“Seeing is believing.”
I’m fairly confident the great majority are privy to this well-known idiom. However, I feel obligated to provide the proper definition: “Only physical or concrete evidence is convincing.”
My recent trip to Chicago validated the reality that soccer is no longer a niche sport in America.
Just over one month ago, 28,000 fans crammed inside Soldier Field to watch on the big screen Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. team take on pre-tournament dark-horses Belgium in the second round of the World Cup—one of many massive public viewing events taking place throughout the country. And despite a narrow 2-1 defeat in extra-time, American fans from coast to coast applauded their team’s effort.
Big name superstar athletes (Kobe Bryant and Lebron James) and major Hollywood players (Tom Hanks and Will Ferrell) came out in droves like never before on social media to show their support of not only U.S. soccer, but the sport itself. As I found out, the influx of viewership and popularity goes beyond being branded with the 'trend' label.
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Touching down at Midway Airport three weeks after the U.S.’s World Cup exit and four days before watching Liverpool take on Greek side Olympiacos in Chicago, soccer-fever continued to spread and quickly becoming engrained in the fabric of American sports culture.
As the picture below depicts; my visit to the home of the Chicago Bears was for leisure not business, so don't judge me too harshly for my 'fanboy' exterior.
The International Champions Cup is merely a pre-season tournament that holds no true value other than an opportunity for North American fans to watch their favourite clubs and players on home soil. Thus, it proved to be a difficult sell to convince my wife that the journey had any merit other than her husband transforming into an adolescent schoolboy for the weekend.
From the moment we stepped off the train, integrating among the hustle and bustle of the famous 'Loop' (downtown Chicago), my preconceived notion of being one of a select few supporters kitted out in soccer swag was quickly extinguished. This was a busy weekend of sports in Chicago: the St. Louis Cardinals were in town to play the hapless hometown Cubs in a big ticket three-day event at Wrigley Field, so an abundance of visiting fans from Missouri were ever present.
The NFL pre-season was a couple weeks away, and the Bears are slowly returning to focus. Tottenham were also in town, taking on the hometown Chicago Fire at Toyota Park—Spurs ended up winning 2-0 with over 17,000 taking in the match.
Major League Soccer has continued its steady growth, with more and more top quality stars realizing the lucrative financial incentives and deciding to make the move abroad. David Villa and Frank Lampard are the latest marquee players to come here, with new expansion side New York City FC. Attendance in MLS is on the rise, with some clubs even out-drawing Major League Baseball teams, but more importantly the on-field product is getting better and better.
Baseball is America's past time, and the NFL garners the most money. Both sports are difficult to knock off their preverbal perch, but the soccer boom is making vast strides. The NBA is another beast that still holds a sizeable lead, but NASCAR viewership is dwindling in recent years, and let’s face it, hockey is only popular in a minority of markets. MLS is gaining ground, assisted by ESPN and FOX Sports investing hundreds of millions on broadcast rights for the English Premier League and the World Cup—America is falling in love with the beautiful game in a major way.
You might say, better late than never.
Just under 16 million people tuned in to watch the United States beat Ghana 2-1 in their group stage match at the World Cup. ESPN underestimated the traffic for live streaming and the entire site crashed during the Americans’ 1-0 defeat to Germany. This summer looks set to be the launch pad that catapults soccer into the sports stratosphere on this side of the pond.
Exploring Chicago in the lead up to game time was more than a simple scenic and culinary touristic experience—it was an eye opener to soccer's popularity and Americans growing knowledge in regards to the sport. Everyday my wife and I would cross paths with multiple strangers from various parts of the country that would either give us the famous Kopites salute of "You'll Never Walk Alone" or begin to chant some of the more intricate club songs. I even chatted with a great number of Spurs supporters about the upcoming season and traded playful jibes—it was all in good fun.
Soldier Field houses 62,000 seats; over 36,000 watched Liverpool edge past Olympiacos 1-0 via an early first-half strike by Raheem Sterling. At half capacity, the sounds reverberating around the iconic football stadium would easily rival a sold out Bears game—yes I said it.
The entire tournament was extremely successful, huge crowds flocked to the various venues across the country to watch their heroes tune up for the upcoming season—even training sessions produced a tremendous turn-out. The largest attendance was in Ann Arbor with over 109,000 filling Michigan Stadium to watch Manchester United take on European Champions Real Madrid. Both clubs were big draws throughout the competition, cracking 50,000 six times (Texas, Colorado and Florida) and 60,000 twice (California and Maryland). Liverpool's 2-0 victory over Milan drew just under 70,000 in North Carolina, and the final—won 3-1 by United over Liverpool—at Sun Life Stadium in Miami was 60 percent full (51,000) despite a torrential downpour before, during and after the match.
Numbers don't lie—yada, yada, yada. However, as I mentioned off the top, when you’re able to witness the change firsthand, statistical confirmation takes a back seat.