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World Cup soccer’s biggest event, but who cares?

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The World Cup is upon us, and I’m wondering how much Johnson County sports fans will notice.

It’s a fair question, considering FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, claims with strong supporting evidence that the monthlong tournament, beginning today in Brazil, is the most-followed sporting event in the world. The 2010 final in South Africa was viewed by more than 700 million people, which is one out of every 10 people on Earth.

Still, it seems safe to say that the gathering of world soccer’s top 32 teams barely registers on the radar of the local sports-minded. It’s not that they don’t know it is taking place now or have never heard of it. Soccer fanatics like me have lived through days in this country where both of those things were true.

I recall being a high school student in my small town in Ohio and playing on the first soccer team (early ’80s). I

excitedly told an older town resident about it, and he did not know what soccer was. On another occasion I was speaking at a youth game with a fellow fan about a contest we had seen on TV the night before, and a third party blurted out, “Is it the World Cup already?” about two years before the scheduled start of the event.

I resisted the urge to retort, “Hey, did you hear about this new invention called the microwave oven?”

We’ve evolved as a soccer nation, and the event does get plenty of national media attention now. ESPN plans to air all 63 games of this year’s event, both on television and radio. I can remember World Cup when only the final was shown on U.S. TV, and then perhaps only in segments or on tape delay.

The sports marketing people are into the act as well. You’ll see more soccer references or endorsements now in commercials. When the U.S. Men’s National Team coach cut veteran forward Landon Donovan from the team a few weeks ago, it made news across the country.

But the fact that certain people are talking about something doesn’t make it a point of interest in a particular community, and it just doesn’t seem this event is a big needle-mover in our area.

Marketing strategies

Without a doubt the game itself is a permanent part of the local surroundings. There are hundreds of youth teams in Johnson County. All the area high schools have boys and girls teams, as does Franklin College.

However, operators of Major League Soccer, the main professional league in the U.S., discovered after some years of trial and error that youth and high school soccer families do not make up the wheelhouse of their fan base. For quite a while, franchises in MLS toiled to market to the youth community. While youth clubs would often organize a night out to see a professional game, this never translated to any sizable permanent representation at stadiums.

But when the league started marketing instead to the millennials, the 20- and 30-somethings who have moved in large numbers to the cities (rather than the suburbs of their parents), the league really began to take off. This group seems to make up the core of the U.S. National Team fan base. The more participatory motif of soccer fandom, including singing and chanting during games, exchanging choreographed pre- and postgame greetings with the players and a sense of fans being “part of the club” seem to be some of the drawing points for millennials.

Area sports fans already have plenty of options to choose from when it comes to sports entertainment. In Indianapolis, there are two major sports franchises, minor league baseball and, returning in the fall, ice hockey.

On TV, football is king; but fans can follow just about any game anywhere of the four major pro sports, along with other leading sports like auto racing and golf. On the professional level in America, there is no question soccer arrived late to that viewing party.

Soccer is a fairly simple game, and everyone knows what it is by now. So why wouldn’t local sports fans be setting aside the dates on the calendar for at least the matches involving the USA team?

Could it be the sport itself that keeps the sport from being more popular? Certainly the relative lack of scoring can be an issue, particularly for those who have never played the game and don’t appreciate the skill and fitness required to play at such a high level. It’s a game for the patient, as good teams are difficult to score against.

Wasting viewers’ time?

There are some cultural aspects of the game that are turn-offs for Midwestern Americans. The time-wasting that goes on in some parts of the world with players faking injuries or the flopping that takes place seemingly whenever there is contact made with another player are mostly foreign around here (although Lance Stephenson and Roy Hibbert of the Pacers apparently are willing to give it a try). I agree that these are undesirable aspects of what soccer fans like to call “the beautiful game,” but they are pretty small parts of it.

But viewers’ time in NFL or NBA games is wasted watching commercials, slow-moving pitchers in baseball, caution flags in NASCAR or the time between shots in golf. I mean, our hurry-up culture doesn’t like waiting five minutes to order food at a drive-thru, but somehow we manage the survive the ordeal.

I remember sitting at a restaurant in Whiteland a few years ago when the U.S. Women’s National Team was playing a match at their World Cup. I wasn’t really watching the game but was sitting below the TV set. A crowd gathered to watch a penalty shoot-out. At that moment the whole room became U.S. soccer fans. Through it all people were asking questions that let you know they didn’t really know much about what they were watching, but it was the U.S. team and a crucial moment.

That might be the ultimate secret behind the lack of interest I perceive. Our national team on the men’s side has never really competed for top honors. The U.S. reached the quarterfinals in 2002, and that generated some buzz around the country. But that event was played in South Korea and Japan. So the biggest game kicked off at 7 a.m. on a weekday.

This year’s team is not expected to do anything like that, but then again, neither was that year’s team. Of course, the event is much bigger than one nation, so again you have the issue with why most people in the area don’t care to follow it.

Belgium plays Algeria on June 17. Who is coming to my house?!

In the end, there is no substitute for experience, and it’s not the sporting experience, either playing or watching, that most people have. I’ll just have to take solace in the next generation coming up, knowing they provide some hope for the future (in this country) of the sport I love.

In the meantime, I’ll make it a personal goal to watch all 63 games. After all, the games are played in our time zone this time. Plus, I can sleep when it’s over.

Dreaming of a USA World Cup victory in my lifetime, no doubt.

Rob Ziegler is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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