Thursday, April 12, 2007

Hello America. My Name is Football...

{Disclaimer} Despite being the world's most popular sport, I am going to refer to football as soccer for the duration of this post because that is what we like to call it and the rest of the planet's terminology doesn't really matter {/Disclaimer}

It's not often you'll find me writing about sports over here at One Five Place but I just borrowed a great movie from Dino that sparked my interest. Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos does a great job documenting the rise and fall of the North American Soccer League through the eyes of the once legendary New York Cosmos. I'll do my best to summarize for those of you unfamiliar with the story but you really should check out the movie as I'll never be able to do it justice. It all basically started with a dream from a few Warner executives and a handful of optimistic yet naive investors. To say the league started off with little fanfare or public interest would be an understatement. To put things into perspective, at this point in time, the majority of North Americans didn't even know how to spell "soccer" (and no, that wasn't a swing at our wonderful education system). In order to make this thing take off, the founders were smart enough to realize that they needed to find a real star; an extraordinarily difficult task considering there were no real soccer players in the country at the time.

Enter Pele. Coming off his last year playing in Brazil, Pele was seduced to America with a offer to play for the New York Cosmos and an unheard of contract somewhere in the range of 4 - 5 million dollars. This would make him by far the highest paid athlete in America and it's no surprise that the country took notice. Other teams in the league quickly followed suit and began importing the greatest players from around the world. It's ironic to note that this single action resulted in the rise of the game in both the public and media's eyes but was also the main factor for its' collapse. The market just wasn't ready to support the capital required to sustain these high profile players and super stadiums and would very quickly collapse under the pressure. The final blow came from network television (surprise, surprise!) after they pulled the plug on the game due to low ratings. And that was it. With a lifespan no greater that that of a bull frog, the dream was over; soccer in North America was officially dead.

Now, It's nothing new to claim that North America is an ignorantly isolated and self centric continent (I apologize for grouping Canada into this sweeping generalization but unfortunately we do tend to pick up some of the less than faltering characteristics of our friends to the south) but why hasn't soccer been able to grow? I could spend the rest of the night coming up with explanations as to why it has not but being the forward-thinking idealist I am (or would like to be), I would rather look at reasons why it still could. Here are my thoughts:

1.) Major League Soccer - Formed in 1993, this is a much more organized and well managed league than before and with the addition of our very own Toronto FC, it now has 13 clubs in 13 solid markets with attendance climbing every day.

2.) David Beckham - Say what you want about the man but you can't deny that he is a star. By no means in the same sense as Pele was but a star in every way. I would even go as far as to say that he is our generation's equivalent given our current "style over substance" cultural state of mind. His marriage to Posh Spice and celebrity jet setting ways have already peaked our interest in the sport and now he will be playing in our league.

3.) Niche Television - The television market is very different now than it was in the late 70's and the opportunity for soccer has never been better. In fact, 70% of MLS games this year will be broadcast on network television with the remaining available via subscription.

4.) Highly Targeted Advertising - As audiences become increasingly segmented and marketers become increasingly sophisticated, the niche market has never been so attractive. It wouldn't be out of the ordinary for seemingly mass media advertisers to go after a market as targeted as this. Thus creating a constant revenue stream for the league and the broadcasters.

5.) Immigration - With more and more families coming to North America from countries where soccer is a fact of life, it won't take long for their influence to weave itself into our culture. Plus, just think of all the children of immigrates that will grow up and dream of becoming famous North American soccer players rather than baseball, hockey, or football.

6.) The Internet - The world wide web has made access to information so easy that we don't have to rely on a single network executive to spoon feed us our entertainment. At any time, day or night, we have the ability to check scores, watch live feeds, review highlights, etc. all from the comfort of our homes.

As you can see, the opportunity for soccer in North America has never been greater and I hope the sport finally receives the attention, respect, and passion it deserves as it truly is a beautiful game.

image via theoriginaltony