Monday, April 07, 2014
The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship will be played tonight. Since I’m writing this several days before, I have no idea who will play in that game, but I do know that it will encourage heavy wagers. Even Warren Buffet got into the spirit of the “real” reason for the madness by promising $1 billion for a perfect bracket. It was a fairly safe bet since the odds were one in 9.2 quintillion. That’s 92 with 17 zeros after it or 92 billion times one billion. Those with some background knowledge in bracketology, such as knowing that Duke has never been called for a blocking foul or studying the comparative size advantage of one team over another, can reduce the odds to one in 128 billion. USA Today puts even that number into perspective: if everyone in America filled out a bracket, there would be one perfect bracket every 400 years. In Nevada, $80 to $90 million are wagered on March Madness, but the FBI estimates that $250 billion are bet “illegally,” which includes primarily office and bar pools (and probably Buffet’s billion). The 2012 Super Bowl generated $98 million in bets in Nevada. However, all that pales in the face of soccer betting. The World Cup alone generates $3 billion in bets in the United Kingdom, a country with a population of 64 million. Multiply that with the dizzying array of soccer competitions that cover the world, all of which showcase the top talent in soccer. While we tout the World Series, which is actually the U.S. Series (with one team from Canada), soccer has regional and world-wide competitions throughout the year, culminating in the aptly named World Cup. You may not want to place a bet on any of these events, but if your kids love soccer you should at least be watching.
Let’s start with the most confusing battles. Right now in Europe there are the three Union of European Football Association (UEFA) competitions: UEFA Champions League, UEFA Cup (rebranded recently as UEFA Europa League), and UEFA European Championship. European countries are granted a certain number of slots in each event. Generally, the club teams placing first through third or fourth in their country’s associations qualify for the Champions League, and the next three or four teams qualify for the Cup (and if the national club champion isn’t in the top eight, it qualifies for this event). The UEFA Cup final is played in August and the Champions League final is played May 24 this year. Right now, the latter is in the quarterfinals of the knockout rounds. The second round of the quarterfinals is April 8-9, with semifinals April 22-23 and April 29-30. The European Championship, commonly known as the “Euro,” is played every four years in between World Cups and will be played in France in 2016, but the draws were set this February. The Euros feature national teams, rather than club teams and will be shown on Fox Sports 1 and 2. Lest we forget, there are also games for national teams to qualify for the World Cup. For the 2014 World Cup, these were held between September 2012 and November 2013 and involved the national teams of 53 European countries vying for the 13 slots allotted the European zone.
UEFA is only one of six international organizations of football associations divided by geographical regions. The other five organizations are: OFC – Oceania Football Confederation, CAF – Confederation of African Football, AFC – Asian Football Confederation (including Australia), CONBEMOL – South American Football Confederation, and CONCACAF – Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football. All have championships (the U.S. plays in the CONCACAF Gold Cup) and all sponsor the qualifying rounds for World Cup slots assigned to their zones. The U.S. qualified for the World Cup. In addition, these same zones are used to determine the Summer Olympic qualifiers, which the U.S. Men did not make in 2012, but the U.S. Women did. These qualifiers are held in March and April of the Olympic year (2016 for the next one). Individual countries hold championships akin to the Super Bowl among their top tier teams. In England, the championship is called the FA Cup (Football Association Cup). The semis will be held at Wembley Stadium on April 13 (Wigan vs. Arsenal) and April 14 (Hull City vs. Sheffield). It gives teams that aren’t winning the Barclays Premier League a chance to still qualify for the UEFA Cup.
Every confederation has its own championship with various rules about what a win allows a team to procure such as a World Cup slot. In CONCACAF, the championship is known as the Gold Cup in which the national teams of the confederation members plus guest nations compete. The event is held every two years on odd years. The next will be held in 2015 and the U.S. has won five contests. In addition, CONCACAF sponsors a Champions League tournament for top club teams. The event is held in the spring and the winner automatically procures one of the CONCACAF spots for the FIFA Club World Cup (yes, there is a World Cup for clubs rather than national teams held every year). The finals will be held April 24, 2014. The last two MLS teams were eliminated in March. The semi-finals will air April 8 and 9 on Fox Sports 2. Other world competitions may or may not be broadcast, but things are changing rapidly with the TV landscape morphing yearly as more and more networks purchase the rights to various soccer leagues, tournaments and championships. Right now, NBC Sports Network airs all the Barclays Premier League games live (either on air or streaming), 40 MLS games a year, and the Olympics. ESPN airs MLS games, and Fox Sports has the right to the various UEFA and CONCACAF games.
Further crowding and complicating the soccer competitive scene is the fact that players have multiple allegiances. They play both for club teams and national teams. When those teams are involved in multiple competitions, the player’s schedule can get crazy. Therefore, contests are often arranged to maximize the ability of players to move from one team event to another with some rest in between. That’s great for fans who don’t have to decide which event to watch because they are spread out. International time zones help as well. Night games in Europe air in the mornings and early afternoon in the U.S. For example, the UEFA quarterfinals air the same days as the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal games, but not at the same times allowing Fox Sports to broadcast both.
We can also look to amateur soccer for some very exciting matches. Here in the U.S., we have the College Cup for the three NCAA divisions in both men’s and women’s soccer. These games are played in late November and early December and several in all divisions are broadcast on the Turner Broadcasting stations and streaming. There is the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the longest running national soccer competition in the U.S. Any amateur adult or professional team that is a member of the U.S. Soccer Federation is eligible to compete. The US Youth Soccer National Championships allow the top Under-13 through Under-19 boys and girls teams in the country the chance to claim the National title as the top team in the U.S. Clubs compete at the state level, with State Cup winners advancing to one of four regional tournaments. Finally, the winners of the Regional Championships join the US Youth Soccer National League representatives in the National Championships. In 2014, the finals will be held in Germantown, Md., July 22-29. You can also visit the Regional Tournaments by checking the website for dates and locations. Our U.S. Youth National Teams compete in world-wide competitions through U-23, including youth World Cups. Some of these games are broadcast or streamed.
Certainly, there will always be people who bet on these competitions, but families who participate in soccer don’t need to have a monetary stake in a competition to have fun watching the variety of matches available to them. Kids will learn what they need to aspire to and gain some great role models. Parents will develop a more accurate view of the rules, tactics and skills of the game, giving them the proper perspective in which to measure their own children’s abilities. Families will experience great together time sharing the love of a team or a player. While I do watch football, basketball and baseball – after all Wisconsin is in the Final Four – I have far more fondness for soccer. I’ve followed the sport since my student days in Germany, and I’ve never been disappointed by a match other than watching a favorite team lose. Even then I’ve enjoyed the “ballet” of the game as it actively plays out and being in awe of the athleticism of the competitors. I recently watch some old film of Pele and saw what made him the greatest soccer player ever.
Soccer contests are played nearly every day of the year. Significant competitions stretch out over the same time frame with events several times every month. Focusing solely on the World Cup truly limits your opportunity to expose you and your child to top-level soccer. I argue that live soccer is available to view within a few miles of most American families, including high school, college, United Soccer League, Professional Arena Soccer League and MLS games. Tickets are generally very reasonably priced with plenty of special offers. For example, the college games in the Milwaukee area never cost more than $10 a ticket with student prices and group rates available. Better yet, volunteer your club team to be ball boys or girls for college and high school games in your area. Introduce your kids to the full experience of soccer as most of the world knows it giving yourself a richer background in the sport. Pick a team to support and a player to follow. Given all the opportunities now available both live and on TV to encounter the various levels of soccer here in the U.S. and throughout the world, it would be a shame to squander those exciting viewings. I’m not a gambling person, but I’ll lay this bet that you’ll be glad you took part in the larger soccer world.