Saturday, January 23, 2016

Soccer: Sport for generations

Posted By on Sat, Jan 23, 2016 at 9:56 AM

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Something odd is happening on the American sporting landscape. Whilst according to the most recent surveys shared out by the New York Times, Forbes and Bloomberg, participation in American football, baseball and basketball are steadily declining.  Conversely, participation continues to rise dramatically in rugby, lacrosse and, most pleasingly from my point of view, soccer (aka actual football).

The especially encouraging news is that the growing interest in soccer can bee seen at all levels of the game.

10 years ago, Major League Soccer’s sustainability was in question. Today, the league has doubled its number of teams to 20, and more sports fans are identifying themselves as MLS converts than ever before. Colorado's professional team, the Colorado Rapids, for example, increased their average attendance by more than 50%, growing from a little over 10,000 in 1996, their inaugural year, to well over 15,000 in 2015.

The Colorado Springs Switchbacks, a United Soccer League professional team, are undoubtedly seeing a bump in interest and attendance, too, averaging around 3,000 fans per game last season. For a USL team, in a town not traditionally known as a "soccer hot-bed," this provides a lot of reasons to be optimistic. The Switchbacks exciting 2015, going deep in to the playoffs in their inaugural season, undoubtedly helped drive up their support numbers and will, hopefully, continue to drive their following into their second season.

This makes me wonder why soccer, a sport that for so long has been left on the doorstep of the popular American sports frat party — six-pack under arm, mournfully ringing the doorbell — now not only been granted entry to the party, but hanging out with the popular crowd and being eyed up by the cutest girls?

I’ll suggest three primary reasons: increased understanding, mass exposure and generational momentum. First, by increased understanding I mean of the nuances and workings of the game — Americans seem to need an understanding of the granular aspects of a sport — all the way down to seemingly irrelevant stats. Soccer had to work hard to make itself understood, or maybe more to the point, interesting enough for Americans to take the time to better understand it. Soccer appears to have reached that tipping point now, and American fans are beginning to really engage with the game.

What's helped facilitate that deeper understanding and increased enjoyment of the game has been the massive ramp up in exposure of the sport? Any given weekend you can watch half a dozen or more English Premier League games, as well as matches from several other European leagues, the MLS, South American and other international team matches, too. Last season, all 10 of the final English Premier League games were aired simultaneously across the various NBC networks, and they’re preparing to do the same again this May – now that’s exposure!

Increased understanding and mass exposure have found fertile ground in which the sport started to take root in recent years. This is due in large part to generational momentum.

Remember the stories your grandfather used to tell you about that funny old game of soccer he and a few friends used to try in the backyard on Sunday afternoons? Your Grandad tells that tale with a faraway away look in his eye, and just a hint of fondness in his voice. Well, he used to tell your Dad that story, too, inspiring him seek out the sport. He played for bit, and even got good enough to make the college team. Granted, their roster consisted of barely enough players to field a starting 11, but he still played soccer for his college! And then a real soccer player showed up at his school one year, and, boy, could he play! Watching him out there made one really appreciate the game — enough that when your Dad finished playing, he coached a little league team.

That’s where you come in; you grew up with the game, you learned how to play at an early age and did — you may have fallen in love with the game completely. Pass it on. The game is flourishing and is here to stay, as long as you share it.

Mark Turner is formerly of Oxford, England, but has lived in America for over 15 years, the majority of that time in Colorado. Mark enjoys playing soccer (football!), hiking and biking when the weathers good, and when the weathers rotten writing blog entries that he hopes will amuse and entertain, and co-hosting 'The Back Chat Show' on KCMJ 93.9 FM. Mark can be followed on Twitter @melchett.

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