I often find myself, usually over a beer or two, discussing with fellow Americans the reasons they believe soccer will never be big in the US. It is too slow; it lacks the physicality of American football; America already has its growth sport in NASCAR (we can leave the 'is driving a sport' debate for another day); between college and pro sports there is already enough on the collective sporting plate of the country; the list goes on and on.
The fact of the matter, however, is that it is a growing spectator sport here. Changing demographics, the continued growth of MLS, recent success by the US Men's National Team and better TV access to quality matches in Europe and around the world have all contributed to this. ESPN's growing coverage of the sport, from Saturday morning EPL matches to the MLS game of the week to a growing number of references on Top Plays to the constant hyping of a World Cup which is still three months away all attest to this as well. I recently noted that the US Mens Team's first game of the tournament, against England, will be presented by ABC. Apparently the network expects viewership to rival that of big time games in more mainstream sports.
Perhaps the biggest indication that 'the world's game' is gaining prevalence in the states, however, is its growing prominence as a business story. Though not always welcomed with open arms, US-based financiers have become increasingly enamored of not just the history, but tremendous earnings potential of English teams in particular. And with good reason, as European soccer clubs feature prominently on the annual Forbes list of the richest teams in sports.
So what's the point? Well, over the next few years, both the NBA and the NFL face major labor issues. Strikes and lockouts are not unfamiliar to fans of America's major sports. Some of the biggest, including the baseball labor stoppage in baseball in the 90's and the lost year in the NHL a few years back, arguably caused at least medium-term pain to the leagues. Baseball's labor stoppage hurt ticket sales for a few years until a certain steroid-fuelled home run craze brought casual fans back. Arguably, the NHL has yet to return to its peak pre-strike popularity, though the recent Olympics is sure to help. Despite inevitible rebounds, however, even short- to medium-term dents to profits and popularity would be damaging to the NFL and NBA.
Still waiting for the point? Well, no one could make a logical argument that soccer is anywhere close to supplanting basketball as a major sport in the US. Pro football is even stronger. However, soccer has a foot in the door, and it may only be a matter of time before it steps all the way in. The surest way for the major sports in the US to ensure that soccer is one day counted among their number is to engage in damaging labor stoppages. In addition to the obvious factors, this is another reason why ownership and players representatives should try their best to avoid stoppages while there is still time.