Tuesday, June 08, 2010

World Cup 2010 Maybe Best Ever for American Interest

You're probably well aware that World Cup 2010 in South Africa begins this Friday, June 11. ESPN and (partner) ABC will cover it, and they've blasted commercials for months now. I can't remember one event being hyped so much for so long. Clearly ESPN is working the advertising dollars to the max.

And my guess is... it's going to work. The Beckham Experiment (to raise soccer's popularity in the US) may not have done all it was meant to do, but this World Cup may come at just the right time and have just the right ingredients. Let's look at a few reasons why:

Placement. In 2002 the South Korea/Japan hosted World Cup was 13 to 16 hours time difference from the US and suffered limited viewership because most of the prime games started around 2am or 5am in the states. Even thought the US squad exceeded expectations by reaching the final eight teams left, it still was a huge challenge to watch live games. South Africa is a mere 6 to 9 hours difference for American viewers living between the East and West coasts. This means fairly reasonable hours for Easterners (10am and 2:30pm with a few games at 7:30am in the first round only) while people on PST are able to watch most games as well at 7am and 11:30am. This was also the time difference in 2006 with Germany as the host, although America didn't play well in a tough group and had no chance of advancing into the 2nd round. (The US squad did, however, nearly do the unprecedented by almost beating eventual champion Italy with only 9 American players and a late goal taken away from US for a controversial goalie interference along with 2 horrible red cards by poor reffing.) It's certain that more US viewers than ever before will watch these games. We watch March Madness during the workday, we can watch World Cup.

For 2010, a favorable US group draw means America's best chance to advance to the 2nd round. Although England is a heavy group favorite, the US should secure points against Slovenia and Algeria. Not to take them lightly, but we are predicted to advance and Americans have trouble supporting those who don't do well in sports. Let's hope we do advance where anything can happen in the single-elimination format of the 2nd round, and American sports fans can easily cheer for a squad with a chance to pull an upset over a team like (probably) Germany. And we all know how the US is genetically programmed to love a chance at beating not only England but Germany too.

Recent success in South Africa at the Confederations Cup 2009. The US had its most impressive performance last summer on the same soil with late heroics that enabled a left-for-dead squad to miraculously reach the 2nd round where we shocked the world by beating heavyweight Spain 3-2 to advance to the finals. The US then had a 2-0 lead over Brazil at the half but eventually gave up 3 goals and lost to the powerful Brazilians. The US did impress many last summer in South Africa, including building confidence for themselves. Let's hope our boys can run with that memory.

The popularity of soccer is rising here big time. It's estimated that 20 million youths play soccer in America, easily more than any sport. The professional league is also hugely successful as the MLS is now in its 15th season. It started at 10 teams in 1996 and has expanded to 16 current teams which will evolve to 18 teams in 2011. Attendance and money are good despite a troubled US economy that has many other sports teams suffering badly. The women's league, the WPS, is now into their 2nd season and hopes to continue with success where few professional leagues for women have found any. With the ever-growing rise in popularity, a good showing by the US squad under excellent ESPN coverage should do much to bolster new fans.

Since 1930 there have been 18 World Cups held (for men's teams). Like the Olympics it only comes every 4 years, but in contrast teams must qualify for a chance to play and it is viewed by a billion more people. This is the world's most popular sport by far and judging from youth participation, that's also true in the US. In 2018 the US is likely to host its 2nd World Cup. By then I believe we will not only have embraced the event but we may even have a chance at winning one.

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