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Ruthven: World Cup 2018 without U.S. won’t stunt sport’s growth in America, but confirm it

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 11: USA fans celebrate a goal during the FIFA World Cup 2010 qualifying match between Cuba and the USA on October 11, 2008 at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

It was the image of a nation enthralled by the biggest show in international soccer. With the United States men’s national team up against Belgium for a place in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup, around 28,000 fans back home gathered at Soldier Field to watch and cheer. It was a crowd large enough to make Donald Trump insecure.

This wasn’t an isolated case, either. Thousands had packed Chicago’s Grant Park to watch the USA’s group games up until that point, with U.S. Soccer only moving their big screen to Soldier Field for the Round of 16 due to demand. There will be no such scenes this summer, though. The 2018 World Cup kicks off Thursday, but the USA won’t be there.

The American game is still reeling from its failure to qualify, with the debate over the way forward for the national team and the sport in the country as a whole showing no sign of reaching a conclusion. None of this means that this summer’s World Cup inRussia won’t strike a cultural cord with an American audience, though.

No other country beside the host has bought as many tickets for the 2018 World Cup as the USA. To provide some context: 72,512 tickets have been sold in Brazil, a country with more World Cup wins than any other, while 88,825 tickets have been sold to fans in the States. England, traditionally one of the best-supported countries in international soccer, has sold just over 32,000 tickets.

To use another measurement of enthusiasm, the USA ranks fifth for the most World Cup-related tweets originated in the 30 days preceding June 6. Commercially, the World Cup will be just as big an event Stateside as the Super Bowl. In 2014, 1.2 billion minutes of World Cup-related commercials were watched on YouTube, four times as many minutes as Super Bowl-related commercials that very same year. Most of those English-language views came from the U.S.

The 2014 World Cup felt like something of a breakthrough in the mainstream appeal of soccer in the United States. Of course, previous World Cups registered on the radar, but not in the way the tournament did four years ago. It was a true cultural phenomenon. They talked about it daily on Good Morning America, jerseys became fashion items and Rihanna live tweeted all the way through the tournament.

Was this solely down to the USA making the last 16? It might have provided a hook, but this certainly wasn’t the only thing that captivated the American audience. While there might have been an element of star-spangled patriotism in the phenomenon that was the USA’s interest in the 2014 World Cup, there was much more at play.

As much as the 2018 World Cup will still find an audience in the States, the USA’s failure to make it to Russia stings nonetheless. Not since 1986 had the USA not qualified for the World Cup. In American soccer terms, that’s a lifetime ago. In many ways, the modern history of the American game started in 1994, and so the blow dealt to U.S. soccer by stumbling on the route to Russia is a serious one, a square-one moment.

But rather than stunt soccer’s growth in the States, this summer’s World Cup could highlight the sheer strength of the sport as a mainstream American pursuit in 2018. Soccer still will be the biggest show in town, every town from coast to coast. The World Cup is now ingrained in the American psyche. It will take more than the USA’s failure to qualify to render it a minority interest, as it was decades ago.

Look at the growth of the Premier League, or the Champions League, in the United States over the past few years. Bob Bradley might have been Swansea City manager for a few months, Geoff Cameron might have been a regular for Stoke City for a number of seasons, but Americans don’t tune in to games broadcast from the other side of the Atlantic specifically to see other Americans involved. They tune in to enjoy the pinnacle of sport. The same principle will apply to the World Cup.

Some Stateside parties have struggled to find a red, white and blue hook for this summer’s World Cup. Fox Sports, for instance, who along with Telemundo paid $1 billion to show both the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, ran their pre-World Cup promotional campaign with the tagline “root for your roots,” calling on Americans to use their ancestry to engage in what will happen in Russia this summer.

U.S. Soccer itself has shed sponsors and commercial partners in the four years since the last World Cup, with bars in soccer hotbeds all over the country sure to miss out on the additional revenue the USA’s appearance in Russia this summer would have brought. Financially, a number of different parties in a number of different industries will feel some sort of impact.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why Fox is only send four of its match-day commentators to Russia. The rest will commentate on the games from a studio in Los Angeles, where they will watch the same broadcast feed that we will all watch at home.

A widely-held view is that the lack of a U.S. team at this World Cup will see American soccer miss out on its once reliable, once-every-four-year opportunity to convert new fans to the sport. But by this point, is there really a sports enthusiast left in the United States who hasn’t been exposed in some way to the game? Rather than halting soccer’s growth in the USA, this World Cup could confirm it.

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