Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Growth of Soccer in America

The US Men's National Team were eliminated in overtime by Belgium, but became the biggest story of the summer. Tim Howard had one of the greatest games ever, his 16 saves the most since the 1966 World Cup. The huge TV ratings in the United States for the 2014 World Cup aren't a shock to me, as they have been building for some time. People packed bars, watch parties, and stadiums to watch the matches just like they do in other countries. This wasn't some overnight sensation. Soccer is here to stay, so get used to it Ann Coulter. And it all began in the 1990s.

The first World Cup was held in 1930 in Uruguay. The USA finished top of their group but lost in the semi-finals (there were 13 teams, so the 4 group winners advanced) to Argentina, finishing in 3rd place. It is still the best finish by a non-European or South American team. In 1950 they defeated England in one of the biggest upsets of all time. After that...nothing, as the US didn't qualify for another 40 years. Then came the 1990's, which helped launch Soccer in the US as we know it today.

In November of 1989, Paul Caligiuri scored a game winning goal that saw the US defeat Trinidad & Tobago 1-0, which caused the United States to qualify for the 1990 FIFA World Cup, their first since 1950. USA finished last in the group in 1990, but the future was set. FIFA also held the first ever Women's World Cup in China in 1991, and the US Women's Team won it all after beating Norway 2-1, which became the first time the United States had won an international FIFA Soccer competition. Huge crowds turned out in China to watch the matches, but when the US team returned home people didn't pay attention.

Cut to 1994...the men's World Cup was held in the United States for the first time, and the US made it out of the group stage after their surprising win over Colombia, but lost a close match to Brazil in the Round of 16. TV ratings went up, and the US set a World Cup attendance record that still stands to this day, even though the tournament was expanded to 32 teams in 1998. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the Women's team captured the gold medal in front of sold out stadiums, while Mia Hamm started to become the first well known American soccer player.

Also in 1996 we saw the creation of MLS (Major League Soccer). Though it started slow as any new sports league does, it has grown significantly. Currently there are 19 teams, but two more will be added in 2015 (New York City FC and Orlando City SC) and another in 2017 (Atlanta). Miami, owned by David Beckham, will also join the league at some point. Multiple teams now turn a profit. The Seattle Sounders (who began MLS play in 2009), average over 40,000 fans per game and are now worth $175 Million. The Portland Timbers have a waiting list for season tickets.

Then came the Summer of 1999, and Soccer in America was about to reach a whole new level. The FIFA Women's World Cup took place in the United States, and they were having it in big gridiron football stadiums. The idea and hard work paid off. The tournament began on June 19, 1999 the United States beat Denmark 3-0 in front of a sold out Giants Stadium. People tailgated in the parking lot, painted their bodies, and soccer had taken off. They made it to the final, playing China in front of over 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl. 18 Million people watched, and an estimated 40 million when factoring in bars/watch parties. USA won with the infamous Brandi Chastain penalty kick where she pulled her jersey off showing her sports bra following the euphoric victory on home soil. The women had become household names, and were on the cover of every magazine and newspaper from Newsweek to Sports Illustrated. The 1999 Women's World Cup wasn't just big for women's sports, it was a pivotal moment for the popularity of soccer in the United States, and we've never looked back.

The Men's team became the big story of the 2002 World Cup, making it to the Quarterfinals defeating Portugal and Mexico along the way. They played Germany tough, but lost 1-0. A German handball at the goal line went unnoticed, otherwise they may have made it to the semifinals. Landon Donovan became the first really well known American male soccer player. The 2010 World Cup saw the ratings build upon 2006, and some nail biter games turned them into water cooler talk. The US Women's team again made headlines in 2011 after the dramatic last second Abby Wambach header against Brazil to tie the game, which they won in Penalty Kicks. They lost the final to Japan as ESPN got its most watched non-NFL/NCAA football game, topping the World Series. At the 2012 London Olympics their 4-3 win over Canada became the talk of the Games, rare for a team sport during the Olympics. The final, a rematch against Japan, equalled the viewers of the Men's Dream Team final. The NWSL (National Women's Soccer League) was created, and the Portland Thorns turned a profit in their first year, while approaching 10,000 season ticket holders. The men's team has earned the respect of other nations at the 2014 World Cup, and the American fans became some of the most popular and well liked in Brazil. Soccer is a big sport in the US, and the interest will continue to stay strong as it has since the summer of '99.

Part of the reason people may think the US doesn't care about soccer is because its simply not the only sport we care about. We have a large population with a variety of tastes and it shows. Professional leagues (MLS, NWSL) still need to grow, but that will take longer. Americans also pay attention to foreign leagues, as the English Premier League does well in the ratings on NBC.

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