The marketeers never cease to amaze me in their willingness to try anything.
Here in America and at least in recent times, soccer hasn't enjoyed what one could call, with a straight face, success. In fact, American soccer history is riddled with regional turf wars, mismanagement and failed leagues which have resulted in what appears from the modern era to resemble a perfect sine wave.
One has to go back to the late teens and early 1920's to find what could realistically be called the Golden Era of American soccer. Both the American Soccer League and the National Football League were but fledglings at this point, however they were surprisingly equal in terms of franchises and fan attendance. The ASL averaged about 10,000 people per game, which doesn't sound like a lot until you remember it's 1920 and the total population of the USA was roughly 1/4 of what it is today.
But it was not to last. By the time the Great Depression was in full tilt the ASL began to fall apart at the seams. While the ASL was a relative powerhouse of a league for it's time (even by world standards), it wasn't the first to fail in America and it certainly wouldn't be the last.
In the mid 1960's American soccer enjoyed a resurgence of sorts. Soccer's grassroots base, especially in ethnic communities, along with the increase in popularity of spectator sports in general gave enough of a boost for the idea of again trying to unite the various regional soccer leagues into a top tier national league. The North American Soccer League was the final result of this interest. The league was by no means a national smash, however it culminated in 1975 with the signing of Pelé. Althoug Pelé had recently retired, he was still by far the most well known footballer in all the world (and probably still is). His entrance into the league inspired an increase in league investment and overall fan interest. But again, it was not to be. By 1985 both the NASL and the United Soccer League ("the other white meat") had failed.
Under these circumstances it would seem the last thing American soccer needed was to attempt a bid to host the World Cup. Yet that's exactly what the USSF did in 1987-88 for the 1994 tournament, which ultimately was successful. The result of the wildly successful 1994 Cup, which averaged over 65,000 per game, was the current incarnation of a professional, American soccer league: Major League Soccer.
Now in it's 10th year, even though the league is more popular then when it began, one could still be forgiven for thinking that American soccer is virtually non-existent. Granted, ESPN now actually shows soccer games, however the widespread acceptance of the game has been snail slow.
Which brings me to the entire point of this post. I recently saw an ad for a new movie coming out called "Goal!". It's your basic family feel good film, rated PG, which chronicles the journey of a young athlete from a rough neighborhood (in LA) to the grand pitch of the English Premier League. As I recall the list of movies about soccer that I've seen through the years, it seems that 80% of them have followed this same basic script. Well, now that I think about it….almost all movies about sports revolve around that central theme of those who cannot becoming those who can.
What is interesting about this particular movie, as opposed to all the others I remember, is that this one is being marketed as a major feature film. They're banking on the success of this film being directly related to the interest in this summer's World Cup, being hosted by Germany. For someone like myself, who has been playing the game since he was 4 years old and has loved it ever since, that might not be a bad bet. But for all those millions upon millions of "mainstream" Americans who have never truly accepted the game, it might be a joke. From my reading of history, I'd say one can make money off of soccer in the USA, but only if their timing is impeccable. So the marketeers behind this movie may strike gold once…but I'd bet my golden boots that they'll attempt it one too many times in the aftermath of the Cup's championship game.
And because they don't truly understand where soccer came from in the U.S. they won't understand that the interest they're banking on is just the latest in a long series of bubbles. The question is how many products, services and promotions will we see related to soccer in the coming months….and when will that interest pop?
Update: Time's opinion on the matter….the future of American sports??