The Olympic torch is out. Baseball is plodding along, one painfully drawn-out at-bat after the next. The U.S. Open tennis tournament is still 11 days away. College and professional football are floating even further in the distance.
But a lot of Americans are looking at this weekend’s sports calendar and thinking red meat: Saturday is the start of the Barclays Premier League season.
That’s football season, if you are reading this anywhere outside of the U.S. In the U.S., we of course call it soccer, as in the perennial question: Will soccer, the most popular sport on the planet, ever take hold here?
The answer is, it already has. It’s just not the U.S. version. Instead, we have fallen in love with England’s Premier League. So maybe we are ready for a new question: Can American soccer ever make it in America?
European soccer is no longer the sports equivalent of free jazz, fetishized by a few who maybe had a relative in London or spent a semester in Barcelona. So deeply has it penetrated mainstream American sports culture that jaw-slackening goals from the Premier League and Spain’s La Liga are now hogging airtime on the closest thing we have to a barometer of our national sports fixations: ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
Consider the soaring television ratings. A decisive late-season match last spring between crosstown rivals Manchester United and Manchester City -- broadcast live on ESPN on a Monday afternoon -- produced the largest U.S. audience ever for a Premier League match on cable TV, attracting 1.033 million viewers. That’s almost twice as many as the previous record holder, a 2010 match between Arsenal and Chelsea. Paltry numbers when compared with the big-time spectator sports in the U.S., yes. (In 2011 the typical NFL game was watched by an average of 17.5 million people.) But what league wouldn’t kill for that sort of growth rate?
Now consider some anecdotal evidence. For all of the millions of kids playing youth soccer here every year, the U.S. has not yet produced a megastar of global stature. What we have produced is a lot of soccer parents. Specifically, soccer dads.
Those guys with “flexible” work schedules, the ones who might have been toting around a diaper bag a decade ago? Now they are on the sidelines of their kids’ games in Sambas and Gerrard jerseys, monitoring their BlackBerrys for updates on their fantasy EPL teams. (Speaking of which: Juan Mata or Eden Hazard at midfield?)
They have presumably discovered the beauty of a game that, at its essence, is incomprehensibly boring and deeply intoxicating at the same time: Is anything ever going to happen? I don’t know, but I obviously can’t leave the couch in case it does.
They have also been masterfully seduced. In the summer of 2003, Manchester United made its first trip to the U.S. in more than 50 years for a slew of “friendlies,” opening the floodgates for what has since become an annual influx of international clubs eager to raise their profile in the U.S. by packing soccer fans into awkwardly reconfigured baseball parks.
While these summer tours may be a financial boon to the clubs and a treat for U.S. soccer fans, they’re not doing much good for professional soccer in the U.S. Strictly speaking, the scores of European soccer clubs and Major League Soccer are not competitors, but even the most rabid fans need to make time to sleep and eat.
It is easy to see who is winning the competition for America’s attention. Last fall, a taped Premier League game on Fox drew almost twice as many viewers as Major League Soccer’s championship match, broadcast on ESPN that same weekend. Liverpool and AC Roma had no trouble selling out their late July match in Boston, pretentiously billed as “Football at Fenway.” Meanwhile, many MLS clubs have been reduced to promotional gimmicks that would make most Class-A baseball teams cringe. (The Colorado Rapids offers a “Lads Night Out” special: $44 gets you two tickets, two beers, two hot dogs and, for some reason, two scarves, which hardly seems something “the lads” would get excited about.)
How can the MLS win back -- or win, period -- its hometown fans? One way, suggested by none other than the L.A. Galaxy’s David Beckham, is for the MLS to lift its salary cap -- to try to beat the EPL at its own game by outbidding them for the world’s biggest soccer stars.
But why add another species of athletic prima donna to our already bloated sports ecosystem? I favor a less costly option: Let’s go with what we’ve got and build on it. I’m not saying the U.S. should be satisfied with a second-tier league. I’m saying it should celebrate what it has already accomplished as a young soccer nation -- not only assembling a women’s team that rules the sport, but also a men’s team that came out of nowhere to qualify for the World Cup in 1990 and hasn’t missed one since. I’m saying we should stop whining about the MLS’s “inferior product,” about all of the talented U.S. players fleeing to Europe for their paydays. I’m saying let’s cut it with the “Lads Night Out” and the faux-European team names like Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas.
And to my fellow soccer dads: How about taking a pass on this year’s home Arsenal jersey, and spending that $84.99 on your local MLS team instead? More money will flow into the league, and before you know it, we will have created an authentic, powerful U.S. soccer culture, something we are never going to do relying on aging ex-Premier League stars and ersatz Euro touches.
(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to the New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,” “The Challenge” and “Death Comes to Happy Valley.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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