June 24, 2014

World Cup overflows: Is this the year soccer catches on?

Many fans still doubt soccer can catch on in the U.S. after the World Cup ends — but television networks and other businesses seem to be banking on it.

The chants are loud and passionate in bars and living rooms across North Texas: “I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!”

About 300 patrons of all ages yelled it in unison at the top of their lungs as they watched the U.S. soccer team play Portugal at Boomer Jack’s restaurant in far north Fort Worth. Many of the fans wore red, white and blue face paint on their cheeks, cosmetic stars and stripes waving with each bite of cheeseburger.

The interest in the U.S. has taken on historic proportions — ESPN reported that its Sunday broadcast of that game, which ended in a 2-2 draw, was the most-viewed soccer match in American history, with an average of 18.2 million viewers and a peak of 22.9 million viewers during the final half-hour of the match.

Diehard fans disagree over whether this could be the year “The Beautiful Game,” as it’s known in the rest of the world, finally catches on in America and sticks once the World Cup is over.

“Until now, it has been once every four years, but if the U.S. can advance it’s going to make it mainstream,” said Justin resident Sergio Oporto, 40, a Fidelity Investments fund broker who watched the game at Boomer Jack’s on Sunday.

On the other hand, one of his friends, Melissa Montes, 23, of Fort Worth predicted that once the month-long tournament ends Americans will go back to football, basketball and the other traditional mainstream sports.

“The passion comes from rooting for your country, and getting everyone together,” she said. “Once the World Cup is over, I don’t think it will have changed much.”

But the business world seems to be banking on an American soccer breakthrough — especially as it relates to TV.

Cable and satellite channels now routinely broadcast European league soccer games, including the English Premier League on NBC Sports, and Italian and Spanish league games on beIN Sport. Fox Sports has signed a deal to broadcast Germany’s Bundesliga games beginning in 2015.

And the main U.S. professional league, Major League Soccer, is quickly gaining popularity among young people.

Among 12- to 17-year olds, MLS is now just as popular as Major League Baseball, according to an ESPN Sports Poll. About 18 percent of people in that age group — the coveted consumers of tomorrow — say they’re “avid” fans of MLS, which includes FC Dallas.

In 2012, the poll concluded that soccer was the second most popular sport among U.S. respondents ages 12-24, second only to the National Football League and ahead of pro basketball and baseball and college football, according to ESPN. The ESPN Sports Poll includes interviews with 1,500 people per month, measuring attitudes on 31 sports.

The enthusiasm will likely reach fever pitch Thursday, when the U.S. plays Germany for a chance to advance to the knockout rounds of the month-long tournament in Brazil.

Of course, Americans’ appetite for soccer is dwarfed by enthusiasm for American football. In February, for example, 111.5 million viewers watched the Seattle Seahawks win the Super Bowl, the most watched TV program in U.S. history.

The World Cup, by contrast, plays on a more global stage. An estimated 700 million people worldwide are expected to watch the tournament final July 13, according to FIFA, the sport’s international governing body.

‘The difference is the emotion’

While passion for the U.S. national team is relatively new, the tradition is deeply embedded among many Hispanic Americans.

The strong feelings were definitely on display across the Metroplex Monday as Mexico — a national team followed almost religiously by many Hispanic Fort Worth residents — beat Croatia 3-1 to advance to the World Cup round of 16.

Sports fans unfamiliar with soccer may be puzzled and perhaps upset to learn of U.S. citizens rooting for another country. But before 1990, the U.S. didn’t have much of a competitive team to root for. Many soccer fans, particularly those from Hispanic families, grew up watching Mexico’s team on television, and they’re still loyal to it.

“The difference is the emotion. A single pass can drive a man to tears,” said Robert Espino, 21, a Texas Christian University political science student. On a recent afternoon at Nuevo Leon restaurant near Fort Worth’s Stockyards, Espino and about a dozen friends and family members watched Mexico play Brazil to a 0-0 draw.

Espino, a Nolan Catholic High School graduate, describes himself as a casual soccer fan. Mostly, he looks forward to gatherings with his extended family. Around them, Espino finds himself rooting for Mexico even though he has only visited the country a handful of times as a youth.

“It has to be worth watching for me to tune in,” he said.

Faced with a hypothetical choice of whether to root for Mexico or the U.S., Espino thought about his answer carefully before deciding he would probably root for the U.S.

“U.S soccer does need more passionate fans,” he said. “Mexico already has it.”

Soccer fan Juan Rivas, 27, of Fort Worth said he has seen a change in Americans’ attitudes toward soccer since 1996, when MLS started league play.

Since then, a whole generation of American youth has grown up with professional soccer. For children, it’s no longer about playing recreational soccer until age 12 and then moving on to some other sport.

With a growing Hispanic population and an unprecedented number of soccer games on television, the stage is set for continued growth.

But Rivas, who plays on a recreational team called the Red Dragons at the Blue Sky indoor soccer center in Keller, also believes nothing replaces the magic of World Cup play. No matter how popular pro soccer becomes, he said, it can’t top the passion that only comes around once every four years.

“The World Cup is the first and only time the U.S. as a whole gets together and roots for one team,” he said. “You don’t have that with any other team sport.”

Soccer cards hot sellers

A Grapevine businessman has been pleasantly surprised by enthusiasm for soccer this year.

Scott Pierce, owner of SMP Sports Cards, said he is quickly plowing through his seventh case of soccer trading cards and stickers, which are made by Irving-based Panini America. That’s more than 10,000 soccer cards sold.

The cards, known as Panini Prizms, sell for $5 a pack, with six cards in each pack. They feature images, and occasionally even autographs, of players from around the world. For example, Pierce’s store has a rare, limited-edition Panini card featuring star Argentina player Lionel Messi, which is valued at perhaps $400. Only seven of the Messi cards were made.

“I’ve done this for 27 years, so I was a little bit hesitant to handle them,” he said. “But we have been selling a lot of them.”

Most of the Prizm cards are bought by adult collectors seeking an autographed card that can be resold on the secondary market.

Pierce said he has also sold about 30 Panini trading card sticker books, which cost $2 each, and are favored by children, teen-agers and a college-age collectors. Collectors buy the books, and then separately buy stickers in packs of seven for $1 each.

“We have traditionally struggled to sell soccer every year, but when you’re selling during a World Cup year it definitely helps,” he said.

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