America’s World Cup Fever

Filed under: Orlando Sport |

 Orlando City Soccer - Wall Street Watch Party - USA vs Belgium, Orlando, Florida - 1 July 2014 (Photographer: Nigel Worrall)

When I moved to America some 17 years ago, very few people were bothered about the World Cup or had even watched a game of soccer on TV. Despite the fact that the U.S. Men’s National Team had qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years in 1990 and that the United States actually hosted the tournament in 1994, it seemed that the world’s greatest game was never going to take off in America. Today, at the end of a fabulous World Cup in Brazil, some 27.280 million U.S. viewers watched the World Cup Final alone. It seems that at no time in American history has the game been more popular in the United States.

The breakdown of that number shows that ABC’s national English language broadcast drew 17,324,000 viewers and an additional 657,000 online viewers. Univision’s national Spanish language broadcast drew 9.2 million viewers and another 99,000 online.

What’s even more remarkable is that the numbers above do not include the viewing parties or other group gatherings that were hosted around the United States and, as you may have heard, there were some pretty big ones! Here in Orlando, Orlando City Soccer Club hosted numerous parties at a packed out Wall Street and some estimates have those crowds at between 5,000 and 11,000 people for the different games. It was the same in other parts of the country as folks came together to support their teams and to rejoice or commiserate with each other depending on the result.

Just as you were beginning to wonder where this great nation was heading, something came along to startle you into realizing once again why America is so great. The World Cup. The people. All over the nation, people of all races, creeds, colors, backgrounds put aside their differences and became one. Some fantastic moments brought together by the only thing that’s capable of doing it. Sport. Soccer… the world’s most popular game.

Orlando City Soccer - Wall Street Watch Party - USA vs Belgium, Orlando, Florida - 1 July 2014 (Photographer: Nigel Worrall)

The 2014 FIFA World Cup ranks as the most-viewed World Cup ever on English-language TV in the United States. ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC combined to average 4,557,000 viewers and a 2.8 US household rating for the 64 matches, marking increases of 39 percent and 96 percent (vs. 3,273,000 in 2010 and 2,321,000 in 2006), and 33 percent and 75 percent (vs. 2.1 in 2010 and 1.6 in 2006), respectively. The top metered markets in the USA for the World Cup Final were Washington, D.C., San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orlando, and New York in that order.

It’s quite plain to see, despite the rantings of pundits like Ann Coulter and the disrespect shown by the Orlando Sentinel’s Beth Kassab, that soccer is now here to stay. It’s taken a while for the grassroots to establish itself but sheer demographics point to the fact that the game isn’t going to disappear like it did previously in the 1920’s when it was last so popular.

It may take some by surprise to learn that soccer almost established itself back then as an open immigration policy saw a booming economy that allowed factories to employ large numbers of European workers, who brought a love of soccer with them to their new country.

The American Soccer League was born in 1921 and American teams started luring players from some of the top clubs in Europe. Before long, there were 50 European internationals, players good enough to be included on their countries’ national teams, playing in the American league. There were also some great American players to go along with all the stars from Europe. Players like Archie Stark, born in Glasgow but emigrated to the United States aged 13, who scored 232 goals in 205 appearances for Bethlehem Steel. Add in, two of the greatest players in American history, Bert Patenaude and Billy Gonsalves who played for the United States in the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930. Patenaude was the guy who scored the first World Cup hat-trick while Gonsalves was known as “the Babe Ruth of American soccer” as Team USA came third in the tournament.

The ASL was riding high until just before that first World Cup but it all collapsed in disputes with the United States Football Association and the onset of the Great Depression that started in 1929.

Orlando City Soccer - Wall Street Watch Party - USA vs Belgium, Orlando, Florida - 1 July 2014 (Photographer: Nigel Worrall)

So soccer has been here before, but this time the demographics point to support at grass roots level that will surely sustain it for good. With the game being the number one participation sport in the United States, with over 24 million young athletes playing the game and it being the most popular sport for those aged 12 to 24, outstripping NBA, MLB and college football, it seems that America has finally caught onto the game the rest of the world loves.

It’s exciting and here in Orlando the game continues to go from strength to strength. The amazing success that Orlando City Soccer Club has had since it started in 2011 has fueled the local desire for the game. It seems that everything has finally come together.

In 2015, Orlando City Soccer Club will become the 21st Major League Soccer club. It will join a league that ranks third in largest average attendances in US professional sports leagues, ahead of NBA and NHL. In fact, Orlando, as a USL PRO team, with 20,886 turning up for its Championship game in 2013, has already pulled in more than the Orlando Magic has ever done in 25 years of playing in the city.

Soccer truly has arrived and it won’t be too long before we’re seriously talking about it being the number one sport in America… mark my words.

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