accurate from the perspective of a TA section leader.

These supporters groups are under-30s, too, which means they’re going to be around awhile. The Millennial generation takes a lot of flak for its failings, but they’re born organizers and are instinctively communal. As such, they’re extremely comfortable in the kinds of collective, collaborative environments that surround successful soccer fanbases around the world.

They’re also the most diverse generation the nation has ever seen culturally and ethnically. They relish the opportunity to be more global than their predecessors. And they have a dramatically different relationship with spectator sports than Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. Back to that ESPN post noted above:

The U.S. soccer audience is also unique in Luker’s eyes. “It is a true community. The only group that comes close are college sports fans or followers of the Grateful Dead. They embrace soccer as a communal lifestyle as opposed to a personal experience or a community that only exists on gameday.”

Luker’s analysis has revealed the reason soccer fandom tends to be expressed on a 24/7 basis. “Soccer was originally an expression of national identity in hotbeds like the United Kingdom or Brazil,” he said. “So that seed has been imported and sown here in the United States.”

Pretty good turnout for the Rocky Mountain Blues (Denver), given that it’s an 6am kick time for a preseason match.

Through decades of study, Luker was able to pinpoint the exact moment soccer’s built-in early advantage traditionally evaporated. “The game was massive up to the age of 13, when sport was all about bonding with male peers, but in middle school, it became all about cross-bonding with other genders and high school football shot right to the top,” he said. “You simply can’t beat the social lubrication of the homecoming football game.”Soccer’s social perception was further weakened by the sport’s stigmatization in the 1990s. “Middle school kids were seen to lack the guts to play one of the big sports — baseball, football, or basketball — preferring to play soccer, the sport their moms were pushing.”

But the sporting tectonic plates have shifted. America’s cultural diversification, increasingly globalized outlook, and widespread access to the Internet all have benefitted soccer more than the other more traditional American sports. “In the last two years, Americans have been exposed to elite soccer on a very regular basis, which has allowed us to appreciate the sport and develop a savvy about it in a way we could not before,” Luker said.

The impact of these factors has been as powerful as they are simple. “Kids growing up today gain cachet and social currency by knowing about the sport,” Luker said. The old stigma has fallen away. Pride and esteem have become attached to the game for the first time as Americans have collectively undergone a “now we understand what it is all about” moment. It is only a matter of time ’til we see soccer take off in a big way.”

Add all this to a new generation of smart, innovative owners who grasp the value of an organic, grassroots audience and you’re onto something.

Tomorrow: If you win it, they will come….

Image Credits: Findwell.com and Rocky Mountain Blues

Five reasons why soccer will eventually surpass football in the US – #3: Soccer is already blowing up in America

Part three in a series.

Thanks to expanding TV deals, smart entrepreneurs in the MLS and a Millennial-fueled supporter culture, soccer is the fastest growing spectator sport in the country. 

There has been a good bit of talk over what pro soccer in the US will do now that Becks has departed the Galaxy. It is a little hard to fathom how much he did for the visibility of MLS, but there’s no question they got good value for their $250 million (or whatever insane sum of money they invested in him). Overnight it went from being a third-tier league to respectability. No, MLS can’t yet attract top world stars in their prime, but it can attract outstanding developing talent and established world stars who aren’t yet ready for the glue factory. Beckham, as we saw, still had some good years when he came over (and will probably be viable for a couple more, depending on where he goes).

Thierry Henry is playing the back nine of his career, but again, is nowhere near done. Robbie Keane is a right Spurs bastard, but there are a lot of teams in Europe that would love to have him right now. The rumor mill says that Kaka, just a few years removed from being the most terrifying attacking midfielder on the planet, is on his way to LA to replace Beckham. Or maybe it will be Chelsea’s Super Frank Lampard. Who knows? In any case, while MLS isn’t yet a top league, it has certainly become a credible league in a nation not driven by a long, deeply entrenched culture of proper football. Considering that it’s not yet 20 years old, that’s significant, if not outright remarkable.

While nobody is yet doling out NFL-type dollars, the major TV networks are clearly interested. In recent years FOX and ESPN have fought it out for rights to televise both MLS and European matches in the US (and both have been recently blindsided by new entrant beIN Sport. None of these deals holds a candle to the latest, though, as NBC has jumped into the fray with a $250M bid for the English Premiership. Whereas previous packages have offered American viewers a game or three each week (on one channel, for the most part), NBC plans to use all of its properties to show most, if not all the Prem games (and this, it is expected, might even include live matches on NBC proper).

Give this piece from ESPN FC a read, and as you do, pay attention to something. The jewels of MLS are obviously the two biggest clubs in the two biggest cities: Galaxy in LA and the perennially underperforming Red Bulls in New York. But that’s not where the backbone of the league’s future necessarily lies. It will avail nothing to build a couple of rich sides if everybody else is the Washington Generals, and it’s the emerging entrepreneurship in places like Portland and Kansas City that are shining the light forward.

But in towns like Portland and Kansas City, soccer has become a cacophonous totem of local pride. Young fans attracted by an intoxicating supporter culture and intimate soccer-specific stadiums have themselves become symbols of the self-confidence and momentum surging behind the game in the United States.

Whereas pioneering owners Lamar Hunt and Anschutz Entertainment gamely propped up a gaggle of teams in the league’s early days, the new energy in MLS has been catalyzed by the arrival of a new breed of young entrepreneurial investors — hands-on leaders who fuse strategy and vision with a passion that reflects their teams’ rabid supporter cultures.

Would you like to go see a Portland Timbers game? Good luck. They seem to be permanently sold out, and that supporters club – the Timbers Army – is the equal of anything in Europe for enthusiasm. (Sit next to one of them on a cross-country flight sometime, like I did earlier this year, and make sure he knows you like soccer. Let me know what you learn.) Pan around the crowd on game day – you’d be hard pressed to tell much difference between them and all but the largest clubs across the pond.

In July, several of us from the Rocky Mountain Blues Chelsea FC Supporters Club tripped up to Seattle to see our beloved Blues take on the Sounders as part of their pre-season tour. It was quite an event. Wherever we went the day before the match, the locals were clearly clued in: “are you here for the Chelsea match?” Everyone in town knew, not just the diehards. And we were well represented. I’m not sure how many of us Chelsea interlopers there were in the north stands, but we acquitted ourselves pretty nicely.

Still, the total attendance at the game was in excess of 53,000, mostly Seattle loyalists. The game was held in CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks play, a remarkable showing for an exhibition match. The Sounders feature some of the best organized fans in MLS, and it’s worth noting that very few stadia in England are large enough to hold that many attendees.

Sporting Kansas City’s Robb Heineman is ambitious: “Our business plan will allow us to be one of the world’s four or five best leagues within the course of the next eight years.” Hmmm. Well, based on current realities, that means behind England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France, but ahead of Holland and Portugal. Seriously ambitious. But maybe not out of the question, depending on what criteria you use to define “best.”

Tomorrow: The children are the future…

Image Credits: The Roar, Rocky Mountain Blues

Five reasons why soccer will eventually surpass football in the US – #2: The lawyers are coming

Part two in a series.

Yes, the lawyers are coming, and football will be forced to change in ways that undercut its essential appeal. Did someone say “litigation”? From the ESPN story linked above:

The concussion issue has become part of the NFL story of late, with more than 3,000 former players suing the league on allegations that officials withheld information about the dangers of head injuries. Players diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a degenerative brain disease that can result in dementia — attribute their condition to repeated head injuries sustained on the field. Concussions and CTE also have been brought up as possible factors in the suicides of former players, including Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson.

In fact, right now more than 3,400 former players are suing, with some estimates saying the eventual number could rise above 5,000. Ballpark estimates of the damages? Maybe $10 billion?

Understand – this number is increasing every week. Who knows how many active players will wind up filing suit once they retire?

The league is certainly paying attention (or at least, it’s making a show of pretending to do so – their unconscionable behavior in this year’s referee lockout might cause us to question the depth of their commitment to player safety). There is some controversy over the findings, but the league has sponsored research on equipment safety (although it’s still allowing players to use less safe helmets if they choose). They have also enacted a number of rules changes to promote player safety, including:

  • no hits on defenseless players
  • no leading with the helmet
  • kickoffs moved up to dramatically reduce return opportunities, which result in very high risk of injury
  • and, of course, the gods help you if you hit a quarterback late or low or with your helmet

Rumor now has it that they’re even talking about scaling back on the body armor, abandoning hardshell helmets for leather or perhaps the sorts of padded gear that you find in rugby. The theory is that current helmets often cause injuries because players use them as weapons, leading with their heads in ways they never would otherwise.

This is an especially sticky issue for the sport. First, the fans are concerned. ESPN again:

In the survey, about 94 percent of NFL fans said they feel that concussions are a serious problem in the NFL. For some, it even affects the way they enjoy the game, with about 18 percent saying the concussion debate has made them less likely to follow football or watch it on television.

Second, it’s fair to wonder if you can make football “safe” without “ruining” it. Yes, you can develop better equipment. However, at the same time, players are constantly getting bigger, stronger and faster. It isn’t even remotely clear that it’s possible to evolve equipment that can keep up with the escalating violence inherent in player development.

Finally, let’s understand the appeal of the game. Scoring is fun, we love spectacular catches and breakaway touchdown gallops, but at its core football is about hitting. It’s about violence. It’s about knocking the other guy on his ass, and in some cases the culture promotes the idea of causing injuries.

Think about the squawling we hear each time the league adopts a new safety rule. You know, like last week.

“It’s definitely changing the game,” [Ed] Reed said about the NFL’s policy to protect players, via ESPN.com. “It’s become an offensive league. They want more points. They want the physical play out of it, kind of. They want like powder-puff to where you can just run around and score points cause that’s going to attract the fans. I understand you want to make money, but bending the rules and making the game different, you know, it’s only going to make the game worse.”

Those who run and market football leagues, whether we’re talking about the NFL or one of the lower professional leagues NCAA, really are up against it. On the one hand, they have to make the game safer, which functionally means they have to get some of the violence out of it. On the other hand, taking out the violence makes it inherently less marketable.

And all the while they have to fight off litigation from former players, deal with the public perception that causes the public to tune out and consider the possibility that in a generation or so they’re going to have a substantially smaller talent pool to draw on (and a culture generally that has spent a generation moving football further toward the periphery).

Not a pretty picture. Business is booming right now, but there are extremely dark clouds on the horizon.


Five reasons why soccer will eventually surpass football in the US – #1: Parents love their children

Part one in a series.

Several years ago I wrote a piece examining the reasons that soccer wasn’t bigger (as a spectator sport) in the US. In the end, I argued, it all boils down to one thing: Americans like to be the best at whatever we do, and the US is nowhere near the best at “proper football.” I suggested, however, that our global profile was improving, and that you’d see the sport grow here as our results on the world stage continued to improve.

Since then a great deal has transpired where soccer in America is concerned, and when you consider these developments in light of the big picture of American spectator sports (ie, football), it’s entirely possible that my previous predictions about the rise of soccer may have been too conservative.

The truth is that the world’s game is exploding here, and there is every reason to believe that it will someday catch up to American football and even surpass it in popularity. No, this won’t happen next year, but if you aren’t already noticing the trend, you will be in a decade.

We know that the NFL is the biggest game in America. What’s #2? Well, that depends. But since we’re talking about growth and future trends, let’s ask the question this way: what’s the second biggest sport in the US among those aged 12-24?

Rich Luker, a 59-year-old baseball-loving social scientist based in North Carolina, is the brains behind the ESPN Sports Poll, the complex database that recently pronounced soccer as America’s second-most popular sport for those age 12-24, outstripping the NBA, MLB and college football. Luker is also the man who discovered that three soccer players — Lionel Messi (16th), iconic veteran David Beckham (20th), and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo (24th) — rank among the 50 most popular athletes in America. “Unbelievably, [Lionel] Messi ranks ahead of Dwyane Wade,” Luker marveled. “Only two baseball players, Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter, are ahead of him.” [emphasis added]

This ESPN story on the future of soccer, published back in September, picks the brain of Luker, who’s sort of like the Moneyball / Sabermetrics statheads who have revolutionized baseball (and who are now beginning to infiltrate other sports with their incredibly complex metrics). It’s not Luker’s job to track pass percentages, though. He’s being paid to understand the massive audience and market trends that are going to define the programming and business reality for his clients in the coming years. His conclusion:

…the sporting tectonic plates have shifted. America’s cultural diversification, increasingly globalized outlook, and widespread access to the Internet all have benefitted soccer more than the other more traditional American sports. “In the last two years, Americans have been exposed to elite soccer on a very regular basis, which has allowed us to appreciate the sport and develop a savvy about it in a way we could not before,” Luker said.

“Based on the way it is trending, I believe global soccer will soon be four or five times bigger than it is today, and MLS’s fanbase will triple or quadruple,” he said. For those who do not believe, Luker is keen to underline that change can happen fast. “In 1994, MLB was as popular as the NFL. This stuff can shift quickly and right now, soccer is like a rocket ship on the launchpad.”

“If baseball and basketball don’t adapt to this new reality they are going to have issues,” Luker continued, discussing the NFL’s challenge to continue to develop talent in an era in which youth participation has dropped precipitously. “Fewer and fewer kids are actually playing [American] football so they won’t learn the game in the way it sustained their interest in the past. It is an inevitability that soccer will soon be as popular as MLB and NBA.”

How long will it take to get there? “We are talking generational change,” Luker said. “A generation of kids have now grown up as having MLS as part of their reality. Give us one more cycle and that is all it will take. One more generation.”

There are a number of factors shaping this transition from American football to soccer. Some have to do with the ways in which the American game is already eroding (you can’t see it on pro and college broadcasts yet, but the problems are real and profound). Others are all about how soccer is being marketed here and abroad. And a good bit of it deals with the fact that globalization works both ways. America has long exported its popular culture, but these days immigration and media trends are influencing us right back, and the most popular sport in the world is a predictable part and parcel of that dynamic.

Each day this week we’ll look at one of the factors driving the growth of soccer and/or the decline of football. Let’s start with one that has been very much in the news here at home: football injuries.

Reason #1: Violence and injuries are significantly decreasing the number of children being allowed to take up the football. Football has always been a violent game, and even if you don’t believe it’s getting worse, public and parental awareness of the risks are growing by leaps and bounds. The result? In an August ESPN survey, fully 57% of parents “said that recent stories about the increase in concussions in football have made them less likely to allow their sons to play in youth leagues.” That’s a big, big number, and it is borne out in stories from around the country.

In Minnesota, for instance, participation is down in little league and high school, while concussions are up.

Numbers are coming into the Minnesota Health Department where officials are tracking concussions from 42 high schools.

Leslie Seymour, an MDH epidemiologist, reports that more than 300 concussions were recorded from the past fall sports season, mostly from playing football. This is a greater number than Seymour had anticipated.

Most players suffering concussions were held out of practice a week, and two weeks was not uncommon.

At Bloomington Jefferson, 20 football players suffered concussions, with 12 missing two or more weeks of practice. Seven more concussion cases involved volleyball players. Bloomington Jefferson coaches have all received special training regarding concussions, and parents have signed off on information about head injuries.

It Otsego, Michigan, participation is actually up – for flag football. Parents are worried about the injuries, and for good reason.

Football is the No. 1 recreational activity that sends teenage boys to the hospital with a brain injury, and the rate of concussions in football is more than twice that of soccer and lacrosse.

But for all the focus on concussions, researchers now say the bigger worry in football may be total accumulation of body blows that jolt the head, shaking the brain like a bowl of Jello and traumatizing fragile brain tissue and nerves.

Football players can experience as many as 1,000 impacts or more over the course of season. Researchers say that, in terms of g-forces and stress on the body, playing in a high school football game is comparable to being in a 20- or 30-mph car crash.

Those so-called sub-concussive impacts may not cause concussions, but it appears they can add up and result in damage to the brain. Researchers say they see changes in brain scans of high school football players who have never reported a concussion.

Want more? Have a look at this compilation of data from MomsTeam.com.

  • A 2011 study8 of U.S. high schools with at least one athletic trainer on staff found that concussions accounted for nearly 15% of all sports-related injuries reported to ATs and which resulted in a loss of at least one day of play.
  • According to the C.D.C., during the period 2001-2009 children and youth ages 5-18 years increased 62% to a total of 2.6 million sports-related emergency department (ED) visits annually, of which 6.5% (173,285) involved a traumatic brain injury, including concussion. The rate of TBI visits increased 57%, likely due to increased awareness of the importance of early diagnosis of TBI.


Football players most at risk

  • At least one player sustains a mild concussion in nearly every American football game.
  • There are approximately 67,000 diagnosed concussions in high school football every year.
  • According to research by The New York Times, at least 50 youth football players (high school or younger) from 20 different states have died or sustained serious head injuries on the field since 1997.
  • Anecdotal evidence from athletic trainers suggests that only about 5% of high school players suffer a concussion each season, but formal studies surveying players suggest the number is much higher, with close to 50% saying they have experienced concussion symptoms and fully one-third reporting two or more concussions in a single season.
  • One study estimates that the likelihood of an athlete in a contact sport experiencing a concussion is as high as 20% per season.
  • According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, there were 5 catastrophic spinal cord injuries in high school football in 2010. 67.8% of all catastrophic injuries in football since 1977 are from tackling.
  • According to a study reported in the July 2007 issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine:
    • Football players suffer the most brain injuries of any sport;
    • An unacceptably high percentage (39%) of high school and collegiate football players suffering catastrophic head injuries (death, nonfatal but causing permanent neurologic functional disability, and serious injury but leaving no permanent functional disability) during the period 1989 to 2002 were still playing with neurologic symptoms at the time of the catastrophic event.

Take a couple of minutes to review this entire article. It’s illuminating, to say the least.

Perhaps most critically, a study released just last week makes clear that permanent, debilitating damage doesn’t require a “big hit” injury; it can result from routine incidences of mild injury.

The study, which included brain samples taken posthumously from 85 people who had histories of repeated mild traumatic brain injury, added to the mounting body of research revealing the possible consequences of routine hits to the head in sports like football and hockey. The possibility that such mild head trauma could result in long-term cognitive impairment has come to vex sports officials, team doctors, athletes and parents in recent years.

Public perception certainly isn’t improved by stories like this one:

Five Pee-Wee Football Players Suffered Concussions In A 52-0 Loss

It is not as absurd a question as it would have been, say, 10 years ago: Would you want your kid playing football? You can point to the safety advances, and the increased awareness, and the character-building spiel—and then you can point to a Pop Warner football game in Massachusetts last month, in which five players on a single team were concussed even as they were pummeled on the scoreboard.

One wonders how much character was built among the Tantasqua Pee Wees, as they were run over by the bigger, faster Southbridge team on Sept. 15. En route to a 52-0 blowout, five Tantasqua players—all between 10 and 12 years old—suffered concussions, were checked out on the sidelines, then sent right back in the game to get hit again.

Yow.

Parents are certainly noticing and many are thinking hard about the long-term threat the sport poses to their children. At least one analyst thinks that, as a result, it’s only a matter of time before football is a niche bloodsport.

“Football is really on the verge of a turning point,” Jay Coakley, a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, told The New York Times. “We may see it in 15 years pretty much the same place as boxing and ultimate fighting.”

Coakley’s is obviously not a majority opinion, and even in my wildest worse-case scenario speculations I can’t imagine football losing that much ground that quickly. But while the timetable may be in question, there is every reason to believe his basic thesis: we live in a society where parents don’t let their children ride their bikes around the yard without helmets. How is something as dangerous as football going to survive as we continue to learn more about its risks?

Tomorrow: The lawyers are coming….