Steinberg: Riding the soccer craze

No sooner had I written a column for last week's Daily Pilot analyzing why soccer is the first sport that every youngster in this country plays yet it doesn't translate toward a high level of interest in pro soccer, then the U.S. women's team goes out and rocks the world.

The U.S. women defeated Brazil last week in a stunning come-from-behind thriller that has sparked a national craze. In the gym where I work out, a rapt group of men were gathered around the television set cheering loudly. Professional athletes and celebrities filled Twitter with descriptions of how moved they were by the game. Water cooler conversation at businesses throughout the country was filled with exultation for their achievement. It had some of the same frenzy as the men's hockey victory over Russia years ago. We are certainly front-running fans, but the enthusiasm is infectious.

So how does a team that labored in anonymity prior to the last several weeks become an obsession? First there is the element of patriotism. This has been a discouraging time in sports, the economy and international affairs. Our country is involved in a draining war in Afghanistan, a quagmire in Iraq, the worst economy domestically since the Great Depression, deadlocked and stratified Congress and in sports, the news isn't much better.

The NFL lockout drags on, the NBA lockout has just begun, our beloved Dodgers are disintegrating. If it wasn't for the Angels, Southern California sports would be bleak. So along comes a team of young women who are succeeding in international competition. Beating the arrogant French at anything is good for the American psyche. And they stand poised to win the World Cup over Japan on Sunday. That is the same Japan that was virtually colonizing SoCal real estate and business not so long ago. We are a country that looks for opportunities to display our patriotism and national pride. Chants of "USA, USA" give people a chance to rejoice in being American.

This is an especially appealing group of female athletes. They are physically fit and easy on the eyes. They seem to embody traditional American values. They have self-discipline, teamwork, resilience, courage and simply will not quit. Their behavior can be held up by parents to have their daughter or son as examples they can proudly emulate. They have names like Hope Solo that Hollywood publicists could not invent. And they have the benefit of the extraordinary "celebrity making machine" that focuses on interesting people. Television shows, magazines, newspapers, blog sites, the Internet all are propelling their status from the narrow genre of hardcore soccer fans to becoming household names.

As soon as the World Cup ends, we will see a new group of fresh-faced stars in "People," on Letterman and Leno, and every form of content supply. They undoubtedly will secure many more endorsements than the obligatory Wheaties box. Expect to see ads all over the media.

Now will this translate into long-term popularity for women's and men's soccer at the professional level in this country? I still have the doubts I outlined last week. But enjoy the ride because this is a magic moment.


This should be the week that the NFL announces a new collective bargaining agreement.

The relative news blackout and lack of public posturing is a sign that real work has taken place. The presence of the most powerful owners like Robert Kraft, Jerry Jones and Art Rooney sets the stage for dealmaking. The bifurcation of the negotiating and legal/drafting functions shows that the parties are close. I have maintained since last year that the NFL only concludes business when there is real pressure. They want to have normal training camps, a Hall of Fame game, and a normal season. No one wants to be the party to kill this Golden Goose of unparalleled prosperity.

We will see the most stable and organized teams move quickly to sign and secure veteran free agents, undrafted rookies and their draft picks.

Teams that have an incumbent coach and quarterback will be far ahead of teams that have new coaching staffs and systems that have yet to be employed.

Draft picks and free agents have spent no time with their teams in the offseason, and those teams dependent on those additions will be in catch-up mode.

Expect a higher rate of injuries the first few weeks because being "in shape" is different than the violent physical contact that constitutes "football shape." But it's time to get ready for some football.

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