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On Soccer, Tennis, and American Interest

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Twelve years ago, you wouldn't have cared. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Twelve years ago, you wouldn't have cared. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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I've always had a fascination with sports on the 'smaller stage' and their hopes to become more widely accepted in this country.  It first really materialized back in the 90s when baseball had the McGwire/Sosa home run race.  In those first few years after the '90s strike, baseball was down in a big way; football was the clear king of sports, basketball had not yet needed to address its 'ghetto' image of the time, and hockey was at its highest level of acceptance in history.

I didn't realize it at the time, but that was the moment where this little fascination was born: immediately after McGwire broke Maris's home run record, one of the sports networks (ESPN most likely, but I forget which) had a microphone in the face of some really old baseball high-up who was singing the praises of the sport and declaring it to be "right back on top" - even above football.  (I remember the exact phrasing to this day.)  My reaction was: how am I supposed to believe that baseball is "on top" if it takes a 90-year old to say it? 

It was one of those times that I was right and the elder statesman was not.  Sure, baseball enjoyed a surge.  The problem was that the other three sports were all firing up at roughly that same time.  By December, nothing of that season was remembered except for the home run race, and the fixation on home runs grew to the point of obsession within MLB for several years.

But the main point of all this is that it takes a lot of time and patience to build increased support for a sport, even for a traditional giant like baseball.  The NFL got to the top the slow, steady way - by retooling its product to be more television- and family-friendly and taking advantage of opportunities like the NFL-AFL merger.  There was no 'magic moment' in football where the sport was suddenly engraved on hearts across the country.  Those moments were merely small etchings that, over time, accumulated to create a football culture.

Soccer and tennis face the same challenge today, even after Wednesday's tremendous events.

Right now, there are plenty of Youtuberies available showing people celebrating in sports bars and in the streets following Landon Donovan's fantastic goal in stoppage time.  If Wednesday's snapshot of American interest in soccer were to be considered an indicator, then soccer would have to be seen as one of the top three sports in the country.  It's not.  Yet.

The emotional rush comes from two levels.  First, there are the 'actual' soccer fans who would be following the World Cup even if the U.S. had not qualified.  Second are the 'American' fans; many may have a passing interest in the sport, but are really rooting for the team because of national interest rather than love of the game.  I would wager that we're seeing most of the emotion coming from the latter group, as it is much larger than the former.  But the number of actual fans in this country are far greater than 10 years ago, thanks to the U.S. women's team.

At one point, soccer became trendy on television because the women's national team was the best in the world.  Players like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain were advertised like crazy while the team was rolling over everybody else.  (Anything you can do, I can do better...)  At that moment, soccer had two elements in this country that it had never enjoyed before:  international success and highly marketable personalities.  (Some would point to Pele and the Cosmos as the genesis of modern interest, but Pele was never relatable as  'American' and that popularity waned as soon as Pele's stint was over.)  The women's team made themselves visible and (equally importantly) made themselves sustainable.  Their success carried over several years, allowing people to become acclimated to cheering for them.  It wasn't much, but it was a start.

And slowly from there, the sport found opportunities to grow.  The men's team slowly became more competitive in international play.  Pro soccer began to be sustainable via the MLS.  Rules limiting the number of international players in MLS created a balance between bringing in the world's best (well, as good as we could entice) and keeping domestic names and faces in the game.

That brings us to today.  Soccer has spent nearly two decades building the foundation for national fan support, and that work is the reason that many people were willing to watch the game today.  (If that exact game had happened 12 years ago, it would have been a 1-minute byline story on SportsCenter.)  It's not just the avid fan that made Wednesday's game a big deal, it was the number of people who finally felt comfortable openly cheering for American soccer without worrying about being labeled a Eurotrash futbol fan.

Soccer has done a brilliant job of marketing itself this time around.  Have you noticed that references to the "beautiful game" are far fewer than in previous World Cups?  Or that there isn't this insistence on calling it football and not calling it soccer?  Or, most importantly, that nobody's telling the non-fans that "you just don't understand"?  The real beauty of soccer is that it's such a simple game rather than a complex one.  (American football is what happens when soccer gets complex.)  Like any quality simple game, the strategy can get surprisingly deep, but the underlying concepts are easily grasped by very new observers: kick ball in net, don't use hands, play as a team, and don't fight.  That lack of pretense made soccer much easier for non-fans to accept because it felt honest.

Watching France implode didn't hurt either.

Contrast that to tennis.  Today we'll watch the conclusion of the most epic tennis match in history.  (I say that confidently, even while it's not finished, because the Isner-Mahut game is so far beyond normalcy that it cannot help but be legendary.)  In all honesty, this match is far more pivotal than the US soccer game; the World Cup match was a great game that fell our way, but this tennis match just doesn't happen.  But even if Isner wins, tennis will see no increase in interest after a couple of weeks.

After the glory years of McEnroe/Connor and the resurgent years of Agassi/Sampras, tennis - much like soccer - became perceived as a sport for 'other' countries.  Unlike soccer, however, tennis did not look for ways to increase American interest in the domestic product.  Tennis's popularity in the early 2000s actually hinged on the Eastern European supermodel players; while they made for great eye candy, it just didn't make tennis feel any more accessible.  And the Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday game can't change that on its own.

That's not to say that tennis is unpopular in this country or that tennis could become the top sport in the nation.  Far from it on both counts, actually.  Tennis has simply not taken the time to build the foundation for growth like soccer has.  If tennis were to start today, they might see gains in 6-10 years.  Until then, tennis will roll steadily along and simply maintain.

But hey, not everything has to be long-term.  Isner is in the best tennis match ever played.  Even if nobody will suddenly become a tennis fan after this match, there's no reason to not enjoy it for the moment.

Especially if he beats the French.