By Ryan Hogan
In 2010, the first round of the NFL Draft drew more television viewers than two NBA Playoff Games. This meant that sports fan wanted to watch a man read names from a podium more than they wanted to watch a meaningful, important basketball game featuring the league’s marquee player, LeBron James, and its marquee team, the Los Angeles Lakers.
The above incident illustrates just how popular football is in the United States. Think religion with a prolate spheroid. So how can soccer, a sport that has historically struggled for acceptance in America, compete with football when basketball, whose main league has been around for more than 65 years, can’t even compete with the NFL draft?
The answer is it can’t.
Soccer doesn’t have a “Team USA winning the World Cup” chance of usurping football in the United States. It will get trounced every time. Football—the NFL, college, and even high school football—is like those alien entities in science fiction shows that float into the bodies of crew members and take them over. The only difference is a pointy-eared logistician and a brash over-acting captain won’t be coming to the rescue.
Soccer will never overtake football in America. Then again either will baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, or the Second Coming. Conversely, American football won’t rise to the level of popularity soccer enjoys in the rest of the world. Sometimes it looks like American football won’t rise to the level of Sepak Takraw.
That doesn’t stop the NFL from trying (i.e. its annual regular season game in London) nor should soccer stop trying to make inroads in the United States. After all, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber recently told reporters that he oversees the seventh best supported footie league in the world (you may snicker but that’s what he said).
While the NFL could pull a decent television rating just showing a football resting on a kicking tee, there are places in the United States where soccer resembles the “Beautiful Game” much more than “that sport the rest of the world watches.”
Futbol has found a passionate and enthusiastic fan base in the Pacific Northwest, in particular the great states of Washington and Oregon.
The MLS club in Oregon is the Portland Timbers and the one in Washington is the Seattle Sounders FC. Both attract throngs of ravenous fans and their nearly 40-year-rivalry (which dates long before the advent of the MLS) is one of the best in North American soccer. In fact, MLSsoccer.com said it’s the continent’s best rivalry (the cities are separated by 175 miles or a three hour drive).
Additionally, a recent poll conducted by Sports Illustrated Seattle was voted number one and Portland number two as the “best stadium atmospheres for soccer games.” The cities were only separated by one vote.
The Sounders, not the New York Red Bulls or the Los Angeles Galaxy, lead the league in attendance. In 2012, they averaged more than 43,100 fans at CenturyLink Field. By the way, they share that facility with the city’s NFL team, the Seattle Seahawks.
To put the number “43,100” in perspective it’s about 11,000 less than the lowest attended NFL Team (Oakland Raiders) but enough to be ranked third in attendance in Major League Baseball behind the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees (using 2012 figures).
The Sounders have some terrific groups rooting for them including the Emerald City Supporters, Furia Imortal, Easteside Supporters, and Gorilla FC.
Portland plays in a much smaller stadium, Jeld-Wen Field. It holds 20,674 fans including the team’s main supporters group, the Timbers Army.
At the time of writing this article, the Timbers had played two home games as part of their 2013 season. Both games drew 20,674 fans.
Those were larger crowds than the last three Portland Trail Blazers home games. The Blazers belong to the NBA and from their inception in 1970 until the arrival of the Portland Timbers in 2011 they were the city’s only professional sports team.
On Oct. 7, 2012, the Sounders and Timbers dueled in Seattle in front of a crowd of 66,000 fans. What makes that huge number incredible is there was no rock concert after the game, no big name players on rosters, and no playoff berth on the line. The fans came to the pitch that day to see two heated rivals battle for bragging rights. They came to see soccer.
Clearly, there’s a lot of passion for the game in the Pacific Northwest and very little antipathy. Soccer fans in Seattle and Portland are attracted to the game because it’s different, not part of the mainstream, and has an attractive European flare—which, if you live in Seattle or Portland is a big deal.
America will always be ensconced by a devout love of football. That means its draft will out draws other league’s playoff games but it doesn’t mean fans can’t be passionate about other sports. In the Pacific Northwest, soccer isn’t just selling tickets, it’s creating passion. For that, the “Beautiful Game” should be proud.
[You can read more of Ryan’s fine work at one of his many excellent blogs – Bombastic Sports]
Categories: Other Football Topics
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.