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Soccer Reaches Prime-Time TV Minus Audience

The eyes of the sporting world are focused on Mexico this month, watching this planet’s best soccer teams battle for the World Cup.

It is a grandiose event, involving an original field of 121 nations, boiled down to 24. It has perhaps 20 times the number of television viewers as a Super Bowl; it’s bigger than the Olympics. NBC estimates that the only event that has drawn more viewers is the 1969 landing on the moon.

But in this country, which prides itself on being sports central of the universe, the World Cup is a curiosity, an item reserved for Spanish-language TV stations.

NBC is giving the event unprecedented exposure by showing seven World Cup games this year, including five live. The last time around in 1982, ABC had the American rights to the World Cup, and showed only the final game.

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Nevertheless, the event is still greeted with a collective yawn throughout this country. How many American sports fans can name three teams in the World Cup? Or three players? Better you should ask who won the 1918 World Series.

Ah, but the times they are a changin’, soccer aficionados will tell you. The soccer revolution is finally coming. Look at AYSO.

All right, let’s look at the American Youth Soccer Organization. It has been in existence 22 years and is doing a tremendous job. Drive around San Fernando Valley parks and schools on a fall morning and you’ll see thousands of kids chasing that black and white ball in their soccer uniforms. Youth football doesn’t have a chance against soccer.

Now when these kids grow up, the argument goes, they are going to play soccer. Having been weaned on the game, some since the age of 5, these kids will have the sport in their blood, just like soccer fans around the world.

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Great argument. Except it’s been going on for more than two decades and nothing has happened. The North American Soccer League has come and gone. The world’s greatest soccer player, Pele, has come and gone from these shores, and still soccer, except for the World Cup, is relegated to the small type on the sports pages, like rowing and cricket.

Huge crowds did show up for Olympic soccer in 1984, but that was probably due more to the Olympic label than to the sport. After all, people came out to see team handball in the Olympics, but nobody is going around talking about a team handball revolution.

The problem of breaking through the barrier of indifference is being faced by the Hollywood Kickers, a new professional soccer team playing at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. The San Fernando Valley and surrounding areas boasts a population close to 1.5 million, has a highly successful Cal State Northridge soccer team and one of the biggest AYSO programs in the country. And the Kickers are averaging 3,300 fans.

In most countries, you could draw that many, or more, for a team workout.

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But this is not most other countries. This is a country that already has enough sports to turn the avid fan into a weekend couch potato. The NBA season stretches close to the Fourth of July. Baseball wraps up in time for Thanksgiving dinner. And until the USFL’s retrenchment, pro football had become a year around event.

So why should Americans bother to learn a sport they don’t understand, a sport they find silly because nobody can use their hands and boring because nobody ever seems to score?

Dieter Hochheimer, a pro soccer player in his native West Germany for 11 years and now the Kickers’ coach, was talking the other day about taking in a baseball game.

“I want to go with somebody who will explain it to me,” Hochheimer said. “I know there is a lot to the game that I don’t understand, and until I do, I won’t appreciate it.”

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The same could be said of soccer. Sure, only one or two goals may be scored in a game. But an awful lot happens in such a game on both sides. It’s like going to a no-hitter and complaining how boring it was because there was no offense.

The problem is, most American sports fans are snobs. They must be convinced there is yet another activity worth their valuable time and attention. Something better than a Monday night football game between Indianapolis and Detroit. Or a cable telecast between the Cubs and Pirates.

They may have played AYSO soccer as kids. But the attraction there was the chance to run around for 20 or 30 minutes, get a little mud on themselves and maybe kick the ball once or twice. In youth football, they might get hurt. In AYSO, the worst thing that could happen is they might get dirty.

When they get older, however, they find their role models, the cheerleaders and most of their friends in the established American sports.

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So they leave soccer. And nobody has yet discovered a way to get them back.


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