I'm a big soccer fan and especially a big fan of the World Cup. I think it's the best international competition around -- even better than the Olympics. The first World Cup game I ever saw I caught because I was flipping around the channels in 1982 and stopped on the France/West Germany semi-final. That game is still considered one of the most thrilling and famous World Cup games of all time. Or infamous, depending on your point of view. You see, there was a flying hit by the West German goaltender that knocked a French player into a coma. It would have been a personal foul, an ejection and a suspension in the NFL. No foul was called.
But I digress. That game was thrilling because both teams scored two goals in extra time and West Germany eventually won the game on penalty kicks. The drama in that game was incredible. I've been hooked on the World Cup ever since.
My interest in soccer outside of international competitions was pretty slim, however. I did attend a couple of indoor soccer games in the 1980s, which was the only kind of professional soccer played in the United States in those days. But that was more for the experience than anything else. I certainly didn't care much who won the MISL title. No one else seemed to either, since that league, like the NASL before it, went belly-up.
I certainly paid no attention to the European leagues as well. Not surprisingly, because unless you were part of an underground of European ex-pats who traded tapes around, there was no way to watch the games. Almost no newspaper even carried the scores. If you spoke Spanish and lived in an area with a Spanish-language TV station (and I didn't), I suppose you could have watched the Mexican League games. But in reality, your options to watch soccer were slim outside of Team USA games.
Major League Soccer got its start in the mid-1990s and it came close to going bankrupt by the turn of the millennium as well. But then three things happened. One, the U.S. Women's National Team won the 1999 Women's World Cup, which at least turned those women into celebrities that got coverage in newspapers and on ESPN. Then the Men's team made the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup, which further raised the profile of the sport. Then came David Beckham, and MLS had the star power it needed to get at least some exposure in the media.
You could now follow MLS without being a hardcore fan, and I did. I picked the Galaxy as my team, more for Landon Donovan than Beckham. Then I followed Donovan as he was loaned out to Everton, where U.S. goalie Tim Howard was as well. So I said Everton was my English team, although with maybe two games a year on weekday afternoons on ESPN, my interest was pretty mild beyond checking the recaps to see how Donovan and Howard did.
This past season, however, NBC provided the Premier League equivalent of Extra Innings free along with your cable subscription. So now I can watch every Everton game, as long as I'm willing to get up early in the morning. I did and now I'm hooked.
I'm still not a really hardcore fan. After all, I do still call it "soccer" and not "football." (That's a story for another time.) But soccer has probably passed American football and hockey as my second favorite sport. We can debate the merits and demerits of the game at another time, but seriously, every spot has pluses and minuses. It just happens that you're willing to overlook the minuses in some sports to get the pluses.
But what I'm getting at here is that I watch every Everton and Galaxy game that I can and I still watch hundreds of baseball games a year. With the massive TV ratings that the US team's games are getting in the World Cup, there have been a lot of stories about how soccer is rising and how baseball is dying. (Don't believe me? Just google "World Cup Ratings baseball" in Google News and you'll get dozens of articles about how the World Cup is pulling in higher ratings than the World Series. Some go on to say that baseball is in trouble because of this.)
The World Cup is a once-in-every-four-years event, like the Olympics. The Olympics get massive ratings too. Yet no one is tuning in on a Saturday afternoon to sit down and watch a run-of-the-mill track meet. Both the World Cup and the Olympics give every American a rooting interest. If the World Series is between Boston and St. Louis and you don't care about either team or either city, you probably aren't tuning in. But there really isn't anyone in this country that doesn't have an opinion about America, one way or the other. The World Cup is a chance to remind everyone that no matter how little we have in common as a nation, we are still one nation. Americans like to celebrate that, even in a sport that we generally don't know a lot about.
One thing that baseball can learn from soccer is that exposure is king. Having every World Cup game (or Barclays Premier League game) televised is huge for the sport. Having "Good Morning America" talk about the upcoming games is huge. Boxing used to be the second-biggest sport in this country after baseball. Then all the big fights went to closed-circuit pay-per-view and the sport's popularity has dried up. The rise of the NFL coincides with their national TV contracts, combined with most baseball teams (not the Cubs, of course) trying to "protect the gate" by not televising home games in the 1960s. Making sure that your games are available to casual fans is the way to turn them into hardcore fans. This is one area where the Cubs have always been ahead of the rest of MLB. They can't let that change.
Soccer is growing and will continue to grow on these shores. I look forward to the day when MLS takes its rightful place in the American sports consciousness and ESPN refers to the "five major American sports leagues" rather than four. That day is probably sooner rather than later. MLS has a higher average attendance at their games than either the NBA or the NHL.
But the success of the MLS is not coming at baseball's expense. For one, TV ratings for MLS games are still terrible, and they're having a lot of trouble signing a new national TV contract. And this is a really big country. There are 318 million people living in this country at last estimate. There is room for the growth of soccer without it coming at the expense of baseball.
If you don't believe me, just ask US Head Coach Jürgen Klinsmann: "Soccer is breaking through and gets its deserved recognition without taking anything away from the other big American sports."
What is the most-attended sports league in the world? I don't think I have to tell you that it's Major League Baseball, with 74 million total attendance in 2013. But in second-place in NPB, which had 22 million fans last year. Add in the 41 million that attended all the minor league games in 2013, and baseball isn't having any problem getting fans in the United States or Asia.
You might say that's because baseball leagues play so many games, and you'd be right. Average attendance is lower, but still healthy at over 30 thousand a game. And it doesn't really matter that they play so many games: a ticket sold is a ticket sold. If the NFL played 160 games a year, they wouldn't draw 64,000 for each game either. (Not the least because most of their players would be dead by game 30, but I digress again.)
On top of this, baseball is growing internationally. This is one area that I stand firmly behind Commissioner Selig: his belief that the game needs to grow overseas. I love the World Baseball Classic and dream of the day when that tournament gets the kind of attention and respect that the FIFA World Cup does. I know that some fans hate these overseas regular season games, but they're crucial for spreading the influence of the game worldwide. In a world brought together with instant satellite communications and the internet, it's no longer enough to limit your market to only one country.
Baseball is in great shape. Television ratings are down because television ratings are down everywhere. But more and more people are watching the game on the internet, which doesn't get counted in those totals. People have been writing that baseball is dying and that Americans are turning to different sports since, since, oh, I don't know, the 1880s probably. Maybe earlier. And it's still here and drawing over 100 million fans a year between the majors and minors.
As I said, I love soccer. I love the World Cup. This isn't an Ann Coulter rant that soccer is awful because it's full of foreigners and foreigners are awful or Keith Olbermann's rant that soccer is bad because. . . well, I'm not sure what Olbermann's point is. I think he's overreacting to people arguing that soccer is going to replace baseball. Soccer is going to grow in this country. MLS is going to grow. The European Leagues are going to grow on these shores. But that's not going to crowd out baseball. There's room for both. And if MLB does its job right, Europe and South America are going to have to make a little room for baseball as well.
The Wolrd Cup TV ratings mean absolutely nothing for the health of baseball.
Baseball holds a special place in American culture. There's no evidence that is changing at all.