Bill Press: Will soccer fever fizzle?

Bill Press: Will soccer fever fizzle?
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Pity the poor columnist, scheduled to produce a column every week — even when nothing’s going on. 

Like now. It’s the dog days of summer. Congress is doing nothing. Neither is President Obama. Late-night comics are on reruns. Nightly news shows are running special reports on cupcakes, hotdog eating contests and thunderstorms. What to write about in the middle of July? 

Thank God for the World Cup, which some are calling the best soccer playoff ever. Sports fans worldwide certainly think so. In 2010, 3.2 billion people — nearly half the world’s population — watched the World Cup from home. This year’s games will top that record. Sunday’s nail-biting finale between Germany and Argentina drew the biggest TV audience ever in Germany, at 34.65 million. In the United Kingdom, between BBC and ITV, another 20.5 million signed on. Worldwide, it’s estimated that more than a billion people tuned in Sunday afternoon alone.   

And it’s not just hard-core sports fans; even non-sport fans like me couldn’t help but be drawn in. While watching Sunday’s final match with friends at Pacifico Cantina’s bar on Capitol Hill, I calculated I’d actually watched all or part of seven World Cup matches. That’s probably more time than I’ve spent watching professional sports — baseball, football, basketball, golf — in my entire life. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

Why? There are several factors: because Team USA got off to such a strong start; because the World Cup was held in our hemisphere for the first time since 1994; because all the games were played in the afternoon or during prime time hours. But there’s one other factor: because more and more Americans have discovered that soccer’s fun to watch. It’s free of all the corporate propaganda that dominates Major League Baseball and NFL broadcasts — there are no commercials for new cars, laundry detergents or erectile dysfunction pills. Instead, there’s just 90 minutes or more of pure, intense, nonstop, captivating teamwork and footwork.

Of course the big question is, what happens now? Will Americans just forget about soccer for the next four years, until the next World Cup? Will we ever catch up with the rest of the world and embrace soccer with the same passion with which we follow baseball, basketball or football? Both are unlikely. But there are hopeful signs. There were more Americans in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup than visitors from any other country. Today, soccer’s the third most-played team sport in the U.S. And Sunday’s broadcast on ESPN/ABC was the most-watched match of this year’s World Cup, and the third highest-rated soccer match ever nationwide. 

For some, it’s a philosophical question. Some conservatives argue we don’t like soccer because it’s too much of a team sport, that we Americans value individualism. Some liberals say it just proves how ignorant we are about the rest of the world. Personally, I think it’s a lot less complicated: We’ll embrace soccer with more gusto once American teams improve and start winning more games. We might even call it “futball.”

I don’t know about you, but I hated to see the World Cup end. I’m hooked.


Press is host of “The Bill Press Show” on Free Speech TV and author of The Obama Hate Machine.