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Soccer Reigns: The Cleats Are on the Other Fut Today

The global marketing of sports culture is a two-way street.

June 24, 2002|STEVEN ZEITCHIK | Steven Zeitchik is an editor at Publishers Weekly.

For the last decade, American sports Goliaths like the NBA and Major League Baseball have tried every marketing trick imaginable to sell games abroad. But a funny thing happened on the way to global domination: While we were busy making the international sports community a little more like us, the members of the international sports community made us a little more like them.

"The gap is closing," said Team USA coach Bruce Arena after the U.S. advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals. He was referring to the quality of U.S. soccer players, but he just as easily could have been talking about the worldwide popularity of various sports.

Globalization is strange like that. The influencer becomes the influenced with the speed of a good corner kick. As kids from Turkey and Tanzania have been learning double-pump jams from the league that David Stern flogged, American youth have been working on their midfield headers, thanks to the rest of the world.

According to the Soccer Council of America, soccer participation in the U.S. among kids 12 to 17 years old increased by 20% in the 1990s, while baseball and basketball weathered declines. These aren't unrelated events.

We can credit much of soccer's American surge to foreign influence, to grant money from the soccer federation FIFA that has poured in at the same rate that Major League Baseball money has poured out, and to American soccer coaches hearing of Europe's policy of pushing 18-year-olds to turn pro. Compare this policy with that of the NBA, which, for better or worse, has wrung its hands over admitting high school kids.

For a long time, pundits have asked whether globalism will allow one region to foist its sports culture on another. Sometimes the answer is no: Ask anyone who watches--or doesn't watch--the NFL Europe. In other cases, it can. The math is simple: Argentine kids are playing more basketball and losing in the first round of the World Cup; the U.S. is playing more soccer and getting as far as the Cup quarterfinals before being knocked out.

It didn't take long for the effects to start spreading. Europeans are wearing Kobe Bryant jerseys and New York Yankees hats, while the person walking down Fifth Avenue wearing the Adidas sneakers and the British soccer jersey is probably an East Village hipster, not an immigrant from Leeds.

All of these costume changes, literal and figurative, raise larger questions. Will sports allegiances--until now a complicated expression of individual and regional identity--one day turn into something else? Are we heading in a direction where loyalties mean less, where fanhood could one day become just another in a long list of media choices, no more personal a decision than picking a cell-phone provider?

It's a long way from here to there, of course. But it might be a road we've already started down. Our 1980 victory over the Russian hockey team in Lake Placid was significant because one country owned the sport and the other dabbled in it. The Russians nurtured the hockey industry like Iowans nurture soy, and when some ragamuffin 20-year-olds from New England beat them, it meant a lot. Few wins today could match that.

What's true for international preferences is doubly so for team affiliations. In the Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up, the baseball team you rooted for said something very particular about you. If you followed the Yankees, you wanted to fit in. If you followed the Mets, you wanted to be different, and if you picked a non-New York team that you couldn't watch, like the Cardinals or the Blue Jays, you wanted to be weird.

The global media have changed that: With cable making so many nonlocal games available and a media culture siphoning a baseball audience into X Games, wrestling and, of course, soccer, it's hard to imagine any one affiliation carrying that kind of significance today.

To be sure, the media are not all-powerful, and the history of manufacturing fans is littered with absurdities. Ted Turner tried to make the Atlanta Braves America's team by showing every game on his national cable network, but he still can't sell out Turner Field for a playoff game. George Steinbrenner came up with a plan to co-market the Yankees with English powerhouse Manchester United, but it hasn't resulted in too many David Beckham face-painters on 161st Street.

Still, after watching the topsy-turviness of this World Cup, it's hard to argue that the street does not run in two directions. Globalism and media saturation have created a world where you can make few safe claims about the territoriality of sports. This is globo-time for the world's athletes and their fans. It is an era when the Diegos and Ronaldos of the world may want to be like Mike--and Mike just might want to be like Ronaldo.

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