The Beautiful Game: How European Soccer Is Staking Its Claim As A Major Sport in America
The skill and flair of players like Lionel Messi is just one reason why European soccer is becoming more popular in the states. (Photo: Reuters / Albert Gea)
Although the NFL season has yet to hit full swing, last week was a big one in the sports world. Over the weekend, NBC Sports rolled out its coverage of the Barclays Premier League, showing matches all over their affiliate networks and through their online viewing app. Also this past weekend, Fox unveiled their overly self-hyped, ESPN-killer channel Fox Sports 1. In their first days as a full-fledged 24-hour sports channel, Fox Sports 1 came out of the gate with its Fox Soccer Daily show receiving a prime place at 4:00pm every weekday. These new soccer-centric cable offerings are the continuation of a process that has been gaining momentum at a glacier's pace over the past 50 years.
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Yes, America's relationship with the beautiful game has been a strange one. But decades of chipping away at the dam that is America's strange distaste for the most popular game in the world has lead soccer to the precipice of opening the floodgates. Slowly but surely, soccer is gaining a foothold with basketball, baseball, and football as a "major sport" in the minds of Americans.
There are many reasons why soccer is staking its claim as a major sport in the states, the foremost one being that the distinction between what is popular in America versus what is popular in, say, England or Spain is slowly starting to disappear. Today, media such as live games can be disseminated all over the world without a problem. On Wednesday, I was able to sit outside and watch a live stream of the Chelsea-Aston Villa match over a WIFI connection. This kind of accessibility to a sport played thousands of miles away didn't exist a decade ago. Ten years ago, if you were an American with an interest in soccer, there were basically zero palatable options for accessing games played oversees. It's tough to have ardent fans of a sport in a country where it is nearly impossible to watch the games. With NBC Sports showing every Premier League match on TV and online combined with Fox Sports showing many Champions League contests, American's now have as much, if not more access to European soccer as they do any of the domestic sports.
As more matches are broadcast on TV, soccer is losing its stigma as a "soft" and "boring" sport. People are finally recognizing that soccer played at its highest level is far from boring. Unlike American sports, soccer is played without stoppages except for halftime. If you're watching a great soccer match, you cannot look away for a second of the action, or you risk missing someone like Gareth Bale or Robin van Persie do something spectacular. When it comes to European soccer, the players are ultra-talented and the pace of play is fast. There isn't a lot of scoring in soccer, but that's the point. The drama and excitement behind each goal scored is unmatched by any American sport.
At the same time, there is one caveat to America's newfound infatuation with soccer. With the globalization of the European game, it seems impossible for MLS to gain its own foothold in America. Bill Simmons of Grantland often postulates that Americans want to see a sport played at its highest level, and on that front, European soccer blows MLS out of the water. When it comes to MLS, all that stuff about how soccer is losing its stigma as boring goes right out the window. The talent level of MLS is poor, and the play matches the talent level, with many 0-0 and 1-0 matches that feature little in the way of spectacular dribbling and breathtaking goals. It's difficult to see how MLS can work in a globalized marketplace where American's have more television access to a better overseas product.
Despite this, soccer is still poised to grow exponentially in popularity in this country. The truth is, the increase in the visibility and accessibility of the European game has lead to soccer becoming more of a "chic" option for sports fans. Simply put, for younger fans, soccer is just cool. The teams have cool jerseys and logos, there is a hugely popular video game of the sport, and names like Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo are on the verge of becoming as well known in the states as the likes of Tom Brady or LeBron James. As the sport becomes more ubiquitous and accessible, more and more Americans will be seduced by the allures of The Beautiful Game. It will no longer seem strange when ESPN flashes soccer scores and news on the Bottom Line or Fox shows a Champions League match on its broadcast channel. The Beautiful Game is here to stay in this country, and now it's a matter of just how popular it will become.
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