Is soccer this time most likely to succeed?

The Giants choked. The A’s fell short again. The 49ers are struggling. The Raiders used up all their wins last season. Even the Sharks are falling through thin ice at the bottom of the NHL’s western conference standings. And who knows when the Warriors will prove themselves to be serious playoff contenders?Right now seems like quite a depressing time for Bay Area professional sports teams. But hey, at least the Earthquakes are in first place at top of their division!”Earthquakes? What are you talking about?”Definitely not anything earth-shaking. In fact, San Jose’s Major League Soccer (MLS) team’s success is barely even registering on anyone’s “sports hype seismograph” as the league enters its eighth postseason game.It’s not that the league or the Earthquakes themselves lack talent or star power. For example, after his spectacular performance with the USA national team in World Cup 2002, San Jose forward Landon Donovan’s name should be a household name approaching Mia Hamm-type proportions. Largely due to Donovan’s exciting goal-scoring, the USA advanced to the round of eight (that’s “elite eight” in Americanese) for the first time in contemporary World Cup history. But there doesn’t seem to be many multi-million-dollar endorsement deals with Nike or Gatorade in his future.Neither will there be any lucrative deals offered to the players of the Women’s United Soccer Association. The WUSA, the female version of MLS, folded last month after three short years of existence. The WUSA’s San Jose Cyber Rays were the league’s first championship team in 2001.Of course, this is not at all an unfamiliar scenario in the history of American professional soccer. There have been numerous professional leagues in the US dating back to the 1910s. Perhaps most noticeable was the North American Soccer League, active in the 70s. Brazilian star Pele, the world’s greatest soccer player and most internationally renowned sports figure, put his stamp of approval on the league by gracing New York’s NASL team with his presence on the roster. But not even Pele could rally enough support for the sport and the league went under in the 80s.Even playing host to the world’s largest sporting event in 1994 hasn’t made this country too feverish about soccer. In the World Cup of that year, the underdog Americans advanced to the second round by beating Colombia, a country that actually takes the World Cup pretty seriously. The game was decided when a Colombian defender accidentally scored on his own team. After the disappointed Colombians returned home, the defender at fault was assassinated. Admittedly, that is taking things too seriously, but don’t worry. You probably won’t see that happen to an American player anytime soon.If you think the Olympics are a big deal around the world, try visiting most South American, European, or African countries during a World Cup tournament. The people put aside their differences for a few weeks and, together, they cheer on their nation’s team.I was in Paris in July of 1998 on the night that France beat Brazil in the World Cup championship. I watched in awe as the whole population of the capital city filled the streets with music and dancing after the victory. This refreshingly non-violent demonstration of solidarity was repeated in every city and village across France. The nationwide celebration seemed to last for weeks.I was also at the Rose Bowl for the World Cup final in 1999 when the USA women’s national team beat China in an extremely tense, entertaining match. After the game, everyone got in their cars and drove home. The only reason that game was even noticed by most Americans may be that Brandi Chastain whipped her shirt off after scoring the winning goal.The women’s side of the sport is also not without very notable aspects. The past few weeks provided opportunities to watch the entertaining Women’s World Cup games New stars were christened and old ones made some of their last appearances before retiring. Revisiting the nudity theme, a pair of streakers protesting the use of Kangaroo leather in the manufacture of soccer cleats made an appearance. Of course, without cable, one wasn’t able to see most of the action, even though it all took place right here on American soil.So, with all the drama and entertainment that such an international spectacle offers, why is soccer still a struggling sport in the country after all these years (besides all the gratuitous nudity)?When was the last time you saw an article about soccer headlining the sports page in a major newspaper? When was the last time you heard a TV news anchor spend more then five seconds on the latest soccer news during a primetime newscast?Put simply, American mass media has not done a great job of giving the world’s most popular sport the coverage it deserves. With media coverage comes the opportunity for capital gain. However, corporate sponsors and advertisers as a whole have not been willing enough to promote the sport consistently. Indeed, in his eulogy for the ill-fated WUSA, Chairman of the WUSA Board of Governors John Hendricks cited “a shortfall in sponsorship revenue” as the league’s main cause of death.Take one look at the hardcore American fan base, the potential for huge expansion of the sport in this country thanks to the popularity of soccer among kids, and the fact that soccer is big business on other continents. You will see that, if they commit to promoting teams and players, sponsors and advertisers really have nothing to lose.Professional-level American soccer is presently poised atop a fence separating prosperity and extinction. It has been that way for almost a hundred years, but soccer is the world’s favorite sport and there is no reason it shouldn’t be America’s also. Its recent success in the Bay Area recently is only a small local picture of a global situation. The media need to stop portraying it like cheap, trendy entertainment for middle class soccer moms and their families. We need to see it as the amazing global phenomenon that it is.