The press has been hyping it up for weeks, and now it is finally here – one of the biggest games of the year, between two rival teams. The pubs and bars fill up hours before the starting whistle blows, as the fans indulge in their pre-game ritual. Meanwhile, the athletes of both teams sit anxiously in their respective locker rooms, awaiting their coach’s pep talk. As each player pulls his jersey over his head, a sense of pride for his team envelops him. Tensions are high, and each team is bidding for the title of victor. No, it’s not the MSU versus University of Michigan football game. Instead, it’s the most popular sport in the world: soccer. [Soc1]
Soccer is the one sport that unites the rest of the world, just like baseball or football unites American sports fans. Even though the world has adopted soccer (or football as it’s commonly known internationally) as its global pastime, the U.S. has never really caught on. Many Americans believe soccer is not physical enough, it’s too slow and not enough points are scored. “Compared to American football, soccer just isn’t physical enough for most people,” supply chain junior Derek Dycio said. “To be honest, most people, including myself, just feel like the game is too slow (paced) and simply doesn’t have enough action.”
[dyci]However, in recent years, soccer has become increasingly popular around the U.S. While it has yet to reach the status of “America’s most popular sport,” soccer is beginning to be a factor in professional, high school and college athletics. So how does MSU fit in?
Heading into their 51st season, the MSU men’s soccer team is looking to build off the previous season’s success. After finishing the 2006 year with a 10-7-2 record, the Spartans are geared up for a promising 2007 campaign. Already, the team has made history. In his 31st year as the Spartans’ head coach, Joe Baum has captured his 300th career victory.
Meanwhile, the women’s soccer team is returning 10 of 11 starters this year, having only lost one player. Head coach and MSU alumnus Tom Saxton is in his 16th year. The women’s soccer program is heading into their 21st season, and is looking to become the third team in MSU women’s soccer history to become an NCAA Championship qualifier.
Currently the teams play at Old College Field, and they continuously fill up the bleachers. “The seating that they have is always full – it is hard to find a seat,” criminal justice sophomore Dan Whelan said. Whelan is also a part of the club soccer team, and he believes that because of the recruiting classes MSU brings in, the soccer team is increasing in talent. This recruiting, in turn, continues to fuel an increase in attendance numbers. Another factor in the increase of the MSU soccer teams’ exposure is the newly created Big Ten Network. This station is devoted to Big Ten sports, including soccer, and the network just recently struck a deal with WideOpenWest (WOW) cable company. The extra coverage is making an impact on the popularity in the collegiate level.
And the university seems to be paying more attention to soccer at MSU as well, aiding its increase in popularity. Next season, the teams will be playing on a new field, about 60 yards away from the current field. “The building of the field will start next year, as soon as the weather breaks,” Baum said. “The stadium is being funded by private contributions.” One of those contributors is red-shirt junior Doug DeMartin’s uncle. He has contributed nearly $750,000. “The contributions were made in memory of Doug’s grandfather, and therefore the stadium will be called the DeMartin Soccer Stadium,” Baum said.
In comparison to last season, the average number of fans at men’s soccer games is right on track with last year’s numbers. The one main difference, however, is that MSU has yet to play a ranked team this season, which will naturally bring in more fans. This is not quite the case for the women’s team. Their attendance numbers are noticeably higher than last season. There is one common theme for both teams – they both expect their attendance to go up and for fans to catch on and begin to follow soccer here at MSU. [Soc2]
Similarly to MSU, attendance at professional soccer games around the country is on the rise. Major League Soccer (MLS) debuted in the U.S. in 1996, featuring 10 teams. In its inaugural season, the league experienced promising attendance numbers, but in seasons following, the numbers dwindled. However, in 2006, the MLS had the highest attendance numbers to date.
As a former high school soccer player and super fan, accounting junior Dave Lucio explained, “Soccer is getting more exposure through things such as YouTube. People can see big time players making big time plays.” He added players such as Ronaldinho, a soccer player hailing from Brazil, have transformed the game, and because of players like him, soccer is broadening its horizons.
Other students agree that famous names and faces, like French player Thierry Henry, help promote the sport abroad and, more recently, at home. “I feel that soccer is big in Europe because of all the famous faces that are connected to it,” business freshman Matthew Golling said. “The United States likes baseball so much because of all the famous names such as Alex Rodriguez. Soccer has guys like that, too, but people just don’t bother to find out who they are.”
The MLS is hoping to change that with their newest recruit from Europe, David Beckham. Americans have been closely following his hairstyles and are now taking notice of his powerful athleticism. He began his soccer career with Manchester United, moved to Real Madrid, and now plays for the L.A. Galaxy. Due to well-known stars such as Beckham, American’s may not have to wait too long to see soccer in the U.S. reach a different level. There is no doubt that because of the hype that Beckham has brought to the sport, the 2007 season will see some of the highest attendance numbers yet. “With David Beckham coming to the MLS, it just shows how the sport is growing,” said Spartan soccer player Spencer Thompson, a no-preference junior. However, Beckham suffered a sprained right knee in a game on Aug. 30, sidelining him for at least a month. This injury may cause interest to dwindle, but just for now; soccer fans will undoubtedly be eagerly anticipating his highly-publicized return.
Another contributing factor to the increasing popularity of professional soccer in the U.S. and at MSU was the 2006 World Cup. Because it was televised on ESPN, many people that had never seen a professional game were exposed to soccer, especially on its highest plateau.
[golling]There are several factors, however, that continue to restrict soccer’s growth in the U.S., which, in turn, affects its recognition at MSU. For instance, if a fan wishes to watch a premier league (European League) game, or any other league besides the MLS, they would have to pay extra to get the Fox Sports World channel. This puts soccer at a real disadvantage when it competes against other more accessible sports. “If soccer were to air on a station such as ESPN like baseball or football does, then more people would begin to learn of the big names that the sport has to offer,” accounting junior Chris Zilli said. “When people can relate faces to the sport, then they will take more of an interest in the sport.”
Beyond accessibility, many Americans simply don’t understand the sport of soccer, especially at the international level, because it is set up quite differently abroad. The Premier League is based mainly on a point system. A win counts as three points, a tie one, and a loss zero. In any given league, the bottom three teams in the standings will move down a league (a lesser skilled league), and the top three will then move up. This system allows for the creation of new rivalries, and every game is immensely competitive.
This kind of competition will be prevalent right here on campus, as the men’s and women’s soccer teams move into Big Ten play and teams will seek vengeance for past losses and the right to claim victory over lesser opponents. The Big Ten Network will certainly help exposure of the game locally, and many soccer devotees will have easy access to MSU match-ups as the season goes on. As interest in the sport grows, major television networks may take a cue from the desires of soccer fans and begin broadcasting more international matches, in addition to more MLS games. [Soc3]
With attendance numbers up all over the world, including here in the U.S. and at MSU, soccer is becoming more than just a game, but a lifestyle. Fans across the world live for the game. “I believe that the next generation will be the ones to continue playing soccer, and therefore increase the level of popularity in the U.S.” Golling said. Whether it is a European, MLS, college or simply a youth team, one thing is for sure – the world of soccer is slowly expanding and gaining popularity throughout the world. It seems as though “the beautiful game,” as many call it, is here to stay.

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