published Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

Wiedmer: Soccer is here to stay

Justin Whitaker, right, and Chase Varhol react while watching a screening of the USA vs. Belgium World Cup soccer match Tuesday at Miller Plaza.
Justin Whitaker, right, and Chase Varhol react while watching a screening of the USA vs. Belgium World Cup soccer match Tuesday at Miller Plaza.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

A sports writing idol of mine once wrote that the only reason futbol was more popular throughout the rest of the world than our American football was because most of the rest of the world couldn't afford to equip its youngsters with helmets and shoulder pads and such.

And quite possibly for far too long I embraced such smugness as fact. Why, indeed, would any right-thinking human prefer to watch a 1-0 soccer match when it could view a couple of opposing groups of macho males attempt to beat each other senseless by, say, a 7-0 final score, even though that would really be no different than a 1-0 soccer match?

Even now, if given a choice of watching this coming January's first NCAA Division I championship football game or February's Super Bowl as opposed to the good ol' US of A in a World Cup final, I'd probably still pick our football over everyone else's futbol, because, well, as a fifty-something I'm determined to do all I can to see that my life changes as little as possible before it ends.

But in the wake of the Red, White and Blue's inspired loss to Belgium on Tuesday -- yes, I wrote "inspired loss," and not only because American goalie Tim Howard looked like LeBron James, Derek Jeter and Richard Sherman all rolled into one -- I now also believe this country will at some point over the next 30 years witness a moment in which futbol begins to hold its own with football on a regular basis. Especially everywhere outside the Southeast north of south Florida and whatever constitutes the Southwest west of Texas.

Yes, Southeastern Conference country -- which actually includes the Lone Star State, thanks to the arrival of Texas A&M -- will continue to view football as a religion for the foreseeable future. Or as a Tuscaloosa, Ala. pastor once reportedly told then-Alabama coach Bill Curry's wife, "No, [college football] is much more important than [religion]."

But that may become the South only, its affection, if not affliction, for its past increasingly unique, its attitude on football and much else still framed by the great Ole Miss product William Cuthbert Faulkner's immortal prose: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Yet as concerns over long-term health and short-term expenses regarding our football continue to grow within our borders, it is not inconceivable that the sport's luster could slowly die nationally, especially in demographic regions altered by all these soccer-phant immigrants.

You say you don't believe sports interests can change that dramatically in this country? Consider this stat: In 1975, black Americans made up 27 percent of major league baseball rosters. In 2013, they made up 7.7 percent of opening-day rosters.

What if a similar percentage of African-Americans abandoned football in favor of soccer over the next 39 years? You think we'd only think about the World Cup every four years. You think the current Major League Soccer television deal for the next eight years would only be worth around $720 million total? You think it wouldn't at least become half of the $771 million the NCAA rakes in EACH and EVERY year from the men's basketball tournament?

Yes, soccer has problems in this country. And one of them is television advertising dollars, since there is currently no break in play beyond halftime. But why not change that a bit? Why not place a one-minute break in the middle of each half and one minute before stoppage minutes or extra minutes? No, it wouldn't be just like Europe or the World Cup, but it would help Madison Avenue more easily embrace futbol over here.

Beyond that, how many Americans would also say that what they liked best about this World Cup was that it was easy to plan your day around it. It was a two-hour break rather than a 3-and-a-half to 4-hour disruption from the real world. And with all games having pretty much ended by 8 p.m., kids don't have to fight with their parents over bedtime in order to watch.

This isn't to say we're all going to become addicted to the world's futbol overnight and there's no reason we should. As an American football addict friend of mine noted Wednesday, "I never watch figure skating until the Olympics rolls around every four years, but when it does I'm a huge fan. I don't think I should be criticized for feeling the same way about the World Cup."

But these past two weeks felt different for many of us. Even here in the Deep South. Maybe we didn't have the same giant gatherings of jaw-dropping crowds seen in Chicago and Kansas City, but the World Cup seemed to be on everyone's lips and every restaurant and watering hole's television screen.

And come Friday, the Chattanooga Football Club will wrap up its regular-season home NPSL schedule against Rocket City United at 7:30 p.m., preceded by a cookout in Finley Stadium's north parking lot hosted by the Chattahooligans.

A soccer cookout? On our nation's birthday? Oh, the times they are a changin'.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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