July 1, 2006

Beautiful game fails to win over Americans

By Steve James

NEW YORK (Reuters) - If you look west from Germany you will
see the United States stifling a yawn at the World Cup.

Despite a doubling of television 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

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, which had an audience of 1.1 billion

By comparison, nearly 91 million viewers watched this
year's Super Bowl, the glitzy climax to the season for North
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 May's finale of "American Idol," a
television talent show.

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

No surprise, then, that a poll by the Global Market Insite
(GMI) market research service found that 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 is not part of the culture in a country that
often prides itself on sporting isolationism.

Millions of children play the game in the U.S. but whereas
spontaneous soccer breaks out on Rio and Cape Town beaches, or
in the alleys of Berlin and Bologna, you will not see
youngsters kicking around a ball on the streets of Philadelphia
or Memphis.

World governing body FIFA had hoped to boost interest in
the game when it awarded the U.S. hosting rights to the 1994
World Cup.

The event attracted the largest average crowds in World Cup
history and spawned Major League Soccer which now has 12 teams
but has struggled to find a place in the crowded U.S. sports

American opinion is still shaped by a handful of sports
commentators who can barely hide their hostility to soccer.

Yet, while the U.S. team were competing in their 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."

The transformation was fleeting, however, as Deford 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 was
more interest last 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 National
Football League (NFL) quarterback and Republican presidential
candidate, who once called soccer "socialistic and
collectivist" during a speech in Congress.

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 could not 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,