Sunday, June 11, 2006

What could 2006 mean for US soccer?

With the US just 12-hours away from starting their World Cup trip, I’m wondering what their time in Germany could mean for soccer in America. What happens in the worse or best case scenario. Worse case would see the US go home after their 3 group matches, having not scored a single goal or earned a point. Best case, they go on a 7-game winning streak that seems them not only dominate their group but also beat Germany, England and Brazil on their way to holding the great trophy.

What would happen to Major League Soccer?
In 2002, many said that if the US fell bad, MLS might just fall with them. That was an easy guess to make because the team had just lost 2 teams, only had one team with a stadium and every team was in the red. However, now you have four stadiums (with 5 teams playing in them), they are adding a team next year (who will come in with a stadium) and at least one team, and maybe three will see the black.

So the difference between best and worse might just mean a few extra folks coming through the gates. How many? Well in 2002, average attendance per match* increased over 2001 by 900 per match (5.7%). However, in 1998 MLS saw a 300 (2.1%) person per match drop over 1997. That said the MLS saw their biggest increase in attendance between 2000 and 2001 when attendance went up by about 1200 (8.8%) people per match. Perhaps the World Cup results mean little when it comes to the MLS.

What about youth participation?
I cannot locate good numbers for recent years, so I will need to look at some older trends. When one looks at the number of high school students playing soccer between 1987 and 1997, you see that soccer almost doubled their numbers from 280,000 to 550,000. During the same period, basketball went from 900,000 to 1,000,000; football went from 900,000 to 920,000; and baseball went from 400,000 to 425,000.

Why did soccer see such a jump? Could it be that the US qualifying for the 1990 and then host the 1994 World Cup raised the profile of the game and made it an attractive game for young athletes to play? If so, could a bad tournament decrease the interest of those in high school?

How about general perception?
Those who are not fans of US soccer still see the national team as the 1998 joke that it was. If the team fell out in disgrace, it would not matter to most people because they are not expecting much. Yes, they would be able to say, “I knew the sucked” (if they say anything at all) and then not think about it again till 2010, and there would probably be a few people who came in during the excitement of 2002 that would walk away, but a flop would just mean four more years of waiting.

However, if the US won it all, how could people say that the team is anything but amazing? The idea of the squad being a nothing on the world stage would be forever erased (although there would be those who say it was a fluke). In addition, it might help soccer teams in the MLS and USL get more local assistance when it comes to building stadiums or increase youth playing fields or other such thing. It would also see an increase in the number of US players being invited to play for good European teams.

The biggest danger of the best-case scenario would be going too far too fast. I don’t really think this is a good enough reason not to cheer for the best, but there is the possibility that people would not pay any more attention to it then they already do. If that were to happen, perhaps nothing could bring soccer into the mainstream of the US sport’s world.

A good place to look for an example of best case is hockey. In 1980, the miracle on ice took place. When the US hockey team beat the Soviet Union and then went on to take the gold, they captured the attention of the entire country (even outside of the traditional Great Lakes area). This did not see a huge burst in support for hockey in the country right away, but the numbers did grow. The NHL was able to make use of this growth in the 1990s when the expanded their league to such spots as Dallas, San Jose and Nashville. One can argue that their expansion was done poorly, which it was, but it’s not too far of a stretch to say that the great result in 1980 helped set the stage for what came a decade later.

So what might this World Cup end up meaning to US soccer? I don’t think that question will be answered anytime soon. A worse case might just slow the development the game for a few years, while a best case could give it that extra push to truly move it into the realm of the big four (NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL), but with all odds we will not see the full realization of the 2006 results for a decade.

*MLS average attendance per match
1996: 17,406
1997: 14,619
1998: 14,312
1999: 14,282
2000: 13,756
2001: 14,961
2002: 15,821
2003: 14,899



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Big fan of MLS Soccer and the USMNT.

1:57 PM  

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