Maybe it’s the latent colonial in me, but I’m pretty fascinated by football in America. Football in Europe probably reached its critical mass a long time ago, but in America it’s just getting started, and there’s something exciting about that, because America’s an exciting place, right? With that in mind, I read a piece by Brian Phillips last week in response to comments made by Sepp Blatter (yep, he’s back). This time our old friend Joseph was offending Americans by accusing them of sitting on their collective arse (paraphrasing slightly here) since they hosted the World Cup in ‘94. I’m guessing his main supporting evidence is the fact that, 18 years later, MLS is not a bigger deal than the NFL.
Seen from Sepp’s position the situation is pretty simple: we [FIFA] bestowed our highest honour on America, and it has repaid us with idleness and a lack of progress. Coming from an organisation that literally exists on corporate dining and finger buffets, this really was quite an insult.
There is an obvious flaw in Blatter’s comments, which is the fact that football/soccer has been successful in America. MLS has average attendances that rival Ligue 1 in France, and could well overtake Italy’s Serie A during the next few years. But, that’s not what’s eating Blatter (if only something would eat Blatter). No, he’s disappointed because football isn’t part of mainstream US culture, yet. This reality hurts FIFA, because the premise of their all singing and dancing (literally in ’94, thanks to Diana Ross) tournament is that it can change the world. You just drop a World Cup somewhere and KABOOM – thriving football culture everywhere.
I’ve visited the US a few times, and in truth, this isn’t the reality. It can be easier to find a televised bowling tournament than a football match. But, that doesn’t mean it’s failed to put down roots (a point articulated by Phillips in his response). I think you can make a pretty good comparison with US beer, another area of personal interest. The mainstream is dominated by Budweiser (let’s call that the NFL of beers), Coors (MLB) and Miller (NBA). At a first glance that’s pretty much all you can get, and it’s everywhere. But, you don’t have to look too far before you realise there’s an array of thriving local breweries out there making great beer, and lots of people are enjoying their products. The mainstream still sell more, but the smaller breweries are slowly eating into their market share. Told you it was a good comparison.
I’d like to put the question back to FIFA, and Blatter, by asking what the plan was in 1994 to spread awareness of the tournament in a country without an established professional league and with no mainstream media interest. If no one is watching it other than the people who are already interested in football, then what difference does a world cup make? Answer: zero. But, FIFA being FIFA, they can add zero plus zero and get one. If America hosted a world cup now, then you can bet you’d see a hell of a difference. Interest has grown to that point that mainstream media would have to respond, and the buzz in areas that have developed successful MLS teams would be huge. When you look at the venues for the 94 World Cup you’re struck not only by the stadiums, many of which are completely inappropriate, but that there was nothing in the North West, widely regarded as America’s main football heartland. Good planning!
It’s ironic that the US should be criticised for patient incremental growth in their domestic league, whereas many large European clubs have been driven to the point of financial ruin, but that point is probably lost on the wisdom of FIFA’s glorious Executive Committee. There are no similar case studies to what is happening in the US. No one has introduced a professional football league into a country where it is competing with three other mainstream sports, or four if you include ice hockey.
America built this league from scratch. It’s unlikely that it’s ever going to compete with the status and revenues of the Champions League, but it doesn’t have to in order to be successful. It needs to create enough interest to spread football fan culture as far and as wide as possible so that, over time, it becomes impossible for the mainstream media to ignore it.
I wrote a couple of other pieces about football in the US: Soccer in the Deep South (self explanatory title), and The American Outlaws (about an organised fan group that supports the US national team).