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America’s Interest in Soccer Perks This Year After the World Cup

July 10, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: From Berlin, to Rome, to American cities such as Washington, D.C., and Denver, Italy fans were ecstatic after their team won a fourth World Cup yesterday. The championship game was the conclusion of a month-long soccer tournament played once every four years.

The nerve-racking ending, a series of penalty kicks, came after Italy and France were tied following regulation play and then went into overtime. Italy fans were delirious when France missed a kick and Italy prevailed.

ANNOUNCER: Italy, World Cup champions, 2006!

RAY SUAREZ: But fans of the French team were stunned and despondent, no more so than when the team’s star player, Zinedine Zidane, was thrown out in overtime on a red card for unsportsmanlike behavior. Zidane, who led the French to victory in 1998, used his head to strike an Italian player after they traded remarks.

The worldwide audience was huge; early estimates project about a billion people. In the U.S., nearly 17 million households watched on ABC and Univision. That was comparable to the NBA championship final game, which had nearly 16 million viewers, or the nearly 20 million households that tuned into the last game of the World Series.

The ratings for this tournament were the highest they’ve ever been and much higher than the last World Cup, when games aired in the middle of the night for U.S. audiences.

For the first time, all the games were aired live on the national networks of ESPN and ABC. Every game was also broadcast on the Spanish-language Univision network.

Ratings were also healthier when the American team played. Nearly 10 million U.S. households watched America’s game against Italy three weeks ago.

This World Cup brought new converts to the game, as well, including a number of people in long lines in Washington, D.C.’s, Lucky Bar yesterday.

TAMMY GORDON, Soccer Fan: In places like D.C. where you have so many fans that are from different areas, it really makes you more into it as the whole thing. I mean, everyone’s walking around town with flags, watching the games, so it’s really fun.

RAY SUAREZ: Others, like Gerard Louison in Denver, Colorado, preached the gospel of the cup to others.

GERARD LOUISON, Soccer Fan: We’ve even converted three or four friends who’ve never watched soccer before. In this World Cup, I’ve gotten them to come and watch games, to watch it on TV at home. I try to explain it to them about the game.

JIM PATEL, Soccer Fan: How can it be boring? I mean, it’s got lots of great talents to show. You’ve got some of the best players in the world. A lot of the games are interesting. Refereeing decisions have added to the spice of the game.

RAY SUAREZ: Despite the cup’s higher ratings, professional soccer in the U.S. still draws a much smaller following compared to that in other countries, even with the creation of Major League Soccer 10 years ago and the sport’s dominance as an after-school event here.

This summer, most games were only viewed by fewer than 5 million households on average. American fans have their own theories.

DEREK TURNER, Soccer Fan: We don’t have the best players in the world, like the rest of the world. You know, the European teams have the best players in the world, so it’s really fun to watch. The American players aren’t as fun to watch.

ALEXA COURTNEY, Soccer Fan: The American announcers, I feel like I’m sitting at a baseball game. It’s, “So and so passed to so and so, to so and so,” without revealing any of the beauty.

RAY SUAREZ: One thing that didn’t help matters this year was the poor performance of the American team, which didn’t get past the first round of the tournament.

Soccer at our doorstep?

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the cup and American's attitudes toward soccer, I'm joined by Frank Deford, senior writer for Sports Illustrated. He's also a commentator for National Public Radio and a regular correspondent on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel."

And Lynn Berling-Manuel, publisher of Soccer America magazine, a twice-monthly publication dedicated to U.S. and international soccer.

And Lynn Berling, let me start with you. For decades, soccer has been the next big thing, just around the corner, just about to get here. Did this World Cup final season mark an arrival of sorts for the sport's claim on the American imagination?

LYNN BERLING-MANUEL, Publisher, Soccer America: I think it's more than an arrival in a lot of ways. I think soccer has arrived. Is it baseball, football, or basketball at this moment in time? Not quite.

But I think for Americans, and the World Cup was a culmination of that, it has arrived. The game I went to yesterday or the party I went to watch the final was a wonderful blend of teens, and 20-somethings, and 30-somethings, that soccer is a sport they grew up with.

And then it was also immigrants, and ex-pats, and soccer moms. And the blend of soccer in America has arrived. And World Cup is not a culmination; it's just one more step in its growth.

RAY SUAREZ: Frank Deford, do you buy that?

FRANK DEFORD, Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated: No, Ray. I'm sorry, I hate to be the bad guy, but we've been hearing the same tune being played for 40 years now.

It started when Pele and the other stars came to the states in the 1970s, and everybody said, "Now soccer's here." And then the kids started playing. They said, "Wait until they grow up. Wait until they grow up. They'll love soccer." And they grew up, and they didn't love soccer. They walked away.

They said, in 1994, when the World Cup was here, they said, "That will turn the corner." In 1999, the women won the World Cup for the United States, and everybody said, "Boy, that's terrific. That's fabulous." And in two or three years, women's soccer pro league had died.

And here we go again. This is a blip on the scene, and it will be gone. This is like the Ice Capades come to town, and everybody goes to see the ice show. And a week later, it's all forgotten.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Frank -- go ahead, Lynn Berling.

A passion vs. a fad

LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: Well, and I think -- I can appreciate Frank's point of view. I've been at Soccer America a long time, and I've heard the same story that Frank has heard.

But I interrupt it differently, frankly. Because if we see today, it is here, everywhere. It is part of our culture. Is it the same as being in France or Italy? Of course not. Is it American football? Of course not.

But it is here now. And to deny that is really to deny everything that you see around you.

What was so exciting for me with this World Cup is the U.S. performance was very disappointing. There's no question about that. But all of a sudden, everywhere I went, it was a topic of conversation, whether the coach should stay or go, whether the players were good or bad. It was water-cooler conversation.

Over the last 30 or 40 years, that has not been the case, and it is today. And to me, that's soccer arriving. It's got a long way to go to perhaps be American football, but I think you can call it very justifiably here now.

RAY SUAREZ: Frank Deford, you didn't see that even a little bit, a different level of awareness that the finals were on?

FRANK DEFORD: I saw it. I watched the World Cup myself. I love the World Cup.

The question is whether the World Cup is soccer. It's one event that comes every four years, like an election, and then it disappears. I think it's a question of heritage more than anything else.

Look, Ray, I'm a French Huguenot. Our country left 300 years ago, but I rooted for the French yesterday, at least until Zidane, you know, bombasted the poor guy's chest.

But I think that's what people are watching. They're attached to it by connection, by heritage, by legacy.

But do they like the sport? Americans have proven over and over again that they don't like the sport. There's not enough scoring. There are too many ties. It's a very frustrating game, too defensively oriented for us.

And it doesn't have the proficiency that sports do that use your hands. It's totally bizarre when you think about it that a game would be played with feet and head rather than hands. I mean, this makes no sense whatsoever.

And you cannot be proficient in such a game, and Americans reject that. What is called brilliant in soccer is an incomplete pass in football. And the sport itself is over-dramatized, with the falling down. There's entirely too many, a high percentage of scores because of penalties, which are very dubious.

And simply we've shown over and over again that we reject that, that the way the game is...

RAY SUAREZ: Let me let Lynn Berling back in here, Frank.

FRANK DEFORD: They play the games, kids, then they leave it.

LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: Oh, and I'd love to come back into that.

RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead.

Finding the origins of interest

LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: You know, I think the reality is all sports have a huge drop-off. When Frank says they play the game as kids and then they leave it, all sports have a huge drop-off of participation when you hit 13 or 14 years old.

Girls discover boys; boys discover cars. And, frankly, the opportunities to play are very limited, as you get to be a teenager, unless you're very, very good. But the reality is, is that...

FRANK DEFORD: Yes, I'm not talking about playing. Lynn, I'm not talking about playing. I'm taking...

LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: No, no, and I understood that.

FRANK DEFORD: Kids play baseball; they grow up as baseball fans. Players play football. They grow up as football fans. They play soccer; they quit the sport and they lose interest in it when they grow up. The figures show that, Lynn.

LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: And I'm not seeing that in this -- you know, and as far as I can tell, Frank, you know, one of the things about figures is the reality is we could use them to prove any point we wanted.

And I think that, if you look at the television ratings of MLS, which are still relatively modest compared, again, to American football or baseball, but they are on a continuing climb.

We're seeing a growth in, not just participation, because participation we all agree does not necessarily equate in soccer to fandom, but we are watching fandom growing. We're watching children who are continuing as fans.

Is it to the same degree? I don't believe strictly participation is what makes a young baseball player become a baseball fan. I believe that participation is only a piece of that.

It's when your dad plays baseball with you and follows baseball with you that you become a fan, and that is what I'm seeing in soccer today. The parents of today, the young parents of today, they played. They're knowledgeable. They are fans.

And soccer is becoming a sport that you do play with your dad, and you do watch it on television with your dad.

FRANK DEFORD: Lynn, I have heard...

LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: And I think that's the powerful change that we have not seen before.

FRANK DEFORD: Lynn, we have been dancing to this tune for 35 years. You can't keep on playing the same song because, after a while, people simply don't believe it.

And every year, we're told, next year, next year soccer's going to arrive and be the next big thing. Soccer has had more chances, more money invested in it.


FRANK DEFORD: It has. It's had hundreds of millions of dollars invested. I think if a sport like lacrosse, which is a much better spectator game, if lacrosse had had the same kind of attention and exposure that soccer had, it would be on the level right now with, say, hockey.

Soccer has had every chance in the world, and it's simply failed.

Room for improvement

RAY SUAREZ: Let me jump in right there, because you've been both talking...

LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: I don't see any failure.

RAY SUAREZ: ... in very different terms about some of the same things: about the hype; about the building up of expectations. And maybe it's just where you're setting the bar for what constitutes success that's different.

And, Frank, maybe no sport could have lived up to that hype, but maybe soccer has reached a sort of middle level, to become a niche interest sport in the United States that will be self-sustaining as a business and will find its place and its audience in a steady state kind of way, rather than becoming one of the major sports in the United States.

FRANK DEFORD: Ray, if it's a niche sport, it's been a niche sport forever, and it will remain a niche sport. I accept that: It's a niche sport. Volleyball is a niche sport. Lacrosse is a niche sport. Fencing is a niche sport. We're a nation of niches right now.

But the difference between soccer in the United States and everywhere else is that it's not a niche sport everywhere else. And can it grow to that level? No. I think that the past 40 years have shown that it can't.

RAY SUAREZ: Lynn Berling, where's the roof for soccer, the ceiling?

LYNN BERLING-MANUEL: Well, I think that it is not necessarily with your friends, or your age group, or even my age group. I think where we're seeing it is in a new age group coming up.

And I think the question of niche really has to speak to: How big is the niche? This is not fencing. This is not badminton. I agree that we are not the number-one sport, as we are in most of the world, absolutely.

And the United States is a very different country, and I wouldn't generally choose to compare the U.S. and England or the U.S. and France. But in this country, if we're talking niche, we're talking millions of people in that niche.

Do I say that this is the end of where soccer's growth is? No. I simply say that I would go along with Ray. I think we've hit a middle point with lots of room to grow.

I think we have viable business opportunities. My company is one of those. Soccer America is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. To be a single-sport magazine in America and survive for 35 years -- are we Sports Illustrated in size? Absolutely not.

But the reality is, is soccer is viable in this country. It's vibrant. It's not just viable, it's vibrant. And that's what I think is so exciting today.

And I see a very healthy future, and that's where we're excited.

RAY SUAREZ: Lynn Berling and Frank Deford, thank you, both.