Today's Top Words:
It's the final, *final* chance to make the coveted breakthrough.

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Every couple of years, usually in long, overwrought think pieces proffered by one of the traditional media institutions-- Sports Illustrated (RIP), The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal -- we are treated to predictions that soccer, as it is known in North America, is set to sweep across the continent.

Usually, the think-piece coincides with the World Cup or the kickoff of a Premier League season. A reporter either looks at the booming figures among participation in the sport at youth or adult levels, the shifting demographics in the country, or spends an afternoon at a watering hole with the early morning risers who make up the hardcore faction of U.S supporters.



(Like many niche things, by the way, these people want their thing to stay their thing. They engage in double-think: it's the cool underground band that everyone is sleeping on while rallying against the establishment that it is not the most popular thing known to man. People are weird)



And yet the predictions never come to pass. True, the Premier League, and soccer in general, are doing better than ever in the US. There are real discussions on major networks about the payment structure at the top of their own national game. Some Major League Soccer sides have become local juggernauts, routinely selling out 60,000-plus seater stadiums. Premier League mornings are a real thing, not a contrived PR push. But it still remains a little off to the side. It does not dominate the national conversation on the sports talk shows or hold the A1 spot at the go-to information and opinion pushers. It still sags behind the NFL, college football, the NBA, college basketball, MLB, college baseball, golf, boxing, and the NHL.



Even UFC, thanks to a partnership with the omnipresent ESPN, has pushed its way from a brand of glorified human cockfighting into being a cornerstone of content for the World Wide Leader in sports, zooming past any coverage dedicated to the Premier League and Champions League.

(This conversation would be moot had ESPN held on to its live football rights package. They are expected to bid for the upcoming Champions League rights package)

Think about that. In a slimmer time frame -- the World Cup was held in L.A. in 1994, which ushered in the first of the “football is here to conquer America” stories -- the UFC has gone from a straight-to-video enterprise holding UFC III in front of 2,000 in a tiny Denver hall, to a cultural phenomenon that has taken the place of elite prize-fighting.

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I should point out that this is not the first article you will find with a similar tone. Every few years a self-dubbed smart thinker pens something all these lines. It’s now or never, is the tenor. If this World Cup doesn’t get America involved, nothing will.

Ordinarily, that mindset is wrong. There is always another opportunity around the corner. Another World Cup, another global star you can sell as the symbol of excellence. This moment, however, does feel like the moment for the most coveted of breakthroughs.

There is nothing going on in the American sporting calendar right now. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. A matchplay golf contest between Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning, the latter two being NFL quarterbacks (one a former quarterback) and not professional golfers, drew in an average of 5.8 million viewers, peaking at 6.3 million. It is the largest golf audience ever on cable, which is objectively bonkers.

What’s more, there is little on the horizon. The NBA and NHL are still trying to figure out proposals that would see their seasons resume. Both have end-of-regular-season stuff to navigate as well as a fresh playoff format to try to figure out. Both have to agree to deals with the Players Associations they’re in partnership with -- a massive break from the British sporting culture. American sports leagues are essentially made up of a partnership between the franchises (the teams) and the respective unions (the players), with their pair splitting the revenue that comes into the league. This make-up often leads to fraught collective bargaining negotiations and makes unilateral decisions -- “our league will resume on date X” -- impossible.

Then there’s baseball, which has the most historic tension between its player’s union and the team owners, which includes the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool ownership group FSG. There isn’t a simple way to condense the animosity between the players and owners, but here’s a tiny insight: Players believe they have been shafted on their contracts forever and that the entire operation is built to suppress wages; owners wish to implement a salary cap, thereby suppressing wages. Baseball’s Union, due to the fact it is by far the oldest in any professional sport, is also by far the most powerful union among America’s sports.

To think the two sides will have agreed to any kind of deal that will see the season start soon is fanciful. The players are already incensed by the owner’s initial proposal, which has squashed any hope of a sprightly return-to-play. Now the negotiations have become about something more: About pride and ego and what’s right and labor-vs-management and a re-working of the governance of the sport.

The NFL remains months away from a return. Nobody knows what will happen with collegiate athletics, the second biggest TV rating driver, though it seems like that will be dictated state-to-state and school-to-school.

All of that leaves a massive void in the content arsenal of all the major sports broadcasters and a public hungry for any kind of action.

The Bundesliga’s return-to-play has already been a surprising hit. 450,000 people watched the Schalke-Dortmund derby upon the league’s return, a record number for the US market. Numbers have dropped a little since then but have held strong, blowing away any of the numbers that came in the years before.

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This should be a perfect time for the Premier League to take advantage. And perhaps it will be, in the short term. America’s sporting market is built on gambling, which is funny given it was only legalised in certain states 18-months ago. Betting lines govern everything. The entire narrative of a game is set by the bookie’s line, even if broadcast networks have always been hesitant to come right out and say it. It has always, always, always been the billion-dollar elephant in the room. The fact that soccer will be the only high-level, non-horse racing event on the calendar gives it a massive opportunity. In-play gambling is relatively new in the states, though it dominates the market in Britain. That alone will bring in large swaths of people to the Premier League, even if they don’t fully commit to watching the games or investing in the characters.

Add to that: the time. It is hard to be a Premier League fan in America, much the same way it is tough to be an NFL or NBA fan in the U.K. It takes commitment. You have to get up early or stay up late. It’s not a passive experience, you have to be an active participant.

But the Premier League putting on games throughout the day, ripping from match-to-match-to-match, should help ease some of that and should allow the league to channel some of the give-me-all-of-it-right-now energy that has infected the countries sports-watching public thanks to the advent of NFL Redzone.

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But there should be apprehension about what this means long-term. The whole concept of America genuflecting to soccer has been built on the principle that once they see it, hear it, feel it they’ll be hooked. They will get it. That being a part of a “club” is different and tribal and communal compared to the antiseptic nature of a “franchise”, which can up and leave your city in the middle of the night.

That impact has been proven. For many fans, those who wake up at stupid o’clock to bask in NBC’s excellent programming it is because they love the singing and chanting and the storylines and the culture and the history more so than anything else -- stuff they cannot get all in one place in the buffet of America's sports offerings. It is not necessarily because they love the rhythm of the thing, though the speed of the game is often among the first things commented upon when you watch a match with a newbie.

Without fans at matches and the carnival of the matchday experience, the spectacle will be lacking. Without the built-in knowledge of the characters involved -- the clubs, rivalries, players, managers -- it will be hard for viewers to see what is so special about the game beyond the technical excellence on the pitch. The latter is appreciated, but it’s the former that makes people want to be a part of the culture long-term.

There has long been a belief among America’s sports intelligentsia that as soccer grew, baseball would fall. Baseball is a sport from a different time. It is long, untimed, and intricate. You need to follow your team every single damn day. It has gone from a national enterprise to a regional one. In a bite-sized, 280-character world, it is a bloated relic of the past. Soccer is the future, it is believed. Like the NBA, which continues to grow and grow in popularity while MLB’s attendance and TV ratings have declined, it has a set time limit. You get in and out. Yet unlike basketball, it is appointment viewing. There are no pointless Premier League games. There is no tanking. The supply is limited, and so each game becomes an event.

And that is how it must be sold during this limited run when it will have a chance to monopolise the sports conversation.

If the Premier League continues to see the US market as the new-frontier, that making it mainstream over there would be the only way to continue to push profits higher and higher and higher, perhaps it finally is now or never.


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