As the FIFA World Cup began play this weekend, it highlighted a sport that continues to interest more and more Americans, both locally and nationally.
More television coverage is devoted to international leagues through channels like the Fox Soccer Channel, and youth soccer continues to be popular.
Though it still lacks the following of major American sports like football or baseball, as more and more Americans participate in it, the more interest goes up, said Andy Clayton, president of the Kaw Valley Soccer Association.
Soccer experienced a rapid growth in popularity in the 1990s, he said, when the U.S. hosted the World Cup in 1994, and when many followed the women’s national team to prominence in the 1999 World Cup.
“That brought girls into the game in large numbers,” Clayton said.
Though participation rates in the Kaw Valley association have held relatively steady over the last decade at between 1,200 and 1,300 players, Clayton said the mindset of many of them has begun to change.
Once thought of as a way to keep children active between other sports seasons, soccer now attracts players all year long, he said.
“In the last 10 years or so, it’s become more of a serious sport,” Clayton said.
He’s also seeing a rise in the interest in soccer as a spectator sport, thanks to increased television coverage of international teams and the continued growth of Major League Soccer.
“It’s unrealistic to say it will ever approach football or baseball,” Clayton said. “But one day, I could see it reaching the level of the (National Hockey League). If we have four major sports right now, one day maybe we could have five.”
It’s not just youth who are interested and engaged in the sport. The Lawrence Adult Soccer League typically boasts between 200 and 250 participants, said Dustin Billings, a volunteer who helps oversee the league.
Like many soccer enthusiasts, Billings, who graduated from Kansas University in 2009, isn’t shy about his passion for the game.
“I love everything about it,” he said. “I’ve played, coached, refereed and watched at just about every kind of level.”
He said he organized local pickup games a couple of nights a week, and lately, they’ve been attracting more and more interest.
Years ago, he said he’d go through a lot of effort to get a game started among five people or so.
Now, he sends out one text message to a group of about 30 people, and nearly 50 people will show up looking to participate, Billings said.
The United States is a latecomer to the soccer trend; the sport attracts a rabid group of fans internationally.
In Germany, hordes of fans leave their homes during World Cup matches and watch them on huge video monitors outside in areas called “Fan Miles,” said Jim Morrison, co-director of KU’s Center for International Business Education and Research.
“It’s like going to a satellite stadium to watch it,” he said.
He was in Germany for the last World Cup and helped to organize a watch party that connected Free State Brewery in Lawrence to a similar brewery in sister city Eutin, Germany, by videoconference. Other watch parties were scheduled around the city, too, for American fans.
Morrison has organized an internship exchange between many businesses in the two cities, and hoped that the watch party — thought up by the owner of the German brewery — would strengthen that relationship.
“For them, of course, it’s obvious that Americans would want to watch their team play,” Morrison said.