November 15, 2012
It seems weird to think that just two decades ago I really had no comprehension of soccer as a sport outside of the three years I played back in the early 1980s. I was no star, but I can recall playing some nice games in at keeper and scoring once myself on a penalty kick.
The first iteration of the NASL had become a memory 20 years ago. I honestly can't recall even knowing it existed, but I also never knew anything about the USFL aside from Herschel Walker getting drafted into the league.
With the Atlanta Silverbacks announcing plans for the team moving forward tonight, primarily whether the team will get renamed as the Atlanta Chiefs or Atlanta FC, I've been thinking a bit about how soccer in the U.S. has succeeded since its major rebirth after the 1994 World Cup. Among other things, the Internet and TV gave the sport, and namely Major League Soccer, a chance to succeed.
First, you had the big spectacle of the U.S. hosting the 1994 World Cup and those games getting prime TV coverage. The U.S. even performed better than it had most of the past 50 years, which always matters in America. We love sports, but we love winners even more.
The Internet and premium TV allowed Major League Soccer to build a following at its own pace when it began play in 1996. ESPN 2 had just debuted in 1993 and gave fans a place to follow games that didn't require the pressure for broadcast network-level ratings. ESPN helped NASCAR expand from its Southern roots to become more of a league with a national following. MLS hasn't hit the level of NASCAR yet, but it's a very similar path.
The Internet also started to boom in the mid-1990s, giving fans a new way to keep up with the teams. Since there has never been an MLS team closer than Tampa Bay, Fla., it was near impossible to find stories about any of the league's teams in print or TV news coverage, aside from maybe SportsCenter. But the old mlsnet.com website provided stats, standings, player information, league news and even chances to ask the commissioner questions. When a sports league's commissioner replies to an email you sent, that's a good way to hook in a customer.
Fast-forward to 2012 and the sport is doing quite well in the country. The men's national team looks like it will qualify for the 2016 World Cup, the women just won gold in London, MLS has expanded from 10 to 19 teams, international stars such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry are in the league, and even the second-division NASL will go from eight teams to 11 in just this offseason.
The Internet itself has proved to be the great democratizer many predicted it would be. You can buy stocks online for low prices, businesses can buy and sell products almost anywhere, news and information are everywhere, and it's easier than ever to keep up with friends and acquaintances.
Soccer's success in the U.S. is quite amazing to me considering the struggles it had forever as a professional sport. But I think it's here to stay at a high level, and I can only wonder what the next sport will be to take advantage of new technology to make it big in America.
Michael Buckelew is a contributing writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post.