Does Putting ‘America First’ Put America’s Sporting Bids Last?
1994 offered promise; 2017 isolationism.
In a moment that would come to haunt him for decades, a pony-tailed Italian named Roberto Baggio stepped up to the penalty spot and sent the ball sailing over the crossbar. It handed the 1994 FIFA World Cup to Brazil after a scoreless 90 minutes of play at California’s Rose Bowl stadium. With that, the first and last soccer World Cup to be played in the US was over.
It was a controversial decision to award hosting rights to a nation without even a top-level national soccer competition, but Baggio’s missed kick brought an end to a tournament roundly considered a great success. Its record for attendance still stands, despite the expansion of the number of teams in the finals, and the tournament’s playing in soccer-mad populous hosts like Brazil, Mexico, Asia and all over Europe.
In 1994, just as the world worried the US was not ready for soccer, the US worried soccer was not ready for its sporting media landscape.
All major American sports have breaks for broadcasters to cram advertising into — soccer is one continuous stretch of uninterrupted play, often incapable of even accommodating replays let alone sponsors’ messages. Networks sidestepped this by putting a sponsored game clock and scoreboard on-screen at all times. Television sports broadcasting has never been the same since.
The experiment run, the results were clear: despite its low profile as a domestic sport, despite its incompatibility with TV advertising, despite a goalless final, and despite the US team not advancing past the second round, soccer was a viable commercial sport in the US.
Flash forward nearly a quarter of a century and that statement looks obvious now. Over 25 million US viewers tuned into the TV broadcast of their national women’s team World Cup victory in 2015 . To put that in context, more viewers watched that women’s soccer game than the men’s NBA Finals. Fox reaped in $40 million in ad revenue. Many pundits assumed (FIFA generally rotates the regions for each tournament) the USA would be a shoe-in to host either the 2018 or 2022 World Cups, sending the domestic profile of the sport stratospheric.
“Perhaps there’s a big commercial opportunity arising now in the United States because of the tremendous television audiences that are booming and that the World Cup has also encouraged in its domestic game as well. We did well with football when it first went to the United States but the opportunities are bigger now.” — Then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter in 2014
Those tournaments, it is now known, went to Russia and Qatar under an intense cloud of widespread corruption from the FIFA selection committee. The fallout firmed the US as an even stronger candidate for 2026.
There’s just one issue. Soccer is the ‘world’s game’.
Sport has always been an expression of the cultures that spawn it. The most popular sports watched in the US are uniquely American, their ‘world’ champions crowned through besting their domestic rivals. Soccer’s strength on the other hand, has been that it is the great leveler — played near-universally, by anyone with access to a round object and patch of grass/dirt/concrete, whether it be in Europe, Asia, Africa or The Americas.
The last time anyone counted (over ten years ago), more than 4 out of every 100 people on earth was a registered soccer player or referee. 1 in every 7 people on earth were watching the 2014 World Cup final.
It’s what makes the World Cup the event that it is. Outside of the Olympics, there is no other sporting competition that brings together people from literally everywhere.
And that’s the problem for the US. People from literally everywhere are not welcome here anymore.
Until the election of Donald Trump as President, things were looking optimistic for the US bid to host the 2026 tournament — and therefore cementing soccer as a sport to rival the big codes.
New FIFA President Gianni Infantino, a supporter of the US as host, was elected in a tight race with the US delegation’s support. All of the infrastructure is in place to accommodate a tournament of that size (often the biggest stumbling block for emerging nations, and the biggest clue that Qatar — hopelessly ill-suited and ill-equipped to host — won illicitly). Most importantly the almighty dollar tipped the scales in America’s favor: the potential sports audience market is worth billions. Soccer could have its share.
But then the US announced to the world it was closed for business.
Closed to immigrants and refugees, closed to markets, closed to trade. An American job would be protected against the jobs of people in other countries, an American product would be protected against a product made anywhere else, and Americans would be protected against non-Americans (who, despite the statistics, were said to be wanting to kill them). Put simply, it’s ‘America first’.
And like that, the ‘world game’ became anathema to the US.
“It is the World Cup. They should be able to attend the event, whatever their nationality is.” — Aleksander Ceferin, FIFA
UEFA President and a Vice President of FIFA Aleksander Ceferin told the New York Times last week “if players cannot come (to the US) because of political decisions, or populist decisions, then the World Cup cannot be played there.” The same, he said, applied to fans and journalists.
Whether or not teams from the seven specific countries singled out in the Trump Administration’s initial travel ban qualify for the 2026 World Cup, and whether or not the ban is still in place, the schism is driving the US and the rest of the world further apart. Just this week the Tibet Women’s Soccer team were denied visas to play in a tournament in Dallas, with no explanation given from authorities.
Other reports are pouring in of a newly invigorated Customs and Border Protection viewing their new remit as much broader than seven Muslim-majority nations — from the detention and interrogation of Mohammed Ali’s son (a US citizen) for having a “Muslim sounding name”, to a beloved elderly white Australian children’s author being held at the border until it emerged an infant Prince George read her books.
The impact of the US missing out on the 2026 World Cup goes far beyond the future of soccer as a sport in this country. An economic impact study commissioned by US Soccer in advance of the 2018/2022 bid estimated the overall dollar effect would be equivalent to a dozen Super Bowls, with each host city raking in around half a billion dollars and 5000–8000 temporary jobs.
That should be political imperative enough to make the Trump Administration, one that has staked its reputation on boosting local economies and protecting local jobs, reconsider.
It only took the threat of losing one Super Bowl to make the Arizona Governor veto a bill that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against gay and lesbian customers. Trump’s travel ban threatens to cost at least 12 times that to American businesses if it means losing the World Cup.
As America withdraws further into itself, the results of this new isolationism are manifold. There are moral, legal and economic reasons to question the trend and its impact, but the story of soccer in the US tells an important allegory. An immigrant game for an immigrant culture, soccer represents in many ways the American Dream — an imported tradition set against the freewheeling backdrop of innovation and a mass market. It should be a powerhouse combination. Like pizza or Halloween.
Instead, it is telling the darker story of American exceptionalism and isolation choking the potential for a thriving global future. In 1994 all the pieces were there: a changing demographic ready to harness the changing methods of media consumption for a broader global outlook and an emerging market worth billions. In 2017, it all seems like a massive missed opportunity. Like Roberto Baggio’s ill-fated penalty shot, sent sailing over the crossbar.