Friday, July 25, 2014

The Wait For Transcendent

             Two sports are in search of a transcendent figure.  United States soccer and golf worldwide.   Soccer is considered the world’s most popular sport.  The World Cup recently ended and took the world by storm, including the United States.  American supporters bought 196,838 tickets for the World Cup, trailing only fans from Brazil. 
Tiger Woods is still a polarizing figure, but his lack of dominance the last six years in turn with an economy still recovering has impacted golf.  There are many young and talented golfers on tour, but none of them have captured the interest to increase television ratings and interest in the game. 
I must admit that I am a very casual fan of soccer.  I caught myself more intrigued by the World Cup as the tournament progressed and followed the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) closely.  Recently I started working with a group of 5-8 graders in Washington, DC as part of a summer educational program doing an after school fitness elective.  As the World Cup was coming to a close I polled the class on their favorite sports.  Approximately half the class of 27 students raised their hands when I asked was soccer their favorite sport.  The other half liked basketball or both sports equally.  Many of them play organized soccer.
            The United States can have a sense of entitlement that our country has to be the best at everything, especially in regards to athletics.  I watched and read constant analysis on what the United States can do to close the gap and seriously contend for a major competition such as the World Cup. I can remember growing up and very few of my friends if any played soccer.  It was basketball, baseball, and/or football.  But since the inception of Major League Soccer (MLS) and the United States being awarded the World Cup in 1994 and the United States Women’s National Team winning the World Cup in 1999 the popularity of soccer in the United States has grown. 
From my personal observations of the recent World Cup it appeared that other countries simply have better athletes than the United States playing soccer.  Our best athletes will choose football and basketball over soccer.  In other countries such as Brazil and England their best athletes will choose soccer.  It is just the cultural differences that exists.  In the United States soccer is still more of a sport of privilege and structure.  Non-structured participation is just has important in developing the requisite skills in any sport.  I have witnessed more pick up soccer games at parks and fields in recent years than in the past.
The chance that a “special” American born soccer player taking the world by storm has increased.  The students I have worked with this summer are an example of the increased interest and excitement for the sport.
Golf has suffered a decline since the recession in 2007 and Tiger Woods personal and professional decline in 2008-09.   "Tiger Woods changed the game and interest in it," said Pat Rishe, professor of sports economics at Webster University. "We got spoiled by all he did when he was winning. He created a spike in golf that we're unlikely to see again."  According to the National Golf Foundation there were 25.3 million golfers in the U.S. in 2012. However, that's down from 25.7 million in 2011 and 26.1 million in 2010.
Another indicator used to show the decline in golf is the number of golf courses built. The NGF said that only 14 new courses (in 18-hole equivalents) were built in 2013 in the United States, and another 157.5 closed their doors, for a net loss of 143.5 courses.
The affection for football is more about teams.  Basketball is about star power and we have seen how a once in a generation star can take the sport by storm.  The 1980’s spoiled us with several such as Magic, Bird, Dr. J, and rise of Michael Jordan into the 1990’s.  After Jordan’s second retirement in 1998 the media looked to see who would be the next big star. LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2002 as a high school junior looking proclaiming him “The Chosen One”.   Years later it is evident that he has become one of the most polarizing figures in recent memory. 
Golf is still a $75 billion business.  With the economy recovering and our society more interested instant gratification a sport such as golf that is difficult to learn, expensive to practice and play and has lost some of its luster.  Soccer in the United States has achieved a higher profile during the last decade, Veteran midfielder Joe Coe of the Aston Villa of the England Premier League is part of a preseason tour in the United States, "I’ve been coming here (United States) for about 10 years on these preseason tours, and every time I come the interest gets a little bit more. The fans are a little bit more excited to see you," he said. "I think football’s (soccer) growing here, and you saw that with the World Cup. America, I think they’ve done brilliantly, and you feel it’s growing then."
Soccer awaits its first American born transcendent star, golf is in search for the next one to arise and we will have to wait for both.  Soccer in the United States may always have to contend with what basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stated, “Soccer doesn’t express the American ethos as powerfully as our other popular sports: We are a country of pioneers, and we like to see extraordinary effort rewarded... with points.”  The excitement of the World Cup will wane.  The sport will most likely continue its growth in this country and we have to be patient for that special moment to happen with a player or team, if it ever does.  Transcendent is something that cannot be forced.  It just has to happen and an atmosphere in place to allow it.