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Tipping Point for U.S. Soccer Has Long Passed

The numbers are in on the World Cup, and it appears 40 billion Americans are watching on ESPN, another 40 billion are watching on Univision, and another 120 billion are watching online.
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The numbers are in on the World Cup, and it appears 400 billion Americans are watching on ESPN, another 800 trillion are watching on Univision, and another 120 gazillion are watching online. (Edited to make it clear that this is a comic exaggeration. More realistic numbers here.)

Might be a rounding error in those numbers, but it's clear that the World Cup has accomplished its quadrennial feat of capturing the USA's attention.

That's followed every four years by the pundits in a rush to tell us (A) this was a fluke occurrence by a sport that doesn't interest us or (B) we've hit the tipping point that will help soccer "make it" in this country.

Neither A nor B has it quite right.

The "A" arguments usually come from pundits in denial about the complexity of the sports world. The most egregious entry this year comes from Associated Press columnist, Tim Dahlberg. The arguments are straight out of 1993, save for the random introduction of U.S. league names such as the WUSA (the defunct women's league) and "the MSL," which we'll take to mean Major League Soccer rather than the long-defunct indoor soccer league.

(Quick aside: If Americans really needed more goals to get interested in soccer, we'd all be watching the MISL instead of the World Cup. The MISL is still around after several reconstitutions.)

The AP has a difficult task in sports, trying to cover a diversifying sports scene in an era that doesn't lend itself to doubling its staff. Trying to please everyone isn't easy. Telling people what sports they should not be following can't be helpful.

The "B" argument usually comes not from die-hard soccer fans but from the newly converted. They're earnest and sincere, but their grasp of history isn't necessarily much better than the soccer-bashers.

Soccer has indeed "made it" in the USA, at least as much as it's going to make it for the moment. But the tipping point wasn't a World Cup, David Beckham's first MLS game or anything so dramatic. It happened in the early 1990s with the arrival of the Internet and the rapid expansion of cable and satellite channels.

That's not as exciting as Landon Donovan's goal that wiped out 90 minutes of frustration against Algeria. But it's impossible to overstate how much has changed.

Following professional soccer from within the USA in the early 1990s meant tinkering with a shortwave radio to find the BBC or waiting for the next issue of Soccer America to give a bunch of scores. The Internet made it possible for fans to get together and share scores soon after the fact.

Today, a soccer fan can watch the game virtually every minute of a weekend, from the early morning Premier League broadcasts on ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel through the other European leagues on GolTV to the night's Major League Soccer fare. Night owls can even stay up to catch broadcasts from Australia. Online, fans can get real-time information about everything just shy of Tim Howard's restaurant choice for the evening.

All of this has happened without the involvement of American newspapers, wire services or even the big-time sports blogs. Therefore, it's a bit of a surprise to them that any of it happened.

But it did. Within the 300-million-strong United States is a soccer nation of tens of millions. With each World Cup, each U.S. win over a major soccer power and each MLS expansion, that nation grows a bit more.

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