“Who’s your team, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester?” It’s the stock opener posed by every waiter, concierge or taxi driver in New York City. “Manchester City is beautiful,” “Wenger has to go,” “Why did Ferguson say ‘no’ to Mourinho?”
In the US, soccer talk is everywhere, with City’s triumph in the Premiere League and Barcelona’s loss of La Liga giving way to speculation on the World Cup, the US national team and “Klinsmann, man, what the fu*k?”
On ESPN, retired nobles of the European game – van Nistelrooy, Ballack, Ekoku, McManaman – glean greenbacks for discussing the forthcoming tournament in Brazil, each discussion bookended by adverts showcasing their footballing heirs in the latest batch of Hollywood-inspired mini-movies for Nike.
Papers of record, such as the New York Times, feel comfortable to run front page editorials on Fifa corruption, while Morning Joe, the popular breakfast show on MSNBC, offers regular updates on the English game, each segment welcomed with puppy-like enthusiasm by the Georgia-born host Joe Scarborough – as much for his love of the game as for the bafflement it elicits from his co-host Mika Brzezinski.
New York is bathed in emblems and icons of the European game. Soccer shirts are widespread, with the names of Suarez, Rooney or Messi as likely to adorn clothing as those of Carmelo Anthony (Knicks), Eli Manning (Giants) or Derek Jeter (Yankees).
In the early months of last season, a marketing campaign by broadcaster NBC had New York’s iconic subway trains emblazoned with individual team colours from the Barclays Premier League or “BPL” as is the common abbreviation, while Times Square was decorated with the hue of Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool et al.
All the games from the BPL season just gone (for which the broadcaster paid $250million) were available to watch across the NBC channels – small subscription required – with the time difference meaning that a midday kick off in the UK was watched upon waking up on the east coast or through a haze of booze in the early hours on the west coast.
Premier League games continued throughout the day, usually at 10am EST and then midday EST… then you could switch channel and watch a game from La Liga at 5pm EST.
Speaking to The Guardian in October, Jon Miller, NBC Sport‘s president of programming, said: “There have always been a lot of people in this country who have loved soccer, but I don’t think as many people really embraced the Premier League as they have now. It has become part of the daily conversation in this country, much more relevant and important.”
That’s certainly evident, with the viewing figures for Premiere League games on NBCreaching a total of 31.5million for the season, with 5million watching the denouement on the final Sunday.
The crunch game between Liverpool and Chelsea at the end of the campaign was watched by more than 940,000 viewers, an impressive figure considering kick off was 8am EST. In total, NBC devoted thousands of hours of coverage to the English game, replete with commentary and analysis every bit as sophisticated as that delivered by the UK’s Sky Sports.
Adding to the mix were Fox Sports and beIN Sports, between them broadcasting Champions League, FA Cup, and even Capital One Cup matches.
Soccer is culturally ingrained into the US way of life. The traditional view of US sports is a landscape dominated by the big four – football, ice hockey, basketball and baseball – with Major League Soccer (MLS) a poorly followed sideshow popular with immigrants or, up till recently, fans of David Beckham.
Although the MLS is growing, the relative weakness of the league (there are currently only 19 teams, soon to be 21, with no relegation) hasn’t hindered the sport’s burgeoning popularity. The contradiction of the US is that it boasts a thriving soccer culture without having a strong domestic league.
As Simon Kuper points out in his book Soccernomics, “Major League Soccer is not American soccer. It’s just a tiny piece of the mosaic. Kids’ soccer, college soccer, women’s soccer, indoor soccer, Mexican, English, and Spanish soccer, the Champions league, and the World Cup between them dwarf the MLS”.
According to Miller, soccer is rapidly overtaking other sports “in terms of attention and social conversation, coverage in print and broadcast news,” a product not only of NBC’sconverge but, according the TV executive, a levelling in the interest in other sports, particularly baseball and college football.
Yet the upsurge in US soccer is not a product of NBC or David Beckham’s recent sabbatical to LA to “put soccer on the map”.
For many years the game has been the sport of choice for the offspring of white, middle class Americans, a more genteel pursuit that many parents (the clichéd “Soccer moms”) view as far less dangerous than the contact-rife American football – itself a sport under increasing scrutiny following a series of life-changing injuries in both the professional and amateur game. With basketball the game of the inner cities, soccer has become the game of the suburbs, a recreation divorced from the associations of violence, money, drugs and corruption that have scarred the country’s more indigenous sports.
A 2006 Fifa survey found more than 24million Americans played soccer, a figure likely to have increased substantially over the past eight years, while a 2011 ESPN poll rated soccer as the second most popular sport in the country for 12-24-year-olds. Young players, of course, turn into older fans.
This popularity has been bolstered by strong female participation with the US women’s national team regarded one of the best in the world despite the lack of a professional domestic league, while the big European clubs, sniffing dollars, have been quick to market themselves stateside, routinely participating in pre-season tournaments across the Republic’s major cities.
Of course, all this will count for little in Brazil, with Klinsmann’s Red, White and Blueunlikely to progress out of the group stages (although the US’s continued participation in the big tournaments has certainly added to its domestic popularity).
Regardless, television viewers are assured. Even though the US had long left the tournament, more than 24million Americans watched the 2010 World Cup final between Holland and Spain, more than the average viewers for that year’s World Series games between the Yankees and the Phillies.
Popularity aside, the chances of the men’s US national team winning a major soccer tournament anytime soon are absolutely zero… so only slightly less than England. Yet the game as a sporting and cultural phenomenon has already won.
Until recently, “the global game” was called so despite the seemingly impenetrable enclave of North America, with many within the US viewing the spread of soccer akin to the spread of communism – a nefarious ideology followed by foreigners and fifth columnists.
Unfortunately for those wishing to preserve the cultural purity of “American” sports, not only is soccer past the TSA and across the Rio Grand, but it has already set up some nets and is having a kick-a-bout on the White House lawn. The invasion hasn’t begun. It’s already over.