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Forget World Cup Fever: Soccer Will Never Be a Major Player in the US

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Hank Stern

"The World Cup will propel soccer to unprecedented heights in the United States"--Signed, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 and now, 2014."

For 40 years, we've been hearing that our country would soon transform into a soccer-playing juggernaut. Hundreds of soccer-obsessed kids in Tualatin Hills' Parks and Rec program in Washington County, circa the 1970s, thrilled to Peter Withe, Jimmy Kelly and all the original Timbers' takeover of Portland's sports soul in 1975. Those kids are now parents, watching their own children play "the beautiful game".

Many of them now watch World Cup soccer every four years and marvel at the magic top-notch soccer players can weave on a soccer field.

But in that last sentence lies the word that puts the lie to the quadrennial promise that prompted this piece. The word is "top-notch." And no one can say Major Soccer League (MLS) in any way resembles that word--nor will it ever.

The U.S. sports fan is smart enough to recognize that it's certainly not top-notch now.

Don't be fooled by passionate sellout crowds at soccer matches in Portland and Seattle. Overall, Major League Soccer attendance this year is flat this season.

And even if you believe those overall attendance numbers are somehow an anomaly, MLS' TV ratings remain test-pattern worthy, not only compared to other U.S. sports, but to ratings in this country from U.S. eyeballs watching other soccer leagues.

MLS's much-touted recent TV deal is couch change compared to TV contracts for other sports in this country, leading one to believe that soccer on its best day resembles the remark one sportswriter famously replied when asked why sold-out hockey arenas didn't translate to better TV numbers: "There are 20,000 hockey fans in every city. They're all at the game."

So why is that the case? Why will the World Cup television ratings prove so fleeting once the tournament ends? Because calling something "Major League" doesn't somehow make it so. MLS will never be top-notch.

USA Soccer Fan

Just as Kevin Love didn't grow up in Lake Oswego dreaming of playing pro basketball in Turkey, the next Messi will not grow up in Argentina dreaming of playing for the Timbers. He will dream of making millions upon millions in La Liga. Any other Argentinian, or German, or Ghanian, or whomever comes from overseas will be second-tier at best.

And don't think the current generation of U.S. kids getting started in kick 'n' chase are stupid, either. If any one of them gets as good as Ronaldo, that player will leave for big bucks overseas, too.

Second-rate status

The economics of pro sports relegate U.S. professional soccer to perpetual second-rate status. The sports calendar is too crowded in this country: Long-established spectator sports generate massive TV ratings that in turn generate massive dollars that in turn generate top dollar for the world's best basketball, baseball, hockey and football players.

And please spare me the theory that all these soccer-playing kids will one day grow up to be a fan base on par with the NFL or NBA. That's been the promise for 40 years now.       

Soccer is a blast to play and one of the easiest and cheapest sports to pick up for the average young athlete. There are lots of children riding their bikes, too, yet fewer people argue that this will be the next pro sport to take off.

So having enjoyed the World Cup, by all means keeping cheering the Timbers on at Providence Park. Just realize the rest of the country is now switching the dial to the NFL and college football, followed by baseball's postseason, followed by the start of the NHL and NBA seasons, followed by ...

Not much room for unprecedented heights in that, is there?


Hank Stern

A native Oregonian, Hank Stern had a 24-year career in journalism, working for more than a decade as a reporter with The Associated Press in Oregon, New Jersey and Washington, DC. He worked seven years for The Oregonian as a reporter in east Multnomah County, Washington County and Portland’s City Hall. In 2005, he became Willamette Week’s managing news editor and worked there until 2011.


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