At last, Americans becoming soccer fans

Good news for those of us who love soccer and want the game to keep growing: U.S. television ratings for the World Cup have been very good so far, and many sports analysts are predicting that the United States will soon become a major soccer power.

I know what you are thinking — we've heard this before.

Ever since the 1994 World Cup was played in the United States, we have been reading reports that Americans are no longer thinking of soccer as an amateur game for women and children — there are more than three million kids registered with the U.S. Youth Soccer Association — but are joining the rest of the world as big-time fans of men's soccer. And yet, the day when Americans massively embrace the most global sport has yet to come.

But there are signs that, at long last, soccer is catching on in America. Shortly before the start of the World Cup, the Fox network pushed back its usual Saturday afternoon major league baseball coverage for three hours to broadcast the European Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. It may have been the first time in American TV history that a soccer match not involving the U.S. team or outside the World Cup displaced a baseball game.

Simultaneously, Vanity Fair magazine's May cover featured Portugal's national team star Cristiano Ronaldo and Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba in underpants, and shortly thereafter, Sports Illustrated carried a World Cup cover story under the title, "The beautiful game."

As the World Cup started in South Africa last Friday, FIFA — the tournament's organizers — said that 130,000 U.S. residents had flown to Johannesburg to watch the games, more than had come from any other country.

ABC, ESPN and Univision have together spent $425 million for the games' U.S. broadcast rights, more than 10 times what U.S. networks paid for the last World Cup in 2002 and more than was paid by networks from any other single country.

Stephen Master, the vice president of sports for Nielsen, the ratings company, told me that the June 12 U.S.-England game drew 14.5 million viewers on ABC and Univision, a record for a first-round World Cup game.

"The American audience is truly embracing soccer like they never had before; the numbers are phenomenal," Master said. "A lot of it has to do with the excitement generated in mobile applications and social media before the World Cup."

Before the World Cup start, Nike posted a three-minute promotional movie on YouTube that drew 15 million views, he said.

"We have a tool called Buzzmetrics that looks at tens of millions of blogs and websites and measures what America is talking about in cyberspace, and we found more online postings about the World Cup soccer than about any other sports," he added.

Many of my friends in the diplomatic world are already speculating that the more Americans embrace soccer, the better the U.S. national team will be, and the greater opportunities there will be for U.S. presidents to resort to "soccer diplomacy."

Much like Brazil uses its five-time World Cup champion national team to do goodwill performances around the world — Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva recently offered to have his national team play against a united Israeli-Palestinian team — President Barack Obama, who grew up playing soccer in Indonesia, could use a first-class U.S. soccer team to help build bridges with unfriendly countries, they say.

Others are less optimistic about the growth of U.S. soccer. They point out that while the ratings of the U.S.-England game were good, it was behind the U.S.-Romania, U.S.-Brazil and Brazil-Italy games in the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States, and below the 2006 Italy-France World Cup Final.

Skeptics point out that for soccer to really take off in the United States, FIFA will have to change some rules to allow more goals because too many Americans grow impatient in low-score games.

My opinion: Soccer will keep growing in America, especially if the U.S. team does reasonably well this year and if — as seems likely — the United States wins its bid to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cup when that decision is made in December.

Becoming a soccer power would be great, not only because it would bring more Americans closer to the rest of the world, but also because it would elevate what many of us already consider the world's most exciting game.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132; e-mail:

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