Part one in a series.
Several years ago I wrote a piece examining the reasons that soccer wasn't bigger (as a spectator sport) in the US. In the end, I argued, it all boils down to one thing: Americans like to be the best at whatever we do, and the US is nowhere near the best at "proper football." I suggested, however, that our global profile was improving, and that you'd see the sport grow here as our results on the world stage continued to improve.
Since then a great deal has transpired where soccer in America is concerned, and when you consider these developments in light of the big picture of American spectator sports (ie, football), it's entirely possible that my previous predictions about the rise of soccer may have been too conservative.
The truth is that the world's game is exploding here in the States, and there is every reason to believe that it will someday catch up to American football and even surpass it in popularity. No, this won't happen next year, but if you aren't already noticing the trend, you will be in a decade.
We know that the NFL is the biggest game in America. What's #2? Well, that depends. But since we're talking about growth and future trends, let's ask the question this way: what's the second biggest sport in the US among those aged 12-24?
Rich Luker, a 59-year-old baseball-loving social scientist based in North Carolina, is the brains behind the ESPN Sports Poll, the complex database that recently pronounced soccer as America's second-most popular sport for those age 12-24, outstripping the NBA, MLB and college football. Luker is also the man who discovered that three soccer players -- Lionel Messi (16th), iconic veteran David Beckham (20th), and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo (24th) -- rank among the 50 most popular athletes in America. "Unbelievably, [Lionel] Messi ranks ahead of Dwyane Wade," Luker marveled. "Only two baseball players, Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter, are ahead of him." [emphasis added]
This ESPN story on the future of soccer, published in September 2012, picks the brain of Luker, who's sort of like the Moneyball / Sabermetrics statheads who have revolutionized baseball (and who are now beginning to infiltrate other sports with their incredibly complex metrics). It's not Luker's job to track pass percentages, though. He's being paid to understand the massive audience and market trends that are going to define the programming and business reality for his clients in the coming years. His conclusion:
...the sporting tectonic plates have shifted. America's cultural diversification, increasingly globalized outlook, and widespread access to the Internet all have benefitted soccer more than the other more traditional American sports. "In the last two years, Americans have been exposed to elite soccer on a very regular basis, which has allowed us to appreciate the sport and develop a savvy about it in a way we could not before," Luker said.
"Based on the way it is trending, I believe global soccer will soon be four or five times bigger than it is today, and MLS's fanbase will triple or quadruple," he said. For those who do not believe, Luker is keen to underline that change can happen fast. "In 1994, MLB was as popular as the NFL. This stuff can shift quickly and right now, soccer is like a rocket ship on the launchpad."
"If baseball and basketball don't adapt to this new reality they are going to have issues," Luker continued, discussing the NFL's challenge to continue to develop talent in an era in which youth participation has dropped precipitously. "Fewer and fewer kids are actually playing [American] football so they won't learn the game in the way it sustained their interest in the past. It is an inevitability that soccer will soon be as popular as MLB and NBA."
How long will it take to get there? "We are talking generational change," Luker said. "A generation of kids have now grown up as having MLS as part of their reality. Give us one more cycle and that is all it will take. One more generation."
There are a number of factors shaping this transition from American football to soccer. Some have to do with the ways in which the American game is already eroding (you can't see it on pro and college broadcasts yet, but the problems are real and profound). Others are all about how soccer is being marketed here and abroad. And a good bit of it deals with the fact that globalization works both ways. America has long exported its popular culture, but these days immigration and media trends are influencing us right back, and the most popular sport in the world is a predictable part and parcel of that dynamic.
This series will look at the factors driving the growth of soccer and/or the decline of football. Let's start with one that has been very much in the news here at home: football injuries.
Reason #1: Violence and injuries are significantly decreasing the number of children being allowed to take up the game of American football. Football has always been a violent game, and even if you don't believe it's getting worse, public and parental awareness of the risks are growing by leaps and bounds. The result? An ESPN survey revealed that fully 57% of parents "said that recent stories about the increase in concussions in football have made them less likely to allow their sons to play in youth leagues." That's a big, big number, and it is borne out in stories from around the country.
In Minnesota, for instance, participation is down in little league and high school, while concussions are up.
Numbers are coming into the Minnesota Health Department where officials are tracking concussions from 42 high schools.
Leslie Seymour, an MDH epidemiologist, reports that more than 300 concussions were recorded from the past fall sports season, mostly from playing football. This is a greater number than Seymour had anticipated.
Most players suffering concussions were held out of practice a week, and two weeks was not uncommon.
At Bloomington Jefferson, 20 football players suffered concussions, with 12 missing two or more weeks of practice. Seven more concussion cases involved volleyball players. Bloomington Jefferson coaches have all received special training regarding concussions, and parents have signed off on information about head injuries.
In Otsego, Michigan, participation is actually up - for flag football. Parents are worried about the injuries, and for good reason.
Football is the No. 1 recreational activity that sends teenage boys to the hospital with a brain injury, and the rate of concussions in football is more than twice that of soccer and lacrosse.
But for all the focus on concussions, researchers now say the bigger worry in football may be total accumulation of body blows that jolt the head, shaking the brain like a bowl of Jello and traumatizing fragile brain tissue and nerves.
Football players can experience as many as 1,000 impacts or more over the course of season. Researchers say that, in terms of g-forces and stress on the body, playing in a high school football game is comparable to being in a 20- or 30-mph car crash.
Those so-called sub-concussive impacts may not cause concussions, but it appears they can add up and result in damage to the brain. Researchers say they see changes in brain scans of high school football players who have never reported a concussion.
- A 2011 study8 of U.S. high schools with at least one athletic trainer on staff found that concussions accounted for nearly 15% of all sports-related injuries reported to ATs and which resulted in a loss of at least one day of play.
- According to the C.D.C., during the period 2001-2009 children and youth ages 5-18 years increased 62% to a total of 2.6 million sports-related emergency department (ED) visits annually, of which 6.5% (173,285) involved a traumatic brain injury, including concussion. The rate of TBI visits increased 57%, likely due to increased awareness of the importance of early diagnosis of TBI.
Football players most at risk
- At least one player sustains a mild concussion in nearly every American football game.
- There are approximately 67,000 diagnosed concussions in high school football every year.
- According to research by The New York Times, at least 50 youth football players (high school or younger) from 20 different states have died or sustained serious head injuries on the field since 1997.
- Anecdotal evidence from athletic trainers suggests that only about 5% of high school players suffer a concussion each season, but formal studies surveying players suggest the number is much higher, with close to 50% saying they have experienced concussion symptoms and fully one-third reporting two or more concussions in a single season.
- One study estimates that the likelihood of an athlete in a contact sport experiencing a concussion is as high as 20% per season.
- According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, there were 5 catastrophic spinal cord injuries in high school football in 2010. 67.8% of all catastrophic injuries in football since 1977 are from tackling.
- According to a study reported in the July 2007 issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine:
- Football players suffer the most brain injuries of any sport;
- An unacceptably high percentage (39%) of high school and collegiate football players suffering catastrophic head injuries (death, nonfatal but causing permanent neurologic functional disability, and serious injury but leaving no permanent functional disability) during the period 1989 to 2002 were still playing with neurologic symptoms at the time of the catastrophic event.
Take a couple of minutes to review this entire article. It's illuminating, to say the least.
Perhaps most critically, a 2012 study makes clear that permanent, debilitating damage doesn't require a "big hit" injury; it can result from routine incidences of mild injury.
The study, which included brain samples taken posthumously from 85 people who had histories of repeated mild traumatic brain injury, added to the mounting body of research revealing the possible consequences of routine hits to the head in sports like football and hockey. The possibility that such mild head trauma could result in long-term cognitive impairment has come to vex sports officials, team doctors, athletes and parents in recent years.
Public perception certainly isn't improved by stories like this one:
Five Pee-Wee Football Players Suffered Concussions In A 52-0 Loss
It is not as absurd a question as it would have been, say, 10 years ago: Would you want your kid playing football? You can point to the safety advances, and the increased awareness, and the character-building spiel—and then you can point to a Pop Warner football game in Massachusetts last month, in which five players on a single team were concussed even as they were pummeled on the scoreboard.
One wonders how much character was built among the Tantasqua Pee Wees, as they were run over by the bigger, faster Southbridge team on Sept. 15. En route to a 52-0 blowout, five Tantasqua players—all between 10 and 12 years old—suffered concussions, were checked out on the sidelines, then sent right back in the game to get hit again.
Parents are certainly noticing and many are thinking hard about the long-term threat the sport poses to their children. At least one analyst thinks that, as a result, it's only a matter of time before football is a niche bloodsport.
“Football is really on the verge of a turning point,” Jay Coakley, a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, told The New York Times. “We may see it in 15 years pretty much the same place as boxing and ultimate fighting.”
Coakley's is obviously not a majority opinion, and even in my wildest worse-case scenario speculations I can't imagine football losing that much ground that quickly. But while the timetable may be in question, there is every reason to believe his basic thesis: we live in a society where parents don't let their children ride their bikes around the yard without helmets. How is something as dangerous as football going to survive as we continue to learn more about its risks?
Next: The lawyers are coming....