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Comments by YACCS
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The same old bullshit

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

D.C. United's Christian Gomez, front, celebrates

after scoring the only and winning goal against
FC Dallas goalkeeper Dario Sala, left rear, in the
first half of a MLS soccer game at Pizza Hut Park
in Frisco, Texas, in this July 4, 2006, file photo.
While the soccer world spent the last month focused
on the World Cup, D.C. United quietly went about
assembling a 12-game unbeaten streak in MLS _ and
a mammoth lead in the Eastern Conference standings.

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.

Geez, there's been no growth in soccer in the US since John Kerry played for Yale. The fact is that the US has a middling professional league, internationals playing in Europe and is the second most popular youth sport in the US, more than football and little league combined and three million shy of basketball's 21 million participants. Oh, and there is the Fox Soccer Channel. But it's the same as 1966.

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.

True, as they do ALL sports. Participation ends at 12 for most kids in any team sport. Yet, no one cites the fact that the lavishly supported Little League is the least popular of all major team sports, with only 5 million participants. This is the gold standard of youth sporting activity and more than twice as many kids play football, at 12m

The evidence is actually the opposite with the growth of MLS and FSC. Along with sattelite radio deals for the Premiership. Adults who had played soccer seem to developing as an audience.

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.

But it did. The MLS came soon after and recently celebrated it's 10th Anniversary and has expanded.

Yes, it did, but so did a second woman's basketball league, and the WNBA requires massive
support from the NBA to continue.

But instead of being snarky, Deford should admit the real impact of the 1999 World Cup win was not so much in professional sports, but the ultimate validation of Title IX. When it was created in 1972, women's college athletics barely existed, forget team sports. The victory of the US in the 1999 World Cup validiated college team sports for women in a way basketball never did.

At the time of the World Cup win colleges were agitating to change or eliminate Title IX and killing successful male programs like wrestling. Their victory made such a change impossible.

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.

Uh, with the highest ratings ever, the world's most popular sport, which had Americans in the street across the US. Yeah, Ice Capades

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.

Here's the point. Soccer requires a ball and an open field. It is perceived as gender neutral. There is no real fear of injury as there is with football. Every year, some kid dies during football workouts in the preseason because of an undiagnosed condition and the stress.

Soccer is not a major sport in the US, yet. But if I ran the NHL, I'd be worried as hell. Their league is invisible to the sporting public at this point. NASCAR has a limited appeal outside the South and West, and even if it didn't, your kid can't play NASCAR.

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.

That was a massive change. When the US did well in 2002, it was a footnote. Now, a middling performance had people giving a shit. And the coverage changed. Zidane's headbutt lead the news Sunday. The US-Italy match had a 10 rating. You had English speakers watching Univision for more than half-naked women.

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.

I don't think it's going to be football. but hockey, that's a different story

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.

Yeah, which is why Americans were walking around with Brazil jerseys and England jerseys. There are a shitload of Brazilians and English who were born and raised in the US.

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.

Which is bullshit for people under 40. They know the game. It's something someone from Deford's generation isn't going to ever get or want to get This from a man who made his living
from covering baseball, a sport many Americans have no use for because of it's pace.

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.

We're now in the stupid catagory. Just flat out stupid. Anyone who's completed a bicycle kick to score a goal or kick one in from outside the box might just disagree. I can't really reply to such aggressive stupidity. I would invite him to pass a soccer ball and might learn something.

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.

No, one cannot be proficient in soccer, Mr. Beckham, Mr. Viera, Mr. Henry. See Frank Deford said so. All those midfield passes and long goals, don't count. All those goals for Arsenal, anyone could do that. Football, offside penalty, roughing the passer, roughing the kicker, too many dubious penalties.

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.

After all, he's just made an ass of himself.

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.

Yes. Rupert Murdoch, Sirius and XM are investing millions a month in soccer. Why? Because there is no audience? Of course fandom is growing. There's money in it. In the 1970's, soccer was relegated to PBS and the Cosmos gave tickets away. There was no support system, no way to extend that interest. Now, it's the second most played sport in the US among kids

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.

And that's due to cable. Especially Fox. Because the Premiership and the Mexican leagues are going to serve as the foundation for fandom. MLS is growing, but the history of those leagues have a powerful pull. And as fandom for international clubs grow, the interest in local teams will grow, especially as the idea of aging European players coming to the US to transition.

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.

Ok, so which European clubs have started to support American sides? Hundreds of millions is what the Red Sox are worth. The real investment hasn't begun yet, because the players haven't been found yet. It's only a beachhead. The Red Bulls and Chiavas USA are the start of future growth


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.

I mean when you talk out of your ass, at some point people need to call you on it. Soccer is widely popular in the US. Lacrosse is narrowly popular and now has a major PR problem. How in the fuck can he think a bunch of guys running around with sticks, who you can barely see with the ball, in face masks, be better to watch than a good soccer match.

The amount invested in soccer is less than the purchase price of the Bosox.

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.

So, anyone see the Fox Lacrosse Network? Jesus, soccer is the most powerful, profitable form of entertainment on earth. FIFA's power is just shy of the UN and ICRC. I mean, how many people watch professional Lacrosse?

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.


She finally laid the smackdown on his nonsense. Because soccer is going to grow as more Americans play the game, as more people watch the game. The World Cup made fans, and they're gonna check out FSC, they may not all stay, but some will.

I don't see what difference it makes to Deford if soccer succeeds or not. Volleyball? Lacrosse? What the fuck is he babbling about? Soccer is a major sport below the professional level, even a dominant sport within the culture. Soccer moms anyone? Any depiction of suburban life usually starts with soccer. Kids sports movies usually center around soccer.

The issue is the growth and expansion of professional soccer, not the idea that soccer has failed as a sport in the US. Because it hasn't.

The one question I'd ask is this: did the World Cup unleash the cult of soccer to come out, or were fans being made by the widespread coverage?

posted by Steve @ 12:05:00 AM

12:05:00 AM

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