Face the facts: Soccer has found its niche in U.S.

by | CBSSports.com Columnist
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It can surely be said (unless of course you're Comrade Doyel, in which case God only knows what his position here would be) that Sunday's Women's World Cup final was a great sporting event. A great sporting event.

But therein lies the answer to the next question, the one being asked over and over and over again by a seeming army of pundits, commentators and gasbags everywhere: "Has soccer finally made it in America?"

And the answer is, "Soccer as an event has made it. Soccer as a sport ... not quite so much."

You won't get performances quite like Japan's very often, even though it was the identical performance the Americans offered a week before against Brazil. In fact, it was an extraordinary show on plenty of levels even after you got past the "Soccer saves a country from its doldrums" angle that was being pounded into our skulls every 67 seconds or so.

But the reason why so many people watched the match, and became engrossed in the tale, is because we as a culture embrace sporting events when they are events, as opposed to sports.

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It is why there won't be any bounce for Women's Professional Soccer, and why Megan Rapinoe won't be trending on Twitter ever again, and why Abby Wambach won't get her own syndicated talk show. The same reason why MLS hasn't become our version of the English Premiership, and why track and field matters to us only once every four years, and on and on and on, and the same story it has always been.

Because we love events where we can be assured the very best of anything is being gathered for our entertainment. Great, sprawling, self-important events that grab us by the cheeks and shake our faces -- and then disappear again.

Now as we sense soccer fans' blood vessel beginning to swell and explode, when we say "we," we mean "we" in the casual-attention-span sense, which is the largest part of our nation. This is not about the inherent value of the sport or those who believe in it. You should still enjoy it with the same fervor you have now, while understanding that Sterling in the next cubicle is under no obligation to agree with you, and is not some sort of slack-jawed mutant for not doing so. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Put another way, don't yell in this direction. We like the sport.

But the backhand here also remains true. We all have our favorite sports, and soccer is the favorite sport for an incrementally, almost agonizingly so, growing but hardly booming segment of the population. There is greater attention paid to the Premiership, to La Liga, and to the men's national team as well, but that's because we are getting what we want in an event:

The sense that these are the best players available for viewing. We love watching the best; we're so-so on second-best, and thoroughly disinterested in third through infinity-best.

The event over, Abby Wambach and the U.S. women's team will fade into the background once again. (AP)  
The event over, Abby Wambach and the U.S. women's team will fade into the background once again. (AP)  
It does not translate to the marketing opportunities across the board that the celebrity machine always predicts, because in a throwaway culture like ours, events get thrown away and are replaced by new ones with breathtaking speed. This fact does not obscure the level of entertainment viewers received Sunday -- it was, again, marvelous stuff -- but it is not the springboard to an entirely new way of viewing the sporting landscape. That argument has been tried too many times to be of value.

Sunday, then, was a victory for an event -- the Women's World Cup. It will have your attention four years from now in Canada because you have seen the possibilities. Japan's performance was truly electrifying, America's was soccer in a nutshell (every wasted opportunity comes back to sear your soul), and nobody came away feeling cheated. In was in some ways an even purer outcome than last Sunday's against Brazil because it didn't have the backdrop of wonky officiating or beating one of the big kids. Japan was America seven days later, and the number of people who recognize that as a good thing is far fewer than that of those who do not.

But it is not a revolution in the making. Viewers will not linger on the WWC long, because we have made ourselves the masters of the short attention span. We have one more thing to care about when it comes along, and that's nothing to be rebuked or mocked, but it isn't the lecture that convinces the class that the teacher was right all along.

It is, however, an interesting lesson that pries open a few more minds just a little bit wider. It shows that soccer can be entertaining, at the highest level, and that more of us will devote 2½ hours to its care and feeding in our skulls. That much, frankly, we already knew by watching the ratings for the Champions League final, which had no Americans in it whatsoever.

And it isn't the end of other sports as we know them. It may mean that big-event soccer doesn't sit at the kiddie table any more, but it's not the same as getting the big piece of chicken. And that's not a bad thing. Your entertainment values shouldn't be defined by how many other people watch it with you. If you liked it, fabulous. If you want to talk about it today, run and be free.

But leave Sterling in the next cubicle alone. He remains entitled not to care.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com.

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