Sunday, August 06, 2006

Coming in 2007: American Matchnight

Depending on what's not in the laundry yet, I usually wear my USMNT t-shirt or my Red Bulls Guevara t-shirt on Saturdays, for when I go to a game or watch it on TV. I'm wearing red right now, for an All-Star that should've been part of today's 1-0 win over Chelsea.

Next season, though, I'll most likely be wearing red or blue on those Thursdays when New York will be playing, thanks to ESPN's commitment to produce and broadcast MLS games next season...and pay the league for the privilege to do so. For a league that was not expected to survive, according to the sports pundits at its conception in 1994 and birth in 1996, this is a major indicator of the sport's growth over eleven years, from one that has had to pay its own way by leveraging players' worth and depending on the generosity of its benefactors, to one that can now tap into a small but steady stream of attention and coverage given to it by interested writers and sports executives.

While the BigSoccer faithful, recently declared the pulse of soccer in America by American journalists following the World Cup just ended, will jump for joy (this one fan included), it does set some high expectations for the league and the sport in general. The NHL became a big thing right around the time the Rangers won it all in 1994. FOX, then ABC/ESPN began pouring money into hockey, only to see their investments squandered in ten short years. Lockout, then relegation to profit sharing with NBC have been the fate of the league just now struggling to get back on its feet. Add to that the fact that sports on television have had a rough ride in the past few years. The NBA, once marketed far and wide on the networks, now have to fish for ever-decreasing profit margins on basic cable. Monday Night Football, a tradition that I think has lasted for seven centuries, now moves to ESPN. Even poker probably draws better ratings now than some Saturday afternoon baseball games.

This time, the executives have put their trust into soccer. It's good for those of us who love to watch it...but now what? What will constitute a win in all of this? For sure, ratings will have to go up as ESPN turns up the promotional machine. Then attendances will have to rise. Certainly that has to translate to an improvement in the quality of the league. That turns into money for everyone involved.

All of that is possible, but it is all still a very big order to fill. Keep in mind, though, that the consequences for not succeeding in this venture can, at the very worst, set American soccer back five years, to the times when Commissioner Garber was contracting the league, not expanding it.

I think, however, that it's perfectly alright to enjoy the moment. The soccer bashers in America have been silent, and when they have not, they have been drowned out. The league has the infrastructure to survive, if not grow. It has achieved a sense of permanency that the NASL did not. The progress of soccer in this country is certainly a step in the right direction that, if anyone was devious enough to want to do it, could take a while to undo.

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