June 30, 2006

World Cup a big yawn in soccer-hating US

By Steve James

NEW YORK (Reuters) - If you look west from Germany these
days you'll see America stifling a yawn at the World Cup.

Despite a doubling of TV ratings for the first-round
matches this month, before the U.S. squad failed miserably,
soccer still ranks below televised poker tournaments in a land
where baseball, basketball and American football rule.

To put it in context, ABC-TV's average rating of 2.5 for
the first eight matches it aired represents barely 8 million
viewers in a nation of just under 300 million. Only 3.9 million
Americans watched the 2002 World Cup final, out of 1.1 billion

By comparison, nearly 91 million viewers watched this
year's Super Bowl, the glitzy climax to the season for
America's home-grown form of football. Nearly 39 million
watched the Academy Awards, Hollywood's big night, in March and
36 million tuned in for last month's finale of "American Idol,"
a TV talent show.

And on ABC's sports cable network, ESPN, which presumably
attracts more serious sports fans, the World Cup has had even
fewer viewers, averaging around 1.75 million on channels that
reach 91 million homes.

No surprise then, that a poll by the Global Market Insite
market research service found only 11 percent of Americans
surveyed were "definitely" interested in the World Cup,
compared with 45 percent of respondents world-wide.

"Despite an estimated combined $420 million invested in
official partnerships by U.S.-based corporations to gain
worldwide visibility, the facts don't lie: the U.S. lags
significantly behind other countries when it comes to being
passionate about 'the beautiful game' of soccer," GMI said.

The poll revealed that 56 percent of Americans did not even
know that the 2006 World Cup was taking place in Germany.


Soccer just isn't part of the culture in a country that
often prides itself on sporting isolationism.

Millions of kids may play the game in America. But unlike
the spontaneity of soccer on Rio or Cape Town beaches, or in
the alleys of Berlin and Bologna, you don't see kids kicking a
ball around on the streets of Philadelphia or Memphis.

American opinion is still shaped by a handful of sports
commentators who can barely hide their hostility. Yet, even as
the U.S. team was competing in its fifth consecutive finals,
two long-time opponents of soccer appeared to soften.

First, it was Frank Deford, a Sports Illustrated columnist,
who delights in provoking soccer fans with outrageous jibes.

In a National Public Radio commentary, he actually praised
the passion of the world's fans, and called soccer players
"rock stars of sweat."

But the transformation was fleeting, as he still thinks
soccer is not for Americans.

"America is one of the few countries that escaped being
infected by the soccer pandemic," Deford went on. There is more
interest this month in the professional basketball and hockey
playoffs in America, "the only country where soccer is not
important," he said.

Another apparent convert was Jack Kemp, the former NFL
quarterback and Republican presidential candidate, who once
called soccer "socialistic and collectivist" during a speech in

Yet he acknowledged in a posting on his Web site this week
that seven or eight of his 16 grandchildren play soccer.

"Watching our USA soccer team tie the Italian team last
week and on Sunday watching the athleticism of the Brazilian
team, I'm hereby publicly acknowledging that soccer can be
interesting to watch," said Kemp.

Unfortunately, he couldn't resist a late hit.

"I love soccer, but it's still boring," he added.

If a nation's newspapers reflect its thinking, then USA
Today has America's attitude to soccer nailed down.

"That Americans have a love-hate relationship with soccer
is indisputable," columnist William Mattox Jr. wrote last week.
"We love to play the game, or at least to have our children
play it. But we hate to watch it.

The newspaper ran letters echoing his comments.

"If America hadn't been founded by the pilgrims leaving ...
to seek freedom of religion, a few hundred years later America
would have been founded by the pilgrims seeking freedom from
soccer," wrote Rollie Robinson of Portland, Oregon.