By J Hutcherson (Mar 30, 2017) US Soccer Players - It's tough being the biggest league in American sports. The National Football League would like to put its problems behind it as it pushes for even greater market share here and around the world. The era of the global sports league might be dawning, and the NFL would like to be at the top. After all, they're used to that in the world's most lucrative sports market.
Predicting the decline of the NFL is easy enough these days. The concussion crisis started the conversation. The NFL is a full contact sport where helmets and pads are only capable of offering limited protection. That's led to a sporting crisis of conscience for fans and players. There's now a generation of young athletes with parents facing the decision of whether or not to allow their kids to play the game. At the NFL level, it's people supporting a sport in good faith that may be doing irreparable harm to its players in every game.
It hasn't stopped there for the NFL. There's the increasing segmentation of the audience for all entertainment options including pro sports. The NFL took full advantage of the marketplace in their current TV deals. They turned Sunday night football into their marquee game, setting the Monday night version adrift on cable and following that with a push to turn Thursday night into an NFL date. The fans follow, sort of.
Segmentation is an issue for a sport that saw its biggest growth when it was the best option. That held in the old over-air era as well as cable. Monday Night Football was part of the American conversation in a way that no sporting option has been since. That includes the current version of the NFL. Even as they add to a ratings legacy that has Super Bowls regularly the most watched TV programming, it's not quite the same.
Even the league's commissioner admits that there's a problem with the game on the field. After doing his part to add to the NFL's list of issues with deflate gate among other things, Roger Goodell sent an open letter to the league's fans. In it he addressed the issues with the product. Too many TV-induced delays in play for a league renowned for not having a lot of action over three hours. Game speed is the new hot topic for multiple leagues with stoppages in play. The quicker the better, with no one unaware that a younger generation isn't big on lengthy breaks.
With all of this in mind, soccer should be feeling pretty good about itself. A muted conversation about the risks of concussions that hasn't risen anywhere near the level of what the NFL faces. Highly flattering participation figures for youth players. An unopposed standing as the #1 sport in countries all over the world. No timeouts television or otherwise.
For soccer's boosters, it should feel like this is the sport's moment. With so much upside and potential just in the United States, we may finally be seeing the transition away from the established sports and towards the next big thing. Not the brief soccer boom we saw in the 1970s or even the prolonged interest in the MLS era. Instead, direct competition with the big leagues. Maybe they're right. Maybe this is that golden opportunity to reset the sports that matter in the United States. This could be professional soccer's time, pushing those other sports out of the way.
That doesn't mean soccer as we know it is without its problems. There's a glut of soccer programming available on American television that has no counterpart in the other sports. Nobody is mistaking MLS with the best league in the world, something all of the established North American leagues can take as a given in those sports. There's no let off in the soccer calendar either. Club and country, there's always something. For some, that's another positive. For others, it's a quick path to burnout from a pro sport that can't seem to get the idea that less might be more.
If you're capable of looking at sports as entertainment, soccer might have its own issues to work through in competition with everything else. It might only last two hours, but there's plenty of examples of how tedious those two hours can be. Some broadcasts don't make the game easy to embrace, much less love.
The relocated commentator with the English accent saying the last name of the player who just touched the ball. The cliche of the overly excited soccer voice acting like his world rises and falls should a team actually score a goal. The play-by-play voice passing it to the former player who should know about this since he's a former player who formerly played. Is it even worth talking about the carryover from American sports broadcasting that requires the voice to read whatever graphic just flashed on screen?
Group all of these as part of quality control concerns. In America, there's an issue with how broadcasters package the sport. The same is true of leagues and promoters. All speak to quality in comparison to those other options.
That's what makes the NFL's problems everybody else's problems as well. If they're stumbling, it might be more than just an ideal opportunity for everybody else. It's not just pro soccer in line to push forward should the NFL slip. It's not even just pro sports. Should an opening occur, it's entertainment options across the board that will try to fill it.
We live in interesting times when it comes to pro sports. There are those who think we're heading for a crash triggered by the collapse of a sports TV rights bubble that may or may not exist. There are others who see the basic mechanisms of pro sports heading toward a dramatic end. Whether it's the transfer system in soccer or the publicly financed stadiums in the American sports, it's the idea that the whole artifice is teetering and won't absorb a push.
Decide for yourself if any of this holds, but the basic idea is worth considering. It's not one or the other in an emerging global market. It's a variety of leagues trying to hang onto what they already have in a rapidly changing entertainment business.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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