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7/11/2015 6:48 am  #1

What a Glorious Day

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The Sport That Makes the Flag (and the Confetti) Fly

The championship women of United States soccer were showered with confetti and streamers and outright love on Friday as they became the first team of female athletes to be honored with a ticker-tape parade in the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan.

The tens of thousands of fans who lined the parade route served as a sequel to the record television audience of 25.4 million that watched last Sunday as the team captured the Women’s World Cup in Canada with a 5-2 victory over Japan. Both events spoke to the growing popularity in the United States of both soccer and women’s sports, and to their potential to get even bigger.

And the outpouring of support this summer for the women’s national team and last summer for the men’s national team at the World Cup in Brazil also strengthened the notion that soccer has become the sport by which Americans most passionately express their patriotism.

Americans tend to cheer for their college alma maters or follow regional professional teams. The Super Bowl remains as popular for the commercials as for the game itself. The Olympics provide intense interest for 16 days in sports that do not attract as much mainstream attention as they once did, like track and field and figure skating.
But with rare exceptions, like the 1980 hockey victory by the United States over the Soviet Union, the Winter and Summer Games do not evoke the same painted-face, flag-waving enthusiasm that a World Cup now does.

“This is the closest thing we have to a national team,” said Andrei S. Markovits, a professor of political science at Michigan and an author of “Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism.” He said Americans who tuned in to Fox last Sunday night “were like Germans or Brazilians” when their national soccer teams were playing.

“In this case,” he said, “it really was from Maine to California.”

The championship match in the men’s or women’s World Cup now routinely draws a larger television viewership in the United States than the average audience for the World Series. Even the decisive Game 7 of the 2014 World Series between San Francisco and Kansas City drew two million fewer television viewers than did Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final; so did the recent N.B.A. finals, which featured two superstar players — LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

Signs of a broad interest in soccer in the United States are plentiful. Major League Soccer, the men’s pro league that started in 1996, is averaging a record 21,023 fans a game this season and now regularly draws larger average crowds than the N.B.A. or the N.H.L.

The comparisons are not precise because soccer is an outdoor sport and basketball and hockey are played indoors in arenas with smaller seating capacities and many more games on the schedule. But it is clear that soccer has grown far beyond being a marginal sport in the United States with a very occasional big moment.

Don Garber, the M.L.S. commissioner, said that in the past he was invariably asked, “When is soccer going to make it in America?”

“That just does not happen anymore,” he said.

Demographic shifts, widespread interest among millennials, wider access to international soccer on television and online and the popularity of FIFA video games have inevitably prompted the question of whether soccer has surpassed hockey as the fourth major team sport in the United States.

According to a 2014 ESPN poll, soccer ranked second only to the N.F.L. in popularity among 18-to-34-year-olds. Comcast’s NBC Sports Group broadcasts every game of the English Premier League. Americans were second only to Brazilians in buying tickets for the 2014 men’s World Cup.

And American support at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada converted every match the United States played into a loud home game. The final against Japan drew a sellout crowd of 53,341 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Forty-three million Americans watched some part of the game on television.

“We shouldn’t be talking about the four majors; we should be talking about the five majors,” said Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation.

Few knew about the United States team that won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991. The 1999 Women’s World Cup final drew 90,000 to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., for the final against China and became a story as much of empowerment as of soccer. The 2015 Women’s World Cup brought an added dimension of respect for soccer players as athletes.

“The fact that supporters were in a lather shows how far we’ve come from 1999, when the prototypical fan was a wide-eyed, braces-wearing, squealing 10-year-old girl in a Mia Hamm or Julie Foudy jersey whose parents were along for the ride,” David Hirshey, the executive editor of HarperCollins Publishers and the publisher of memoirs of Hamm and goalkeeper Hope Solo, said in an email.

“Now those little girls are all grown up and no longer look at the women’s team as simply a bunch of attractive role models, but as elite athletes and soccer players with all the attendant flaws,” Hirshey wrote. “So I think they have more of an emotional investment in the team than they did in ’99. And that leads to both frustration when they lose and a cathartic outpouring of joy when they win.”

In 1999, the Women’s World Cup began without widespread public attention and caught the country “by storm and by surprise,” said Mary Jo Kane, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

But current players like Solo and Abby Wambach, international soccer’s career leading scorer with 183 goals, had become household names, through previous World Cup and Olympic tournaments and the explosion of social media.

Slide show

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

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