WASHINGTON -- Does soccer suffer from a shortage of cool?
Sports executives complain that even people who play the game don't want to be seen on the street in soccer shorts. The executives wish they could bridge the gap between rising participation and receding public image.
"The cool factor changes. Soccer is way down," said Ian McLaren, president of Umbro America, a leading soccer sporting goods and clothing company.
Soccer is the only team sport that grew in participation in the 1990s, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Soccer is the fifth most popular team sport in America, with 17.6 million people playing at least once a year, the trade group said.
Based on a survey done for SGMA by American Sports Data, participation rose 14 percent since the polling firm began tracking soccer players in 1987.
But soccer has a style problem, industry officials say.
In the early to mid 1990s, when soccer was catching on among the young crowd, people proudly wore their Umbro shorts on the street, but that's not the case now, McLaren said. "Ten years ago, soccer shorts were the thing for kids to wear, and we were apparently the brand of choice," he said. The youngsters' tastes change, and soccer now must work on building its way back up, he said.
Soccer had a fashion peak in 1994, when the United States was host to the World Cup, said John Stevenson, vice president and general manager of Puma Soccer. The market was flooded with soccer gear, much of it from companies that otherwise had no interest in the sport, he said.
The "deluge of product in the marketplace" may have turned off kids who chose soccer as an expression of their individuality, Stevenson said.
"In the early days, being a soccer player was cool because you were different," Stevenson said. "They developed their own look, from a sport and casual point of view. And then the number of wanna-be's increased pretty dramatically."
These days, soccer players tend to wear Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch, Stevenson said.
Industry executives, however, feel marketers have fallen short in spreading the product around, SGMA said. "Consumers are only able to hunt down and buy what they need to play the game, but often are not able to buy all the products they might want if given the choice," it said.
Part of the problem in making soccer a bigger part of popular culture is that players don't become spectators, McLaren said. "The participating players are not TV viewers for the sport," he said. "The ratings have been going down. Participation is increasing, but the kids don't go home to watch the game on TV."
Kids have other things to do, Stevenson said. "Soccer is a sport of predominantly the white middle class, and white middle-class kids have more social options," he said. Soccer-watching must compete against everything from the Internet to the inline skate.
Soccer also is not capitalizing enough on its potential stars -- not creating a pro soccer superstar who could do for the sport what Michael Jordan did for basketball, said John Oullette, director of coaching for the American Youth Soccer Organization.
"We have the Michael Jordans -- it's just they are not seen," Oullette said. Cobi Jones, the high-scoring attacking midfielder of Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy, could be "the Michael Jordan for the soccer players," he said.
Jones is one of the handful of U.S. pros with fan sites on the Web -- people who love his wide smile and bouncing dreadlocks, as well as the intensity he brings to the game. What Jones needs is more airtime in sports programming, and more chances to get himself on the screen selling products, Oullette said.
"Sadly, the typical MLS game hasn't generated the skill and excitement level needed to grab a viewer and bring him back every week," McLaren said. Similarly, World Cup teams need to improve, he said. "Americans love success. We like to be winners."
"As the sport's professional level improves here, the viewership will improve," said Umbro's vice president of merchandising, Phil Holdsworth. And as viewership improves, more wanna-be's will be out buying soccer products, he said.
Soccer needs time to grow, the executives said. It doesn't have enough cultural history -- parents who take their children to watch games because they themselves once had been fans.
That could change as players come out of high school and college with a background in the game, SGMA said.
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