Thursday, December 02, 2010

A dark day for American Soccer, they’ll be no made in the USA World Cup


Try as they may, those who love what is often called “the beautiful game” of football more commonly called soccer in the United States took a dramatic step backwards Thursday when FIFA the world governing body for soccer awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. With a population of 1.69 million people, Qatar will be the first Arab nation to host the World Cup. In the fourth and final round of voting Qatar beat the American bid, a stunning blow to the United States that hosted their first World Cup in 1994.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed. We put a lot of hard work in. We had a great bid and I think we’ve told a great story that is accurate about American soccer. We’re disappointed for our committee, for the millions of fans that got behind the bid, and everyone that’s been involved, the cities around the country, starting at the White House and President Clinton, who has been fantastic. There’s no other response or feeling that you are going to have in such a situation other than sharp disappointment”, said U.S. Soccer President and Bid Committee Chairman Sunil Gulati.

As one would hope and expect, Gulati took the high road immediately following the announcement, saying the right things.

“We think we had the best story and we think we had a great bid, but I want to congratulate Qatar. We accept the result. Games are won and lost. Sometimes you dominate and lose, sometimes you get outplayed and win, but (this) is not like that. This is an election. Do elections have fair results? As long as the elections are fair then you accept the results. From that perspective, we have no issues.”

Soccer has enjoyed unprecedented growth for the sport in the 16 years since the 1994 World Cup was held in the United States. One of the key legacies from the 1994 World Cup has been the formation of Major League Soccer. With 20 franchises either currently competing in MLS or cites having been awarded expansion franchises and set to join the league in the next few years. There will be no legacy from the World Cup that was never awarded to the United States and a fair issue for American soccer, what will the impact of losing the 2022 bid have on soccer in the United States?

“What we’ve always said is we are on a trend line that’s positive for this sport, whether it’s the league or the national team. I’ve always viewed this as a huge pedal, and a World Cup hosted in the U.S. would give us a foot down on that pedal and take us to a new trend line. So, we are obviously not going to have that. Will that trend line still be positive? Yes. Will we still get to where all of us – where Don and I and others – want to get? The answer is yes. It’s going to take longer. It’s going to be harder. This was a big part of that plan. There’s no way around that.”

Gulati sentiments aside – however he or anyone else associated with soccer in the United States tries to spin this, this is the worst possible outcome. Soccer participation continues to increase dramatically every year – but the age old issue, translating that support into increasing the sport from a spectator and a marketing perspective remains an ongoing challenge.

A look back at some of the key numbers from the 2010 Major League Soccer season paints a picture of an American professional sports league that is nothing more than a Tier II sports league. The so called Tier I sports leagues include the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League. Tier II leagues include the WNBA and what is left of the Arena Football Leagues – sports properties fighting every year to survive. That is the uphill battle MLS faces in the wake of Thursday’s news.

Major League Soccer averaged 16,675 fans per game, an increase of about 4%, the league’s third best figure ever. The Seattle Sounders, who play at Qwest Field (and who do not play at a soccer specific stadium and utilize only the stadium lower bowl) averaged 36,173 fans per game; their average dramatically boosts the league’s overall attendance. Overall the league is playing to 78 percent, a respectable attendance figure.

Television ratings for MLS have not been good. MLS ratings on ESPN2 reportedly fell 12% from last year (284,000, 24 telecasts), and down 2% from 2008 (253,000, 25 telecasts. When compared to ESPN2’s WNBA ratings, the WNBA is attracting more viewers than MLS. ESPN2 averaged 258,000 viewers for WNBA regular season games this year, and Versus averaged 366,000 viewers for IndyCar racing.

According to majorleaguesoccertalk.com, ratings on Fox Soccer Channel were ‘flat’ although terrible might be a more appropriate description. Fox Soccer Channel, whose MLS telecasts aired primarily on Saturday nights, saw its slate of 31 matches average 53,000 viewers this season, flat with last season. Fox's Galaxy-Red Bulls match on August 14, which marked the first game for Red Bulls MF Rafael Marquez, was FSC's most-viewed game telecast this season with 144,000 viewers. To put that into context, Fox Soccer Channel's viewing audience for the 2010-11 opening weekend game between Liverpool and Arsenal was 291,000 viewers (an 8am PT/11am ET broadcast on a Sunday).

"It's very disappointing," MLS commissioner Don Garber offered. "I'm a bit shocked. We ran a great campaign. We felt very good about it. All of the people we met throughout the last two years, including the last two days, told us we were in pretty good shape.

"The sport's in good shape," Garber continued. "It would have accelerated a lot. It would have given us a 12-year target to be able to do a lot of things to get us to where we want to be faster. And now like everything in the soccer business, you've just got to work harder and recognize sometimes you've got to do it the hard way. And that's what we've got to do.

"I am surprised and I'm sure most of America is surprised," Garber said. "I'm disappointed and most of America is disappointed. It's not just soccer fans who took a little shot in the head today. I think it's our entire country, which could have shown the world how passionate we are about the global game and how a diverse country we are to support the most diverse sport in the world.

"So, like everything else, we'll take a deep breath and go back to what we do every day, which is building the game,” he added. “It just might be a little bit harder now. It might take a little bit longer."

What makes the news even more shocking – how did a country with a population of 1.6 million, who has never managed to secure a spot in a World Cup and that is roughly the size of the state of Connecticut win the right to host the most coveted event in sports other than the right to host an Olympic Games? That is what makes this an impossibly bitter pill for American soccer believers to ever accept.

"Mainstream America really doesn't understand the world of international sport," Garber said. "They might ask the same questions about Chicago losing the Olympics."

Clearly the United States of America needs to ask one very important question – why have not two of the most important groups (the International Olympic Committee and FIFA) when offered the chance to send their biggest events to major American cities rejected the United States of America? The economic engine that drives the IOC are American based companies and American television accounting for roughly 57 percent of the IOC’s total dollars and 76 percent of their total television dollars. While not as important to FIFA – why did not FIFA understand their sport might have been able to take a quantum leap forward if the United States had been awarded the 2022 World Cup in terms of American companies investing in soccer?

Sooner rather than later American companies and the American television networks need to deliver a clear and concise message to the IOC and FIFA – you may like the color of our money and our companies but we have an issue if you have no respect for our country.

Both FIFA and the IOC are not exactly democracies when it comes to how they vote for events like the World Cup. The Swiss chapter of anticorruption organization Transparency Int’l had asked for the votes to be postponed until a complete understanding is offered on recent bribery allegations published and broadcast by European news media for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup. Two FIFA officials were suspended for trying to sell their votes and others had been accused of unethical behaviour.

“I am sure FIFA is going to evaluate this process. The President has said in retrospect that they shouldn’t have done two (World Cup bids) at the same time and given some of the other things that have happened along the way, I am sure they are going to review. But that’s up to FIFA and not something I am going to comment on today.” U.S. Soccer President and Bid Committee Chairman Sunil Gulati suggested late Thursday.

“There's no way around it: I am disappointed. Millions of U.S. soccer fans worked hard to bring the World Cup to our country. To come up short is very difficult to take.

“But in the face of this disappointment, we shouldn't lose track of all that we achieved. During the past two years, the outpouring of support for soccer in the United States has been inspiring and historic. More than one million people signed on to our Bid, and more than 100 million watched last summer's World Cup.” Were some of the comments Gulati included in a letter published on US soccer’s website to American soccer fans.

Again comments saying all the right things but at the end of the day – this is a disaster. The North American sports industry is becoming more and more fragmented every year. Consumer disposable dollars continue to shrink at alarming rates. Corporate America clearly has fewer dollars to invest.

There is no good news for soccer in Thursday’s news in the United States – none. The sport of soccer in the United States is a lot like salmon swimming upstream – and we all know what eventually happens for salmon in their struggle to swim upstream.

For SportsBusinessNews.com this is Howard Bloom

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