Other Reviews of Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism
"World Cup: Is soccer finally starting to matter?"
The national men's team's rising profile and the boom among kids feed U.S. interest.
By Carlos Alcalá -- Bee Staff Writer
When the World Cup started a few weeks ago, few Americans had any idea where Rui Costa or Costa Rica fit into the international soccer picture.
(For the record, Rui Costa is a Portuguese midfielder. Costa Rica was the Cup's only Central American team. Both are now out of the competition.)
Now, with the American team set to battle Mexico in a second-round match tonight, domestic interest in the sport appears to be on the rise. The names of the American players -- Brad Friedel, Clint Mathis, Landon Donovan and, choke, Jeff Agoos -- sound a bit more familiar.
But just a bit.
"I couldn't tell you one player that plays in soccer," said Barry Yard, a Colorado tourist interviewed in downtown Sacramento last week. "As an American, I like baseball and football."
Indeed, soccer fanaticism -- while hot in some pockets -- is far from fever pitch in the States.
More than 15 million people play the game here. But soccer pales as a spectator sport when compared to the big three: football, baseball and basketball.
Few Yanks regularly attend professional games. The men's league cut two teams this year to focus resources, and the women's league has seen attendance decline by as much as 25 percent for some teams over last year, its first.
Most Americans rarely watch matches on television, while business in other nations literally comes to a standstill for World Cup games.
Why is that?
The question has produced about as many theories as the JFK assassination. Its answer is as elusive as the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa.
Nevertheless, soccer debates are happening with more frequency.
Take this exchange in downtown Sacramento, between two friends: Holly Whitman, who didn't know the difference between a soccer referee's yellow card and a red card, and Lauryn Walters, who had strong opinions about who is the best goalkeeper playing in the Cup.
Whitman: "I hate soccer, and every time I go to Streets of London (a midtown pub) I get angry because they have a stupid soccer game on. It's boring."
Walters: "Holly! It's not boring."
Whitman: "They don't score, ever."
Walters: "How about in football? They don't score a lot in football."
The "It's Boring" theory is one of the more popular, especially among those who haven't seen much soccer. However, that premise is only one in a whole arsenal of arguments about why soccer has few aficionados in the United States compared to elsewhere.
A University of Michigan political science professor actually has written a book on the subject: "Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism." In it, Andrei Markovits suggests that during the period when modern team sports were developing, roughly 1880-1920, the United States was very concerned with being non-British and non-European.
So baseball and football, which have their origins in British rounders and rugby, were Americanized, and soccer was crowded out.
"The United States is actually a world apart," Markovits said.
Among the other arguments against soccer in this world apart:
* Americans are congenitally unable to appreciate a sport where tie scores, especially 0-0 ties, are acceptable.
* It's a bad TV sport. (Especially for sponsors. There are no commercial breaks for 45 minutes at a time.)
* What do you mean, you can't use your hands?
* The media don't give it any attention.
* Many Americans haven't grown up with soccer.
This last factor is changing, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
While men's teams have grown more slowly, there are 10 times as many college women's soccer teams today as there were 20 years ago. Youth soccer participation has grown 10 percent in the last 10 years, and twice that in the 7-11 age group, the association reports.
In the California Youth Soccer Association-North, which includes the Sacramento region, there are more than 200,000 registered players, from under-6 tykes to 18-year-old college prospects.
The families of those players would seem a likely pool of fans for Northern California's men's and women's pro teams, the Earthquakes and Cyberrays, both in San Jose. But turning soccer moms into fans of pro soccer may not be any easier than turning the father of a singer in the school play into a regular opera-goer.
Still, America's professional leagues are banking on the youth market.
The Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), in particular, is reaching out to young fans. There is a carnival-like atmosphere with kids activities and face-painting at many WUSA games. At the San Jose Cyberrays game Saturday, players met with fans two hours before game time and returned after the game to sign autographs.
"The kids can come out and enjoy the total atmosphere of the games," said Dan Courtemanche, communications vice president for the Atlanta-based league.
The hope is that they bring along their parents -- and their parents' wallets.
The wallets of corporate sponsors also are coming to games. Though attendance at WUSA games has fallen from last year, revenue is up 53 percent, largely because of sponsors, Courtemanche said. This is seen as a sign that hard-headed businesspeople are believers. Where some see America as a soccer wasteland, WUSA and Major League Soccer see a land of opportunity.
"There is not a better market opportunity today than the sport of soccer," said Mark Noonan, marketing vice president for MLS.
Noonan sees two distinct audiences for MLS to target: an immigrant audience, mostly Mexican, already crazy about soccer; and everybody else.
He, too, sees youth soccer as the key to building the fan base. "Through kids, we will get the parents," Noonan said.
To some extent, it's already working.
Originally, said Pat Cullen of Folsom, "I didn't know what soccer was."
But as a result of her children's involvement, Cullen spent Thursday evening watching her daughter work out with The Phoenix, an under-16 traveling team in the soccer club Sacramento United.
"As our kids started playing, it was: This is fun. This is exciting," she said.
Now she, like many other Phoenix team parents, find themselves watching soccer on television, not just from the sidelines.
Naysayers say they've heard it all before: predictions about the incoming wave of soccermania. "(Y)ou may recall that we've been subjected to this periodic campaign since the 1970s," wrote Marc Fisher, a columnist for the Washington Post.
But the MLS maintains things are different now.
American players and soccer-specific stadiums are starting to make that difference, Noonan said. So, too, has one of the best showings ever by American men on the international stage, in the World Cup.
"My understanding is our performance to date has drawn a lot of attention in the United States," Bruce Arena, coach of the men's national team, said in news reports from Korea.
"We're growing, not by leaps and bounds, but we're making progress."
Please also visit Andy Markovits' official University of Michigan website.
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