Soccer gets boost from young, informed fans
Never mind that there were dozens of TV sets at the bar, many turned to pro wrestling, poker and bowling to provide background noise early one weekend morning. Jon Forget walked in, asked the bartender to change one set to soccer and got laughed out of the joint.
Fast forward almost two decades and there's no room to sit at the bar Forget runs these days. His concept for a soccer pub near downtown Denver is taking off, and a new generation of American-born soccer fans piled in by the hundreds Thursday to watch the U.S. advance to the World Cup knockout round despite a 1-0 loss to Germany.
Forget's success at the 3-year-old Three Lions pub is a microcosm of what's happening around America during the World Cup. Social media numbers are strong, TV ratings are setting records and, other than Brazil, no country's fans have bought more tickets to the games than those from the United States.
All this in a country that long fought against soccer's global intrigue, even though the number of American kids playing the game has been rising slowly for decades.
"Over the past 25-30 years, you've seen people come over here from around the world and they know the game and they start influencing Americans," Forget said. "This generation has the proper training, a lot more have played at a high level. They understand the game. It's not boring to them."
In fact, just the opposite.
Merritt Paulson, who owns the MLS Portland Timbers franchise that regularly sells out its 21,000-seat stadium, calls the burgeoning group of 20-something soccer fans — many having taken their high school passion into recreational adult leagues — the "on-demand generation."
"They want what they want, when they want it and how they want it," Paulson said. "It's that shorter attention span. The fact that soccer games are two hours, start to finish, win, lose or draw, with very condensed action, fits very well into the psychographics of those folks."
In the U.S., soccer is a youth-driven sport; about 70 percent of "core" soccer players — those who play 26 or more times a year — are ages 6-17, according to the most recent numbers from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
These days, instead of leaving the game after high school, that age group is graduating into the most vocal segment of fans.
Of the 3.1 million tweets about the U.S. vs. Ghana game earlier this month, 53 percent of them came from people 18-34, according to Nielsen Social. And 69 percent of people checking in on their Facebook accounts from host cities in Brazil were in that age group.
Networks and sponsors covet younger viewers, which helps explain ESPN's decision to go all-in on World Cup telecasts; every game has been televised live since 1998. The U.S.-Portugal game last Sunday drew 24.7 million viewers overall - and the 18.22 million who watched on ESPN were the most the network has ever garnered for an event not involving American football. The Germany game averaged 10.7 million viewers, making it the third-most watched World Cup game ever on the network.
Tapping into a populous that has become more ethnically diverse, the number of U.S networks televising soccer grew from 11 to 21 and programming hours rose from 2,600 to 3,890 over the last four years - a 43 percent increase that matched the increase in TV advertising spending (from $266 million to $378 million), according to Nielsen. NBC Sports televises Premier League games, Fox has the UEFA Champions League and takes over the World Cup telecasts starting in 2018.
All in all, it's a much different landscape from the one three decades ago, when the only regular soccer programming in America was the reliable PBS stalwart, "Soccer Made In Germany."
"For decades, there was this wariness about soccer within U.S. culture and wariness that affected people at the top," said Jay Coakley, a professor who examines sports' role in society. "Now, that wariness is disappearing. People at the top are seeing soccer as a means of marketing their own interests."
Video games, fantasy leagues, highlight shows, the steady stream of Ronaldo, Messi and other stars, both on the field and in advertisements, keep the sport in touch with the American mainstream in a way it hasn't been before.
"Walking down the street now, you see kids wearing Manchester United jerseys and Chelsea Football Club jerseys and Barcelona, and I didn't even know what those were as a kid," said Mike Helfand, a 42-year-old Chicago attorney who has traveled the globe watching U.S. teams play.
Though America's major league, the MLS, has work to do to bring its level up to the European leagues, the league's steady expansion, improving talent level and fan-friendly pricing will keep the sport on the radar after the World Cup ends.
Since 2010, the number of adults attending a big-time soccer match in the United States has increased by 87 percent.
The farther the U.S. goes in this year's World Cup, the higher than number could rise over the next four years.
All of which has Forget looking to expand his soccer-pub business.
"I've had people come to the pub because a friend dragged them down here," he said. "They'll spend two hours watching a game and they'll walk out the door and say, 'I'm coming back next week.' It can be a defining moment for people. It's very, very different than what we've been used to here in America."
Associated Press writer Leanne Italie in New York and AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson in Portland, Oregon, contributed to this repo