SIDELINE SLANTS

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JOE KLEINSASSER
The experts said the earth was flat. Christopher Columbus didn’t think so. Columbus was right.

The experts say soccer in America will never be a popular sport.

They’re only partially right. Soccer isn’t the most popular spectator sport on television, but it’s more than holding its own in terms of participation.

During this summer’s World Cup of soccer, newspaper columnists and talk- show hosts seem to enjoy trashing soccer. They go to great lengths to explain why soccer will never be as popular in America as in the rest of the world. The basic reasons are that soccer is too slow and too dull, with not enough scoring.

It’s easy to fall into the soccer-bashing trap. But even respected columnists such as Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press miss the point.

Soccer may not be No. 1 in America, but it’s on the rise.

In a recent column, Albom tries to dispel several myths about soccer in America. He says it’s a myth that Americans would watch soccer more if we were better at it, pointing out that we’re great at track and field and swimming-and we don’t watch them, either.

Comment: The implication is that the only sports that matter are three or four sports that are popular with the masses on television.

Albom says a second myth is that hosting the World Cup would inject us with the soccer bug. He dispels that by pointing out that although it was held here in 1994, most people can’t remember who won.

Comment: So? How many people remember who won the Super Bowl, basketball championship or World Series eight years ago?

He says another myth is that kids play soccer, so they’ll grow to watch it. Albom says while soccer is widely played in grade schools, so is hopscotch.

Comment: In America, football is clearly a more popular spectator sport than soccer, but it’s also true that more adults play soccer than football after college.

A fourth myth is that we are a nation of immigrants, so it is inevitable that soccer will become popular. Albom says America is a melting pot, and when people come here, they more often assimilate to the new than cling to the old.

Comment: I think the many Hispanic people migrating to the United States will continue to have a passion for soccer, and more importantly, so will their children.

Because soccer continues to fall below the radar screen of many American sports fans, Albom and other self-proclaimed experts ignore the fact that soccer is much more popular today than it was 20 years ago.

Case in point: 20 years ago, high school soccer was largely invisible. Today, many Kansas high schools field boys’ and girls’ soccer teams, and they compete for state championships.

Times change. American football is far more popular today than it was 50 years ago. Volleyball is more popular. NASCAR is more popular. Soccer is more popular. Baseball is less popular. Boxing is less popular.

Who’s to say that soccer won’t become significantly more popular in the next 50 years in America? Soccer has something going for it that most sports don’t. It’s relatively cheap. In fact, that may be the main reason why soccer is so popular worldwide. All you need is a field, a ball, shoes, shorts and a shirt. Football requires costly equipment, a large numbers of players and a good insurance policy.

Small-college football rosters usually feature more than 60 players. It only takes a roster of 15 to 18 players to field a competitive soccer team.

Plus, as society becomes more litigious, football becomes harder to justify financially. It’s no secret that at any level, high school or college, football is an expensive sport to maintain.

Football probably isn’t going to fade anytime soon as a popular sport, but it’s not realistic to expect it to be as popular 100 years from now.

When the economic realities set in and push comes to shove, administrators may think long and hard about continuing a football program.

A sport’s value and popularity are not measured exclusively by attendance and TV viewing.

So go ahead and kick soccer if you like. But be careful not to turn your back. It might kick back.

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