Finding America

Me and Tarah

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Something odd is happening on the American sporting landscape. 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 been 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. My home state’s MLS team, the Colorado Rapids, 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 2016. Even the Colorado Springs Switchbacks, a United Soccer League second-tier professional team, are undoubtedly seeing a bump in interest and attendance too, averaging around 3,000 fans per game last season. 

Which makes me wonder why men's 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 — has now not only been granted entry to the party, but is hanging out with the ‘in’ crowd, being eyed up by the cutest girls? I’d suggest three main reasons: increased understanding, mass exposure, and generational momentum. 

By increased understanding I mean the nuances and workings of the game; Americans seem to need to understand the granular aspects of a sport before they will embrace it. Soccer finally appears to be interesting Americans enough to make that investment in learning it intricacies.  

It helps enormously that these days on any given weekend you can watch half a dozen English Premier League games, as well as matches from several other European leagues, the MLS, South America, and others. 

Increased understanding and mass exposure have all contributed to what I’d call generational momentum. 

If you’re American, it’s possible that your grandfather used to tell you stories with a faraway look in his eye and just a hint of fondness in his voice, about that funny old game called soccer that he and a few friends used to try and play in the backyard on Sunday afternoons. 

Your Grandad used to tell your Dad that story, too, inspiring him to seek out the sport. In fact, your Dad might have been inspired to join a team, and maybe even gotten good enough to represent his college. 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, some lad from Brazil, Germany, England, or elsewhere and, boy, could this guy play! Watching him out there made one really appreciate ‘the beautiful game’, enough that when your Dad finished playing he wanted to continue with the soccer, and so coached a little league team.

And that’s where you come in. You grew up with the game. You played on that little league team, and are still playing today. You fell in love with the game. Soccer is flourishing in America today and is here to stay – you just have to pass it on.

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Mark Turner is formerly of Oxford, England, but has lived in America for over 16 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. Mark can be followed on Twitter @melchett, or listened to on the Whistle Stop Week (@WSWShow), a news comedy podcast he hosts.

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