CAIRO, EGYPT – On a weekend that will serve as a big reminder that football is still king in America, soccer will be taking another small but significant step in its climb toward respectability and a larger place in the American sporting landscape.
It is foolish to think that a soccer game in England will divert attention from talk of Giants and Patriots, Tom Brady and Eli Manning. Still, on that day when so many American football fans converge to celebrate their love for the pigskin, two other teams in blue and red will be staging their own important game another match that will be watched by millions around the world and shown on televisions across the United States. The airing of one soccer game on network television doesnt mean the sport is ready to challenge football any time soon, but Sundays Chelsea-Manchester United match on FOX will serve as another rung in the ladder for a sport that had virtually no television presence in this country just two decades ago. As recently as the mid-90s, catching some soccer on your television was a pipe dream. Seeing European powers play on network television was stuff of fantasy. The arrival of Major League Soccer in 1996 slowly provided more chances to watch the sport, while growth of the internet and soccer options on satellite television helped gradually increased the number of ways fans could watch the game. The most progress has come in the past five years, with more and more options available via cable television and the internet, and events like the World Cup and UEFA Champions League pushing elite level soccer to larger audiences. Jump to 2012. With FOX and NBC both planning on showing soccer on network television, the opportunities for both die-hard soccer fans and casual sports fans to see the beautiful game are ready to reach an all-time high. Theyre options that are vital to soccers continued growth, giving the sport an improved chance of grabbing the casual sports fan who has yet to embrace the game.
Does that mean hardcore NFL fans are going to fall in love with soccer on Super Bowl Sunday of all days? Not really, but if some casual fans happen to catch a top Premier League match and see the sport played at a high and entertaining level, theres a much better chance of converting new fans. Matches like Chelsea-Manchester United can provide just the kind of passion and drama that you dont have to be a soccer expert to appreciate: Two bitter rivals, one battling for a league title, the other hoping to keep a valuable place in the Premier Leagues top four. Some may see the increased exposure to European soccer (and specifically, English soccer) as a negative, potentially threatening development for Major League Soccer a league that is still fighting for its piece of the American sports pie. The concern stems from one inconvenient reality: There is a sizable demographic of fans that prefer European soccer, fans who arent very interested in MLS. This is no secret, and its hardly a new development. But its also not something that should stop the cultivation of that fan base. Ultimately, soccer grows in this country as long as more people care about and enjoy the sport. More soccer fans means more spending on soccer and more companies feeling the positive effects of supporting the sport. That, in turn, leads to better opportunities for MLS.
Even MLS realizes this, as evidenced by the leagues involvement in bringing European powerhouses to play in the United States. It all keeps feeding the soccer beast. It all keeps that beast growing. The result has been a domestic league that has grown rapidly in the past decade. Now, MLS is a thriving league. The quality of play continues to improve, with soccer stadiums popping up around the country. The next step for soccer in America is tackling TV, where ratings have been a tougher problem to solve. While major events like the mens and womens World Cups have posted impressive ratings, MLS and European soccer have yet to deliver similar success. The coming year will go a long way toward showing us if soccer can pull in bigger numbers, something that we will come closer to seeing with games on network television. The challenge isnt just drawing established soccer fans to tune in, but also to provide an entertaining enough product to hook new followers. Sundays Chelsea-Manchester United match might help do that on some level, but its only one small step toward that goal: toward pushing the needle in the right direction. No, Sundays soccer game isnt anywhere near as big as the Super Bowl, but it might bring us a step closer to the day when soccer fans in America are celebrating their own Super days.