Monday, August 11, 2014
With the World Cup in the rearview mirror, we here in Milwaukee witnessed something amazing Wednesday night: the first-ever professional soccer match in our burg at Miller Park. Swansea City and Chivas Guadalajara came to Beer City to play their friendly in front of nearly 32,000 soccer fans. The build-up to the contest included watching the transformation of a baseball field to a soccer field, which started on the first base line and extended to left field. The grounds crew removed the pitcher’s mound and installed sod along the baselines and in a huge crescent around the bases. Other than a difference in color, the pitch had a smooth, elegant appearance. The length was 120 yards but the width was only 66. News media climbed on board the soccer train and rode it to the end with dozens of stories and interviews leading up to the match. Fans were invited to watch the teams practice for free. Milwaukee’s formidable Hispanic population turned out to support what is Mexico’s premier professional team. The stadium was awash in the reds and blues of Chivas, the greens of Mexico’s national team, and the whites of Swansea City. It was an incredible atmosphere and the game did not disappoint. Swansea City scored in the 58th minute but could not hold on after losing two players – one to a red card and one to an unexplained reason. Chivas lost a player to a red card in the same incident as Swansea for shoving. Despite a strong defensive showing, a Swansea player was charged with pulling a Chivas player down in the box, and the penalty kick in the 87th minute provided a tie, which held through the end of play.
It seemed fitting that a friendly ended in a tie, although none of the players looked like they were comfortable with the outcome. I know the Chivas fans were relieved. The match got chippy as it progressed as evidenced by the double red cards in the second half. However, the play proceeded at a high caliber with a great show of team tactics and individual skills. Any soccer fan would have been delighted by the evening.
The most significant aspect of the event for me was the number of young fans throughout the stadium. Dozens of cameras scanning the stands before the game and during halftime revealed thousands of youngsters dancing and smiling on the jumbo screen. I would estimate that at least 50 percent of the attendees were kids. These youth fans represent the growing influence of soccer and participation in the sport. Tickets went on sale in February and the majority were purchased in the first few days they were offered. Therefore, the World Cup effect probably wasn’t a huge factor. Instead, it had to be the growing interest and involvement of youth players that drove sales. I actually bought six tickets and my sons and their friends took all of those, so I had to buy two more for my husband and me! Soccer clubs bought blocks of tickets for their players. Young fans cleaned out Milwaukee’s entire stock of Chivas jerseys, scarves and T-shirts. The overall economic effect on the city was tremendous to include sales of soccer-related items, hotels and restaurant visits for out-of-town visitors, even museum attendances were up. Fans were represented by nearly 30 states and many of those long-distance fans were young.
The local NBC affiliate interviewed six people before the game and four of those were under age 13. Their comments included “this will set the stage for more soccer in Milwaukee” and “as long as professional soccer comes here, I’ll keep coming and so will all my friends.” That’s some pretty sophisticated analysis from pint-sized fans, but it does represent the deep passion youth players have for the game. In the section I was sitting in, there were six youth players behind me and two next me. Despite Swansea not being significantly followed on the world stage, many of the kids knew who the players were and helped out the adults in identifying their strengths and histories. I admit I learned a lot eavesdropping. I’d even take the position that between the growth of soccer in the States and the influence of the World Cup, we’ve seen the kind of youth interest that we see in basketball and football. In fact, the 26.5 million American viewers for the World Cup final is a larger audience than last year’s deciding game in the World Series (19.2 million), the NBA final game (18.0 million), and this January’s BCS Championship game (25.6 million), according to Variety. Those are amazing and heartening statistics and help explain why NBC, Fox and ESPN have made such a huge investment in airing international and domestic football in the United States.
When the World Cup ended, Bryce opined that it was back to watching the MLS — not as a slur on our American soccer option but bemoaning the hole in the soccer experience that won’t be around for another four years. The English Premier League begins again in August, and all of its games are now broadcast in the United States thanks to NBC Sports. The Women’s World Cup will fill part of the void in 2015. America has also seen the expansion of minor leagues such as the North American Soccer League (NASL), Professional Development League (PDL), Professional Arena Soccer League (PASL indoor), and several futsol organizations, including the National Futsol Team that trains in Milwaukee. All of these professional and semi-professional opportunities will need young players both as fans and participants to remain viable. Additionally, college soccer has received more media coverage during the season for both men and women and for the College Cup.
I continue to encourage families to find soccer games in their area to attend, whether it be professional, college or high school. Kids need the role models that players in these arenas offer to keep them motivated about the sport. Additionally, the best soccer players are students of the game. Discovering various tactical formations while watching a match can provide a great backdrop for all the explanations coaches try to make during practices. Following competitors who play the same position as a youth player can help that player understand how to perform both on and off the ball. Although tickets to Wednesday night’s Swansea City-Chivas match ran $24 to $70, fans don’t need to spend that kind of money to enjoy an evening at a soccer game. Most college and high school tickets are under $5 each, making it an inexpensive and educational experience for the family, the team or the club. Most semi-pro teams have many ticket specials for families and club that make the average cost around $10 a seat. At today’s inflated prices for movies, most soccer games are a bargain entertainment experience. Next Friday we will return to Miller Park to see the Brewers and our seats will be $34 a person. We can’t afford to attend Packer or Bucks games. Soccer as an emerging sport in America is still an affordable option for family fun.
When you travel for tournaments or family vacations, look up soccer matches at your destination. Being able to see the level of skill in different geographical locations helps when assessing your own child’s abilities. We can get tunnel vision when we just watch our kids’ youth games against local competition. The more exposure we can get to the sport, the more we and our kids can observe the various levels of soccer around the country. Attending college games on our travels can also reveal some options for them as they contemplate where to attend school. The choice doesn’t need to be dependent upon soccer. We can visit the campus, talk to students at the games, and check out the library, student union and housing. Soccer can be the excuse to make some educational discoveries with our children. Getting recruited to a university is really just one small piece of the puzzle in making an informed choice for the future. Having the opportunity to check out schools early in the selection process can really help in managing the options and narrowing their choices. In the meantime everyone will benefit by enjoying some great soccer.
We are inundated with family entertainment picks, ranging within movies, sports, fairs, amusement parks, music and comedy performers, plays, and travel. These can end up being very expensive activities. If your children have a passion for the game, then going to soccer matches at any level can feed that passion and help with playing improvement. At the very least, check out the variety of matches now offered on TV. If you can’t afford a seat in a stadium, then plop down on your comfortable couch and share a televised game with your child.