By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 10, 2016) US Soccer Players – Finally, Mark Cuban is getting into soccer in the United States.
For those of who believe that sport in America needs a boost of excitement and personality, there could be no better news. Cuban is the NBA’s most colorful owner, a young, emotionally invested sports fan who is living out his fantasies. He yells at referees during games and gets fined for it. He criticizes referees after games and gets fined for it. He wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to basketball, and he usually gets fined for it.
He’s also an incredibly successful businessman who earned his fortune by getting in on the ground floor of streaming live video on the internet. His instincts are very good. He’s even managed to turn his impudent, boyish charm and reputation for savvy investment into a gig on a national television program where he and other rich people bestow upon entrepreneurs the gift of capital.
Cuban has pizzazz, and there’s really not much of an argument that American soccer doesn’t need a heaping dose of pizzazz. Merritt Paulson is as engaged as owners come and is nearly as forthcoming as Cuba, but he doesn’t pack quite the same celebrity punch. While it’s fun to have Will Ferrell and Drew Carey roaming the earth as “MLS owners” of some stripe, everyone knows they aren’t the financial powerhouse behind their respective teams.
In other words: CUBAN! SOCCER! HOORAY!
…except there’s a rub, because there’s always a rub when it comes to the progression of soccer in the US. It turns out the Shark Tank’s lead shark is actually putting his money and name behind a totally new soccer venture, rather than buying into one of the existing professional soccer structures. Rather than get involved in the messy world of the outdoor version of the game, Cuban is planning to launch a professional futsal league.
More on the futsal wrinkle in a moment.
The group of owners lining up to get a piece of Cuban’s new venture is extremely impressive. As reported by the Dallas Morning News, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Corinthians, and Boca Juniors will all own individual franchises. Some of Cuban’s peers among the NBA ownership set are also poised to get involved, including the Buss family, owners of the LA Lakers, and Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian oligarch owner of the Brooklyn Nets. The aim is to put together the preeminent futsal league in the world, bringing the best talent the game has to offer to the United States. They certainly seem to have the financial wherewithal to do it.
Futsal, for the uninitiated, is the FIFA-approved indoor/hard court version of the sport of soccer. It’s a 5-on-5 (one goalkeeper, four outfield players) game played on what looks a lot like a basketball court. It is not “indoor soccer” of the American variety. That game involves hockey-style boards and artificial grass, played in this country in various league formats for the last 40 years.
The game’s reputation is as a development tool for young players. The confined space and speed of the game helps improve the technical abilities of those who partake in the sport, both in place of outdoor work and alongside the full version of soccer. In recent years, we’ve seen concerted efforts to get American players playing futsal, with an eye towards developing a generation of kids who are more comfortable with the ball.
Let’s make one thing clear. This league – the future most preeminent futsal league in the world, apparently – probably won’t do much for American soccer. A professional enterprise featuring the best the futsal world has to offer probably won’t involve too many American players. Even those Americans playing pro futsal probably won’t be matriculating to the outdoor version of the game. At the very top level, “futsal” is essentially unconnected to “soccer.” They might as well be different sports, which, if we’re being pedantic, they actually are. The only common element is the integration of futsal into the FIFA empire. When Cuban and his cohorts get their league up and running, they’ll presumably attain FIFA sanctioning in the process.
In a way, it’s exciting to think that an American league playing a game based on the sport of association football (i.e., soccer) could be the best in the world in short order. With just enough money thrown around (a pittance when compared to the amount it would take to reach similar heights in the outdoor game), this new effort could bring all of the best players here in short order. Maybe that will bring the people out in droves to watch the sport. Maybe, somehow, futsal success could bleed over to soccer success for MLS, the NASL, and USL.
The league won’t be easy to sell to a public that has almost no understanding of futsal. It will help to have a handful of big clubs involved to help brand the enterprise, and those clubs will certainly hope to expand their American reach through a low-cost investment. Maybe there’s some benefit to the outdoor club down the line, but it doesn’t seem like a direct help to the growth of the more popular version.
Big time futsal coming to the United States isn’t a bad thing. Getting Cuban involved in any version of the sport is exciting. But big time futsal doesn’t do much for soccer, no matter how many of the world’s best (and mostly unknown) futsal players are brought to the United States.
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