Ford: World Cup fever
June 20, 2014
For the past week or so many have noticed something a bit off about the American sports scene. Fans in sports bars and other similar venues all over the U.S. are acting a little strange, singing unfamiliar fight songs and chanting unfamiliar names into the night.
Please don't fret, it's a simple case of World Cup fever and it's sweeping the nation. Don't worry though, in all likelihood it will pass in a few weeks and not return for four years.
At first, it can be a little unnerving as dormant soccer fans everywhere have shed their cloaks of anonymity and are in full throat for Team Stars and Stripes and the World Cup.
The unabashed love for the World Cup has spilled over at just the right time too, helping spread the fever to even the meekest of soccer fans.
The World Cup has found itself in the perfect scheduling position for the American sports scene. There is very little else going on with football in the off-season, baseball in mid-season, and the NBA and NHL championships already concluded. So, what else is a sports fan to latch on to?
And while this helps boost viewership for the World Cup, it doesn't explain why the Sacramento Republic FC is so popular, and why local youth rec leagues are seeing an increase in participation.
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The Sacramento Republic pulled more than 20,000 fans for their opening match this season and regularly plays for a packed house of devoted fans.
It begs the question: is this recent love affair with soccer just a phase that washes over American sports fans every four years with the World Cup, or is it here to stay and grow in popularity?
Nevada Union grad and Sacramento Republic forward Chad Bartlomé said the popularity of soccer is skyrocketing in Northern California.
"I think it is a combination of many reasons," he said. "First and foremost, soccer is a fun sport to watch live, especially if you've played it before. Our fans rally behind us 100 percent and are singing and dancing the whole match. There is a ton of energy and the play is non-stop.
"Sacramento also has a really cool alternative culture on the rise. Most of the Tower Bridge Battalion, our main supporters group, are beard-having, fixie bicycle riding, micro-brew IPA drinking hooligans who have latched onto the team 100 percent and are keen on being heard throughout the stadium, the league and the country, for that matter."
Bartlomé, who played in Switzerland for seven years before joining the Republic, added that professional soccer is on the upswing nationally.
"The future of soccer in the U.S. looks very bright," he said. "The MLS is growing bigger every year, and the number of people supporting each team and the league is also growing. Every time I would come home to visit from Switzerland, usually once every six months to a year, I would see a big difference. Whether it was more matches on TV or better quality players in the league, or now the Sacramento team being formed and growing so quickly, it is evident that soccer is growing and I don't see it reaching its peak anytime soon."
One of the main factors that has slowed soccer in its national appeal is the saturation of other sports that draw interest, but Bartlomé doesn't feel that is the case any longer.
"I don't feel like soccer has to compete, necessarily, with the other big sports in the U.S.," he said. "I feel like there is plenty of room for soccer in the U.S., as well. Most of our fans at Sac Republic FC are also Giants, Kings and Niners fans too."
Soccer is the fourth most popular sport, in terms of participation, nationally among high school girl athletes, behind track and field, basketball and volleyball, according to a 2013 survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Soccer is the fifth most popular sport among high school boys behind football, track and field, basketball and baseball.
California leads all states in high school soccer participation with 47,861 boys players in 2012-13, leading the next closest state (Texas) by 13,798 participants. The number of California High school boys players has risen by 783 since a similar survey was conducted in 2011.
California also leads the nation in high school girls soccer participation as well with 43,282 participants, 12,812 more players than the next closest state (Texas). Girls participation in California is up 562 players since 2011.
The popularity of soccer can also be seen locally by the high early enrollment numbers of the Gold Country Youth Soccer League, said league president Dave Pistone.
"I don't know if it's the Sacramento team, the World Cup or our advertising, but we are up and we hope the trend continues," Pistone said.
Gold Country Youth Soccer has surpassed last year's early enrollment by more than 250 players. The local soccer league that features both recreational and competitive teams had more than 1,100 participants last year, according to Pistone.
"One of the advantages to soccer is everyone can get started," Pistone said. "Everyone can kick a ball. What other sport can you play at 3-4 years old? It's just a very convenient way to get introduced to sports."
But the difference today versus a decade ago is more youths are sticking with soccer throughout their Jr. high and high school years.
Bartlomé said sticking with soccer was one of the best decisions he ever made.
"I really enjoy being able to continue to do what I've been most passionate about my entire life," he said. "It's also the thing that I am best at. And, making a career our of it, getting to do it everyday and getting paid for it, really is a dream come true."
Time will soon tell if soccer's recent influx of popularity is just a phase, a product of the World Cup, or if it's the beginning of a major culture shift in American sports.
I'm not sure if soccer will ever trump football, baseball or basketball in the states, but it could become a more visible aspect of the every day sports scene both locally and nationally. As for World Cup fever, like my mom used to say about any illness or impairment I would have as a child, "this too shall pass."
To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, call 530-477-4232 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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