The day I graduated high school, I went home and watched the World Cup. In fact, I was late to a post-graduation party, because I was watching a random World Cup match between two teams I couldn’t name now and didn’t particularly care about then.
This was 1994. I spent that summer watching as many World Cup games as I could manage. It wasn’t because the United States was doing well, although that was part of it. It wasn’t because I followed international soccer; I didn’t. It wasn’t because I was a great soccer player; I stunk. It was because soccer had always been a part of my life, and now it was on TV all the time, being played at an incredible level by charismatic stars. All my friends were watching, so I did, too.
We didn’t think soccer was an extraordinary powerhouse sport that was going to talk over the country and destroy every other sport in its wake. We just thought it was part of the sports landscape, something you watched if you were a sports fan, just like the NBA playoffs and the NCAA tournament and any other momentous event.
I thought about this when my former Post colleague Brian Straus of Sports Illustrated was on 106.7 The Fan recently. He talked about the dismissive attitude toward soccer that many mainstream journalists had for years, and the fact that such attitudes are going away, because all of us who grew up during that 1994 World Cup are in charge now. We’re the ones editing Web sites and newspapers, and programming radio stations, and deciding what is important and what isn’t.
Look at how Web sites like SB Nation and Deadspin and For the Win — staffed largely by people in their 20s and 30s — are covering this World Cup. The content is extensive, and interesting, and beautiful, and constant, and there is virtually no twaddle about whether or not the World Cup deserves blanket coverage in America. It’s not even a question. Sports fans my age are interested in the World Cup, because the World Cup is a sporting event worthy of interest. What’s to debate?
(And also, we bet on it. I’m in two World Cup pools, plus I have a [completely friendly] bet with a co-worker about whether the champion will hail from Europe or South America. I have South America. Go Colombia.)
And so I have seen portions of virtually every match this year. My Twitter feed is filled with soccer talk every afternoon. I’ve watched matches with my daughter, who is normally loathe to watch sports. I’ve memorized the teams in every group, just the way I would memorize the NCAA tournament bracket. And I will of course watch this tournament every step of the way, because I’m a 37-year-old white dude sports fan, and that’s what we do.
Which brings me to John Feinstein. I actually love Feinstein — even if I’ve occasionally taken cheap shots at him — and his weekly appearance with the Junkies on 106.7 The Fan is among my favorite radio segments of the week. In fact, I go back and listen the weeks I don’t hear him live; his takes might be hot, but sometimes we all need a little heat in our lives. But I kind of got fired up when he was asked about World Cup buzz last week.
— DavidDunn (@ImDavidDunn) June 23, 2014
“Look, the World Cup is a big deal, and if the Americans are successful people will be interested in the entire World Cup,” he said. “As soon as the Americans are out — I mean, people are going to watch the final, obviously — but let’s say the Americans lose in the round of 16. Or let’s say they…don’t make the knockout round….People aren’t going to watch the round of 16 games between whoever and whoever. They’ll watch the final no matter who plays, but again, go back to that 1999 women’s [tournament]. It was about the fact that the USA was doing well. It wasn’t about the fact that people all of a sudden were enamored with women’s soccer.”
Here’s the thing: that’s just wrong. In 2010, the World Cup quarterfinals — with no American presence — rated higher than group play, which included three U.S. matches. In other words, more people started watching after the U.S. was eliminated. (Group play on the ESPN networks averaged a 1.6 rating; the quarterfinal matches averaged a 2.5 rating.)
In 2010, the round of 16 (excluding U.S.-Ghana) also rated higher than group play, which included U.S. matches. And the U.S. was eliminated in the first day of round of 16 play. (Group play on the ESPN networks averaged that 1.6. rating; the 7 non-U.S. round of 16 games averaged a 2.1 rating.) Again, as the matches got more interesting and important, more people watched, even without the Americans being involved.
Heck, the fabulous Germany-Ghana game on Saturday — which, sure, had U.S. implications — got a 3.4 fast national rating, making it the highest-rated non-U.S. match before the semifinal round in ESPN/ESPN2 history. More and more people are watching games that don’t involve the Americans, because more and more people are recognizing that this thing is worth watching.
And look at some of the individual numbers in D.C. this month. Japan-Greece — a scoreless match between two international also-rans — got a 5.2 in D.C. Uruguay-England got a 4.6. Brazil-Croatia got a 5.1. Spain-Netherlands got a 4.7. These are games out of the U.S. group. They aren’t even potential round of 16 opponents. They’re just random matches between random teams that huge numbers of D.C. sports fans are watching. (And these ratings don’t include the Spanish-language broadcasts.) These ratings are comparable to the Wizards playoff ratings against the Bulls. And the NBA is not considered niche.
“At least on our show, this World Cup seems to have more heat than the World Cups of the past,” J.P. Flaim said to Feinstein. “I get a sense that the popularity of the sport IS growing, partly because people will now tune into the Premier League, partly because people will play FIFA online if you’re a gamer, and you’re seeing more and more kids with jerseys of international soccer players. What’s your take on all of it?”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s grown,” Feinstein said. “But remember, I go back to the late 1970s when I covered the Washington Diplomats in the old North American Soccer League, and the slogan of the league was ‘Soccer: The Sport of the ’80s.’ And in the ’80s the NASL went out of business. So when people start to get all fired up, and say ‘oh, soccer is the next hot sport,’…I kind of go ok, when we’re not chanting U-S-A, let’s see how excited we are….
“Sure, soccer has grown,” Feinstein said. “I think the Premier League being on NBC every Saturday and Sunday has had an effect on popularity. Kids have been playing the sport for a long, long time now. I mean, that was the thing back in the ’70s: when these kids who are playing now grow up, soccer is going to boom. Well they’re all grown up, and soccer has grown, but it certainly hasn’t boomed. It’s going to be a niche sport that bubbles up every four years if the U.S. is competitive in the World Cup.
“Go back and check when Landon Donovan scored that goal that got the U.S. into the knockout round, remember, there were people running out of bars and hugging each other, there was huge interest going into the game against Ghana in the round of 16 last time,” Feinstein said. “And if the U.S. makes the knockout round this time…then there’s gonna be all sorts of excitement. There’s no question about it. But then the World Cup will end, and everybody will go back, and instead of 15,000 people at the next D.C. United game, there might be 17,000 people. Again, it’s an improvement, it’s all good. But it’s always going to be the NFL 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 in popularity, [then] baseball, the NBA, college football, college basketball, hockey, and then you get to golf and soccer down there.”
I mean, maybe. I don’t know the order. All I know is for 20 years, I’ve been watching as much World Cup soccer as I can get my eyes on, and my friends are the same way. I’m one of those kids who was playing soccer and has now grown up. And as TV viewership includes more and more people who grew up with the World Cup being an assumed part of life as a sports fan, I just can’t imagine “niche” will remain the correct word.
(Unless you consider everything outside of the NFL a niche sport. Which is probably a fair argument.)