The beautiful game and its beautiful fanbase


All those pizza parties and orange slices and Igloo cylinders full of warm, watered-down Gatorade and Honda Odysseys with the sticky movie theater floors and the mysterious gray streaks on the third row seats have finally paid off.

Soccer has planted its checkered offsides flag into the heart of America.

We’ve declared this before, 1994 to be exact. But this time, it’s for real. This time it’s because the sport, and the people who love the sport—are beautiful (scroll down about 17 paragraphs if you’d like to cut to: The Why).

Yes, it’s been two decades since the US hosted its first World Cup. We played for respectability and respectable our showing was. The home team advanced beyond the group and eventually fell to eventual winner Brazil, 1–0 (pronounced “one-nil”). Then it seemed the buzz was around keeping soccer top-of-mind.

To drum up support for this strange sport the undersized kids who can’t sing or dance play in high school, the MLS was founded the year prior to our hosting. Though the league’s struggles were mighty and well-documented after World Cup fever subsided to a very manageable rumble in the tummy, the MLS survived its financial hiccups and now thrives today.

By this time next year, the league will have expanded to 21 teams from its original 10. Though MLS players still might not be able to wash the jocks of their European club counterparts, eager second- and third-city fan bases—wanting for any kind of professional sports action to kill time between Tinder radio silences, craft brew sessions over concrete floors and $35 date meals at the restaurant with tables made from reclaimed barn wood, which gives barns a secondary use as something other than a backdrop for engagement photos, attracting the wry grin sect with a chalkboard menu featuring something grass-fed slightly more edible than the guy with the smelly beard at the Whole Foods salad bar earlier that day—are quickly pushing the profit margins of their clubs into the “Big-three” American sports stratosphere.

Because not everyone is 24, electric scooting around San Francisco’s young adult mall-for-the-temporarily-monied South Beach neighborhood raking in double whatever is in their parents’ IRA per tax return for stringing alphanumeric lines together to build yet another soon-to-fail cloud storage device that’s blowing through Rust Belt pensions as start-up funding.

Not everyone is recruited to Goldman from Wharton and has the soul of a happy-hour-seeking drone to work in finance and have post-lunch conversations on the regular that start with the words, “Don’t worry, nobody-will-be-prosecuted, they weren’t last time.”

In other words, the Southwest hub cities need sport too.

Case in point: The Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake, two MLS franchises that have become the ticket in town and guiding forces that have pushed the league to draw more than six million last year, that’s more than both the NHL and the NBA.

The hipster chic ethos of MLS has accomplished the reverse from what happened the same year Kurt Cobain could simply no longer bear to be Mr. Courtney Love. Fanfare has spilled over into this World Cup play and it is seen manifested mightily across the land and not just from the Mormon mall storefronts of Trolley Square or the lo-fi beery bluster of Burnside. The sport is entering its defining moment in the US, this season.

The summer of 2014 belongs to real flowers in your hair and fake nails and the ironic poncho at Coachella. No filters and no designation of it on the Instagram. Beards that have become mustaches that have become goatees. Men’s hair that’s getting long on top and ever short on the sides and over the eyes kind of like Jordan Catalano’s and women’s hair that is an angular grown-out bob and has a pink or red streak in it and over the eyes kind of like Angela Chase’s.

This year is food trucks, and not just the grilled cheese kind but the fusion kind that serves mofongo on a slider and bacon-infused hotcakes or vindaloo crepes and brisket pops. It’s forearm tattoos of something beyond irony and explanation like a piece of burnt toast. It’s multi-colored Wayfarers and thinking about buying a record player and ironic one-or-two word Twitter bios like: Master debaser …and, of course, It’s. All. About. Soccer.

As you read this, week two of 4.5 of World Cup action comes to a close and by now you’re talking about groups more than since you had to participate in work-mandated anger management. The Council of the Americas, prior to the first game of the tournament, reported more tickets were sold in this year’s World Cup to fans from the US than any other nation, save host Brazil. Italy, Britian, Germany, Argentina …even Portugal, countries who take this month off from doing whatever-it-is-they do (plus naps) to strip off their replica jerseys and paint their chests and roll out all their fan base’s fabulous faces.

ESPN, whose ratings have been bogged down by static and sanctimonious coverage of the performance-enhanced and bloated NFL, the shuffling regular-season NBA and the moribund MLB, has faced hundreds of layoffs and an almost 12 percent drop in viewer share year over year from 2012 to 2013.

Lo and behold, the World Cup ratings bonanza: The Los Angeles Times last week reported the first-round group matches shattered all television viewing records worldwide for a sporting event …or a moon landing. The Times said record numbers were set in Brazil, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Argentina, France, the Netherlands, Croatia, Italy, and yes, even the U.S.

Almost 43 million watched Brazil and Croatia on Brazilian channel TV Globo, the highest sports broadcast of 2014, according to FIFA. More than 11 million people watched the USA beat Ghana on ESPN, which was a record high for ESPN’s coverage of men’s FIFA World Cup matches. England and Italy’s opener attracted more than 14 million on BBC1 in the UK and 12.8 million on RAI 1, the highest TV audiences in both countries in 2014, according to FIFA.

And that was just first-round action.

Sure, it’s not the Super Bowl (111 million tuned in), but it’s also not the Super Bowl: FIFA reports a larger audience at the end of the games than at the beginning. The Super Bowl’s viewership dropped by more than 50 percent from kickoff to halftime and another 40 percent from half to the final gun. Or you know, after the seven-layer dip is reduced to that raunchy little piece of dried cheese and sour cream in the corner of the pan and the Godaddy ad has already aired, it’s time to see who’s trying to relocate to Buenos Aires on Househunters International.

FIFA analysts also expect the semi-final and final rounds of this year’s World Cup to cross and maintain the 100-million viewer barrier, and that means the world, literally, will be watching.

Now back to my theory: It’s called the beautiful game and I don’t know why, other than that it’s a beautiful thing not to have to suffer through TV (or injury) time outs every minute and eight seconds. When ads do come, it’s also nice not to have to be greeted with Dennis Leary’s Ford truck heckle or bombarded with squawking and talking insurance animals.

More than this, it’s a game watched and admired …by beautiful people. To witness a pan of the stands during an NFL game is to see lumbering lost souls trying to rain out sorrows with corn syrup-based beers which have the audacity (and approval) to call themselves light. Chins wagging like puppy tails and blood glucose monitors, low testosterone supplements and hair-loss prevention quietly becoming title sponsors. This doesn’t exactly engender confidence in the league or its fan base’s sustainability. This doesn’t make me necessarily want to watch. And I am not alone.

Male soccer fans on the other hand don’t wear shirts and their waistlines have an actual waistline. I know it’s in Brazil but well, let’s just say the sidelines don’t require bottle Barbies hair whipping. One cutaway to the stands provides a little international flavor of the moment. Blame Sofia Vergara as the gateway drug.

The fan base is a sport’s ultimate refection of its own health. And if what we’ve seen so far of World Cup is to be believed, this one’s got legs.

One more thing: Next time you chastise a player for his histrionics while he squirms on the field, ask a co-worker to come deliver his best charley horse to you, unannounced, at work Monday. See how long it takes to pick yourself off the industrial flooring and get back to de-clawing yourself at your keyboard.