Beckham’s Influence Grew Soccer Fanbase
Published: Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 02:12
This past Saturday, more than 4,000 students, parents, media personnel and fans reportedly saw the Georgetown men’s soccer team dispatch San Diego in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Men’s College Cup. Only a few hours later, David Beckham lifted his second MLS Cup over his head in front of a record Home Depot Center audience of 30,510.
On the surface, the two may seem like isolated events, but — maybe in a stretched narrative sense — they are both indicative of the strides soccer has made in North America since 2007, when England’s most prominent superstar crossed the Atlantic.
At that point, soccer was an afterthought in the American sports hierarchy. The United States’ successful World Cup qualifying campaign of 1990 and the founding of Major League Soccer in 1994 were just the first steps taken to put the sport on the map, but soccer was still in its infancy. In 2007, Beckham joined a small league with 13 teams and an average attendance of 15,504. Now, after playing his final game with the LA Galaxy, he leaves a growing empire with 19 clubs and higher attendance figures — 18,807 per game — than the NHL, the NBA and all but six other soccer leagues in the world. Whether it was with soccer enthusiasts or fangirls, Beckham increased the visibility of the sport and the league in America like nobody else could have. A crucial late-season match between Manchester United and Manchester City last year — broadcast live on ESPN on a Monday afternoon — attracted 1.033 million viewers. It was 1/17th the average NFL audience, sure, but still the best U.S. audience for a Premier League match ever. That number is sure to continue to rise.
Soccer may be the future of America, but it is also the present. Rich Luker, a 59-year-old baseball-loving social scientist and the brains behind the ESPN Sports Poll, has found that three soccer players — Lionel Messi (16th), Beckham (20th), and Cristiano Ronaldo (24th) — rank among the 50 most popular athletes in America. According to Luker, despite its recent success, soccer is underperforming in this country. He was one of the minds behind the founding of MLS back in the early ʼ90s, as he realized that there was a large demographic just waiting to be served.
ESPN. “The only game that comes close to that massive number is baseball.”
Luker found that while children under the age of 13 played soccer in overwhelming numbers, high school norms and gender conventions led to the widespread shift to playing American football. Now, though, things are changing.
Whether it is a result of the most popular sports video game in the world, FIFA 13; of the fact that parents are prohibiting their kids from playing collision sports such as football and hockey like never before; or of the reality that lockouts in three of “Big Four” North American sports in recent years have turned some of those leagues’ fans away, men and women of all ages are taking up — and staying with — soccer. Ten percent of Americans — or approximately 33 million people — consider themselves avid soccer fans. According to Luker, that’s only scratching the surface.
“Based on the way it is trending, I believe global soccer will soon be four or five times bigger than it is today and MLS’ fanbase will triple or quadruple,” he said.
Without Messi and Ronaldo abroad and Thierry Henry, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane here at home, none of this would have been possible. David Beckham was the pioneer that cleared the way for stars to come to this league without fear of ridicule. With rumors of the possible arrival of Brazilian star Kaka and the under-the-radar recent signings of Australian midfielder Tim Cahill and Italian centerback Alessandro Nesta, MLS is no longer a league of retreads — it has become a force to be reckoned with. Soccer has finally come of age in America, and it’s time we gave Beckham the credit he deserves for raising it.
Arik Parnass is a sophomore in the College. This is the final appearance of CANDID CANADIAN this semester.