June 11, 2010 11:30 pm

The growing tribe of US soccer nerds

Americans are largest single group of foreign fans at World Cup

You don’t see many foreign fans here in Johannesburg, but the largest single group of them are Americans. People in the US bought more tickets for this World Cup than any other visiting country. “In the public sale, it’s more than the next two countries combined,” notes a proud Sunil Gulati, president of the US Soccer Federation.

Contrary to foreign belief, the US is now a proper soccer nation. When their team takes on England in Rustenburg on Saturday, millions of Americans will be watching, even if they won’t all be supporting the US. Since about 2005, globalisation has spread the game through this country like never before.

It’s odd to remember how the World Cup of 1990 was watched in the US. Back then American kids already dutifully kicked balls under parental guidance in groomed suburban parks, but the tournament was seen only by a few freaks, on semi-illicit cable channels, where commercials kept interrupting games. It was about as marginal as watching dwarf-throwing.

Since then, the US has globalised fast. Significantly, it’s the two most globalised groups of Americans who follow soccer most keenly. The first group consists of immigrants: about 45m Hispanics now live in the US, mostly from soccer-mad Mexico. The second group is the educated elite. David Downs, executive director of the US bid committee to host the World Cup in 2018 or (more likely) 2022, says of America’s soccer hotbeds: “It’s not necessarily the dusty farms of the heartland, as it is the suburbs of Washington DC or San Francisco.”

TV had always been the missing limb of American soccer. That changed on February 7, 2005, when the Fox Soccer Channel arrived. ESPN spotted the new constituency, too. Suddenly you could sit on the couch in Minneapolis and watch soccer nonstop all weekend, and some people do. There’s a growing American tribe of “soccer nerds”, who insist on calling the game “football” and can knock you out with long analyses of Manchester City’s defensive issues.

“It’s the folks who watch the Premier League at 10am on Saturdays,” explains Gulati. “It’s the folks that watch the Mexican league, the Salvadorean league, the Italian league.” Some folks even watch the Australian league.

All these folks will be watching the World Cup. American TV companies shelled out $425m for the rights to the 2010 and 2014 tournaments, then the biggest such deal done in any country. The US was only the 13th biggest TV market for the tournament in 2002, in absolute numbers of viewers. By 2006, it had jumped to eighth, notes Kevin Alavy of futures sport + entertainment, the agency that monitors these things. This year the US should rank higher still.

Foreigners who carp that Americans don’t watch their own professional league miss the point. Major League Soccer is only one piece in the mosaic of US soccer culture. In any case, Americans now do watch it: the league’s average attendance last season of 18,452 exceeded that of the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, though soccer teams play fewer games.

Visiting New York a fortnight ago, I found more references to the World Cup than in Paris, where I live. New Yorkers went about in soccer shirts, buses carried ads for TV coverage and bars had signs urging people to watch the games with them. Just before the US team flew to South Africa, they were received at the White House by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Normally, the only time you see two presidents together is for a humanitarian disaster.

Both presidents are pushing the US bid to host a World Cup. Gulati says this fits with Obama’s general strategy of “reaching out”. “It’s the Cairo speech issue: reaching out to the world in a different way, which frankly makes it easier to carry a blue passport.” All those Americans watching in Rustenburg or from couches and bars on Saturday are a sign: US daily life is globalising.

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