Maybe, if you’re on the Twitter, you saw this tweet or some variant of it over the last 12 hours fly into your feed. According to ESPN, last night’s summer club friendly between Liverpool and Manchester City drew more fans (49,653) to Yankee Stadium in 2014 than any game featuring the building’s primary tenant, the 27-time World Series champion Yankees (48,572). It’s the kind of stat-based tweet people like to click the re-tweet button for (or favorite for a rainy day) and will probably be churned into the ESPN talking points agenda at some point Thursday since there’s only one obvious conclusion to draw: soccer’s popularity in America continues to skyrocket and baseball is about to join the likes of boxing and horse racing in faded relevance.
Sweeping declarations off a one-off exhibition game or, ugh, one tweet, generally tend not to be the smartest idea, but that doesn’t stop the knees from jerking or the takes from flowing especially on a slow summer day before king NFL has fully taken its rule of the landscape.
ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd talked about the high attendance figures for the game and delivered a none-too-subtle blow to Mike Francesa and other aging media-types who cling to the out-dated notion that soccer isn’t a popular, viable sport in America. Francesa, during the World Cup, asked a guest if soccer players kick the ball with both legs.
By a stroke of good fortune I was able to attend the game when a friend offered up a free ticket at the last minute and can attest Yankee Stadium was packed to the gills. Here’s a photo from Getty Images as proof:
Granted, older media or entrenched soccer-haters won’t have their opinions swayed by any of this information, but here’s my two cents on the game/attendance/future of soccer in America and other fun topics prompted by that ESPN tweet.
Americans Like to Watch Big-Name European Club Teams: In all honesty is there a reason at age 34 Steven Gerrard should be ambling around a makeshift field on a late July night in the Bronx? No. But the fans at Yankee Stadium wanted to see the Liverpool legend, so Brendan Rodgers must abide, especially when those fans are paying $20+ for a replica scarf, $100+ for a jersey and $50+ for a ticket.
Admittedly it’s a weird situation. Americans are more than happy to shell out decent chunks of money to see completely meaningless soccer games, be it the International Champions Cup or a marquee team like Arsenal playing the New York Red Bulls. You can’t fault these teams touring America and cashing in on this trend, it’s good business.
The aforementioned Manchester United/Galaxy match drew 86,000+ to the Rose Bowl. United’s game with Roma in Denver packed in 54,000+ at Mile High. Real Madrid and Inter Milan brought 62,000+ to Berkeley. Name value alone might get people to watch as the Arsenal/RBNY game on ESPN2 drew more viewers than a baseball game on FS1 at the same time.
Teams of this ilk have brought in huge gates for years in America during the summer, so there is obviously a market and thirst for soccer in the states despite what the likes of Dan Shaughnessy, Francesa or others clinging to the 20th Century viewpoint of the sport would like to think. I’d go as far as to say soccer is just another sport at this point in American and the need to even write a post like this in the wake of high attendance figures is unnecessary, but given the World Cup concluded less than a month ago soccer is on the sports media brain.
If you like soccer cool, if not no big deal — there are plenty of paying customers out there who want to don their favorite club team’s gear, sing the songs with other fans and watch their heroes live … even if the game means nothing. It’s harmless fun and if you have the disposible income, go for it, right?
To the countless school age kids walking around the Yankee Stadium concourse Wednesday in Yaya Toure or Daniel Sturridge jerseys, all this talk about soccer’s popularity in America probably sounds crazy since they’ve grown up in a completely different environment, where the sport has readily been available on television and following it didn’t come with a stigma attached to it. (Or maybe they’ve just logged hundreds of hours playing FIFA. Either or.)
What do these games mean to MLS? Good question. If I had the answer, MLS would probably have hired me by now to work in their corporate office. There are obviously soccer fans in America who want to watch games and consume the product like any other sport. The problem for MLS is many would rather do so by watching Manchester United via satellite than a domestic team. It’s hard to tell someone who lives 100s of miles from the nearest MLS stadium to support a team or watch it on TV when they can pick another team to follow from the Premier League or whatever with just as much ease. Soccer is a sport on the world stage and unlike most other professional leagues in America, MLS is not at the top of the pyramid, creating a persistent challenge for the league.
Does 50,000 for a friendly bode well for NYCFC next year? This is something that can be answered. Although NYCFC — an expansion MLS team starting play in 2015 co-owned by Manchester City and the Yankees — trotted over David Villa for the coin flip and showed Frank Lampard on a video board, odds are a percentage who watched Liverpool/City play will come back for MLS. They might not buy season tickets, but I’d think people would check out at least one or two games at the Stadium before making up their mind. You’ll get nowhere near 50,000 on a regular basis but 20000-25,000 isn’t out of the realm of possibility for the first season.
Yankee Stadium, too, it should be noted provides a unique (read: not ideal) set up for soccer in person. The bleacher seats and rightfield appear to be the best tickets in the house, whereas the seats behind home plate are far away from the field and offer poor vantage points. NYCFC should benefit, though, since it’s still accessible by Subway and other mass transit. Long term it’s not ideal for soccer, but works as a stopgap until NYCFC finds digs of its own within the five boroughs.
Shouldn’t the Yankees sell more tickets?: What’s that line about lies and damn statistics? The ESPN tweet would make it seem like the Yankees attendance is a disaster. Ideally, yes, the team would probably want more fans in the seats for Derek Jeter’s farewell season … BUT … through 50 home dates the Yankees are still averaging 42,866 and playing to 85 percent capacity — both third in MLB. That’s still a lot of people over a lot of games spread over a six-month season and why comparing it to a single game exhibition that soccer fans circled on their calendars months ago is silly.
As crazy as this might sound, there are probably enough fans with enough varied tastes to support both soccer and baseball in America without one or the other needing to die out.