Monday, July 16, 2007

America is fighting back

Americans like to be good at things. In fact, they like to be the best…in the whole world…of all time. In this hot summer of 2007, two separate on-going events are once again illustrating an American desire to not be overtaken, outclassed or outbid.

This afternoon the United States U-19 team will face Lithuania in the second round of the World Championship games being played in Novi Sad, Serbia. The U.S. team has been led so far by the outstanding scoring of KSU’s Michael Beasley (15.0 ppg) and Davidson’s Stephen Curry (13.7). Arkansas’ Patrick Beverley has stepped up big with 9.0 ppg and 5.0 boards per contest. Although the team doesn’t feature some of the country’s best under-19 players (I’m sure you’ve heard of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant), this team has outshined its competition so far with a new generation of college basketball players. A generation that is finally seeming to understand what it takes to win.

Although the media can often seem whiny and moralistic when they go off on tangents about the selfishness and lack of team talent exhibited in American basketball, it seems that their recent cries are beginning to be met with reform.

In the past several years, teams like George Mason have made national headlines for beating powerhouses like Connecticut, North Carolina and Michigan State with team chemistry and athletic fundamentals.

This summer, shoe-sponsored basketball camps have decided to put skills back in the title, and back in the regimen. As Fran Fraschilla points out, coaching staffs around the country are realizing that success in the multi-million dollar industry of college basketball really does revolve around a particular diet of fundamental skill sets and team basketball that thrives off of court awareness. Most recently, a committee made the penultimate cuts for the U.S. national team set to represent the country in the Pan-American games. That team has already created buzz for consisting of several great team players from schools that don’t boast the same types of basketball budgets as the Floridas and UNCs of the world.

This week, the basketball community in America will put its trust in a young group of basketball players who have spent the last month learning a little bit more about why the U.S. has been embarrassed in recent national competitions. They have learned that free throws can win games and defensive stops are just as important as game-winning three-pointers. They will have the opportunity to bring home a World Championship that the United States has not laid hands on for 16 years. They will be the litmus test for whether basketball in the United States really can overcome itself and reclaim its spot at the top of the world stage.


Halfway across the world in Los Angeles, CA, another group of Americans have put themselves out on a limb in hopes of a different sea-change of attitudes and realities. LA Galaxy president Alexi Lalas and the Galaxy’s owning group, AEG, are in the final stages of the “Star of David” experiment. Six months ago, Lalas and AEG CEO Tim Leiweke decided that they would take advantage of MLS’ new designated player rule (two players on each MLS team could be exempted from the team’s overall salary cap) by signing international soccer star David Beckham to a deal worth over $250 million. Beckham arrived in the U.S. last week and is slated to play his first game with the Galaxy on Saturday in a friendly against British club Chelsea.

Amidst all the hype of Beckham’s arrival in America has been the constant question of whether he will single-handedly revolutionize the world’s biggest sport in the world’s biggest sporting country. Initially, my own answer to that question was very simple: No, America must have a home-grown soccer phenom lead them to a World Cup title. It has to start there.

However, in the past few days, I have remarked at the overwhelming power of branding in this country. Although we don’t always like to admit it, we know that the power of the brand can often have equalled or even more power than the influence of effort and performance in the creation of sports popularity. While I certainly believe that exciting play and successful results have significant influence on today’s sporting culture, branding can never be overlooked.

Most of the arguments regarding soccer’s cultural failings in America revolve around frail assertions that Americans don’t like the pace of the game and they can’t wrap themselves around a competition where so few points are scored. Heck, the ever-insightful Tom Sorenson blames soccer’s failure on its lack of accessibility to America’s ever-growing gambling and fantasy sports industries.

However, I believe that one of the most crucial aspects of successful sports in America is experience. When you think about the biggest sports of our day, each is linked to an experience and a brand that you can buy into. Whether that is eating Jake Delhomme’s Bojangles chicken at a tailgate at 10am outside BofA stadium wearing your Panthers hat, jersey and #1 finger, or packing into a sweltering room with 9,000 other Blue fans to cheer on the Duke Blue Devils in one of the world’s most famous basketball venues, the experience helps to create the culture, and branding has helped to intensify the experience.

When we look at the American sports market, each one of the major sports has a wide gamut of institutional support that bolsters the experience even when the gameplay isn’t delivering dramatic moments. Brands like Lebron James, Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods, and Alex Rodriguez have provided faces and stories that consolidate support and excitement to their respective sports even when ratings suffer and the games do not create drama. ESPN, league offices and the internet have been central in providing accessible content and coverage that keeps the fan/consumer involved with the life of the sport.

Although we’d like to believe that there are inherent characteristics about the popular American sports that make them rightfully popular, I argue that most of it isn’t always about the popular will. In fact, the decisions of a few very important men and the accomplishments of a few very talented athletes have been crucial to the development of the current American sports landscape. A few rich guys out in California decided that they were going to take a leap with soccer. Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal's Tripp Mickle reports that American fans of the Galaxy have contributed nearly $10 million in ticket purchases for the 2007 season. Investors have poured in nearly $26 million in the last half-year alone to an MLS team that has sat in the middle of the standings for seasons. The institutional foundation of the soccer brand in America has grown. That is indisputable fact. I also believe that growth is the first step towards the cultural revolution. It doesn't guarantee it, but it is necessary for it.

Soccer might not become the NFL by next year. David Beckham might not “revolutionize” sport by himself. Stephen Curry and the U-19 national team might not win international gold or completely change the way that basketball is played in America. But this summer, a handful of Americans have admitted that the rest of the world is ahead of us and we need to catch up.

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