George Boardman: Soccer has been the next big thing in America for over 50 years | TheUnion.com

George Boardman: Soccer has been the next big thing in America for over 50 years

George Boardman
Columnist

If you are like most Americans, you managed to ignore the almost worldwide obsession with who was going to win the world championship of the beautiful game in the home country of our good friend, Vladimir Putin.

Television viewership of the beautiful game here — soccer in the U.S., football in the rest of the world — provided further evidence that soccer is the game of the future, as it has been since the 1960s.

Fox paid an estimated $200 million for the U.S. broadcast rights to the World Cup, but those rights lost a lot of value when the American team failed to qualify for the cup after a loss to Trinidad and Tobago — Trinidad and Tobago! — back in October. (It shouldn't reassure shareholders of 21st Century Fox to know the company has committed $900 million for the U.S. World Cup rights through 2026.)

Fox's audience was down by almost one-third since the 2014 World Cup, averaging just 2.5 million viewers through the quarterfinals. The company's ad revenue was running at about 57 percent of the $187 million ABC-ESPN collected in 2014. Telemundo, which had the Spanish-language rights and paid even more than Fox, also drew smaller audiences.

The inability of the World Cup to draw a large American audience if the U.S. team isn't in the competition is puzzling when you consider recent surveys that show a growing interest in the sport. While only 2 percent of Americans identified soccer as their favorite game when the World Cup was held here in 1994, a 2017 Gallup poll saw the number grow to 7 percent, just behind baseball at 9 percent.

Numerous studies show that adult fans of professional and college sports teams either played the game or followed it closely in their youth. Tens of millions of American children have played soccer at some level since the 1970s, but that hasn't translated into big attendance at the games of America's professional teams, or a large TV audience. People apparently like playing the game more than they like watching it.

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There are several reasons for this. Our best athletes aren't drawn to the sport, and the quality of play of our professional teams isn't close to what can be found in Europe or South America. The best known players here are aging European stars looking for one or two more years of lucrative employment.

Many partisans believe the sport won't take off in the U.S. until we develop our own Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan of soccer. That person may be 19-year-old Christian Pulisic, a native of Pennsylvania who is a rising start for Borussia Dortmund in Germany's world-class Bundesliga. Some have proclaimed him the new face of American soccer, but hardly anybody knows what he looks like because he spends most of his time in Europe.

For most Americans like me, the basic problem with soccer is that there is not enough scoring. Who wants to watch grown men in short pants kick a ball up and down the field for 90 minutes to achieve a nil-nil tie? Not me, or anybody I know. It says something about a sport when the most famous score in its history was illegal, the so-called "hands of god" goal scored by Diego Maradona of Argentina to beat England for the 1986 World Cup.

Before overtime and shoot-outs became standard, it was common for teams to play for a tie — something the average American sports fan despises. Ara Parseghian had great success as the football coach at Notre Dame, but he is best remembered — and reviled in some circles — for playing for a 10-10 tie against Michigan State in the 1966 version of the "Game of the Century."

Now, it is common practice for teams to try to control the ball for as much of the game as possible, shooting only when they can force a defensive breakdown. No wonder the fans in the stands amuse themselves by chanting and singing during the games.

Then there is the endless parade of drama queens falling to the turf with life-threatening injuries, only to recover in practically no time. Long-time NBA center Bill Laimbeer developed a reputation as a first-class flopper, but he had nothing on soccer players.

The World Cup championship game between France and Croatia illustrated all of these issues. France won 4-2, a scoring orgy by soccer standards — the only time more goals were scored in the championship game was 60 years ago. And it was clear at half time that France would be the winner — no team has come from a half-time deficit to win the World Cup since 1930.

Croatia tried to control the game by not surrendering the ball, controlling it 60 percent of the time. France used the same tactic to get to the championship game, even though its roster supposedly includes several of the best scorers in the game. France's first goal came on a penalty kick, setup by a phantom foul called after one of the better flops of the tournament.

The World Cup returns to the U.S. in 2026, and a 27-year-old Christian Pulisic might be able to ignite U.S. interest in the sport by leading a resurgent American team deep into the tournament, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that to happen. The sport will be lucky to get as big as hockey, where the action is also fast and furious and the goals are few and far between.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at ag101board@aol.com.

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