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Jewish World Review June 5, 2002 / 24 Sivan, 5762

Larry Atkins

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Consumer Reports

An American soccer fan hopes against hope | For most of the world, the biggest event of the year kicked off on May 31st in South Korea and Japan--Soccer's 2002 World Cup. Unfortunately, it is was a minor event to most people in this country, who think that watching a 0-0 soccer game is as exciting as watching QVC, the Food Channel, or a Bob Saget sitcom

The future of American soccer is likely to be determined by the American team's performance. An impressive showing such as an appearance in the semifinals could have lead to a renewed interest in soccer as a spectator sport.

While there are many anti-soccer people rooting against American soccer success, I wasn't among them. Unlike most American adults, I actually played soccer as a kid in the late 1970s before it was cool. I played varsity soccer for my high school, religiously watched "Soccer Made in Germany" on PBS, and frequently went to pro soccer games at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium.

Like many people, I got caught up in World Cup fever when it came to the United States in 1994. I traveled from Philadelphia to Boston to see Argentina and the legendary Diego Maradona destroy Greece. I also saw a dramatic come-from-behind win by Italy against Nigeria in the quarterfinal round, capped by a winning penalty kick by its star player Roberto Baggio.

What was more impressive than the play on the field was the electric atmosphere in the stands. Fans with painted faces were constantly waving flags, beating drums, and chanting the now familiar cheer, "Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole."

The tournament was a huge success, as the games drew huge crowds. Even casual fans got caught up in the excitement when the United States advanced to the second round to play Brazil. Television ratings for that game were over a 10 share--amazing for soccer, and about three times greater than a Stanley Cup Final game.

The success of the 1994 World Cup led soccer fans like me to become hugely optimistic about the future of the sport in America. It spawned Major League Soccer, which drew fairly well during its initial season, averaging 17,406 fans a game. People all over the country started imitating Univision's Andres Cantor's call of "Gooooooaaaallllll!" There was hope that soccer could grow into a successful sport that could rival ice hockey as the fourth major American sport.

Soccer received another boost in 1999 when the American women's team won the World Cup on American soil. Optimism for professional soccer seemed justified, given the popularity of youth soccer, which had come to rival Little League baseball as a participatory sport. The theory was that kids who had played the game would be able to understand and appreciate the game as adults.

However, MLS attendance has declined since that initial 1996 season, reaching a low of 13,756 fans per game in 2000. Last year, the league eliminated two franchises in Florida, each of which averaged below 12,000 fans in 2001. While kids are still playing soccer in large numbers, that hasn't translated to success at the box office for MLS. In March, USA Today reported that MLS has lost over $250 million since its inception in 1996.

What's lacking in Major League Soccer is passion. For the most part, fans are not living and dying with their home team, like they do in the other major sports. Going to an MLS game is almost like taking the kids to the zoo--it's a nice night out, but if the home team loses, it's no big deal. It's not like football, where if your team loses a heartbreaking game on Sunday, you don't feel like eating solid food until Wednesday.

Media exposure for the league has been disappointing. You don't hear ESPN SportCenter's Stuart Scott yell "Boo-yah!" for Major League Soccer highlights, and there is only one measly MLS game of the week on ESPN2 (ABC broadcasts two MLS playoff games and the All-Star Game). While newspapers in the cities that have MLS teams cover those teams regularly, newspapers in cities without MLS teams give MLS games as much coverage as badminton and curling. In Philadelphia, local television station newscasts don't even give the score, let alone show highlights of the MLS championship game.

American soccer needs a hero. It needs the equivalent of Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, or Muhammad Ali. Maybe it will be Landon Donovan, a 20-year-old budding star, who in 1999 became one of the youngest players in U.S. soccer history to sign a professional contract overseas in Germany and now stars for the San Jose Earthquakes in the MLS.

Soccer is at a crossroads. Another disastrous performance by the U.S. National team could lead to the decline and possible end of Major League Soccer.

Soccer fans may not be a silent majority, but there are more of us out here than you realize. Soccer haters might want to give our sport the boot, but a great showing by Team U.S.A. in the World Cup can head the sport back in the right direction.

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JWR contributor Larry Atkins is a lawyer and writer who lives in Philadelphia. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, Larry Atkins