Like many Americans, I’ve been avidly following the World Cup. I’m clearly not the only one as numerous articles and blog posts have made clear. A sizable number of Americans are waking up to the excitement of soccer and realizing it’s not just a kid’s sport. Now, I’m sure there will be a raging debate about how ‘lasting’ the American excitement with soccer is and that it won’t last. That misses the point. America is THE melting pot. Regardless of race or background, a sizable portion of America loves soccer or is discovering it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a recent immigrant who grew up overseas with soccer your entire life or are from a family that has been here for decades and have kids just starting to play.

Americans, for the most part, welcome new soccer fans with open arms. We’ve suffered for so long loving a sport many felt was foreign or boring because they didn’t really know it. A bigger question, however, is how we’ll be welcomed by the rest of the soccer world.

First we’re going to put to rest the idea that soccer is some sub tier sport in America. Numerous articles have come out recently talking about the World Cup ratings in the U.S. and, *gasp*, many of the reporters figured out that you had to include both ESPN2 and Univision to get a true view of the ratings. Lets have a look…

Nielsen reported that 3.5 million people in the US watched the opening match between Germany and Costa Rica. Let’s not forget that the match was on during lunch (12:00 ET) on the east coast and in the morning (09:00 PT) on the west coast. Match #2 pulled in 3.6 million viewers. Nielsen also noted some interesting advertising information.

Since the clock never stops during a soccer game, the commercial activity for both games on ESPN2 and Univision took place during half-time. ESPN2 carried, on average, 9 minutes of commercials and promotional announcements in each game for a total of 18 minutes. Univision carried, on average, approximately 7 minutes of commercials and promotional announcements in each game for a total of 14 ½ minutes. In addition to the traditional advertising detailed above, both networks featured onscreen sponsorships and billboards throughout the stadium.

That should put to rest the usual "it’ll never work on TV because there are no commercials" ESPN2 and Univision had dozens of advertisers.

Of course the naysayers will flutter about screaming that soccer can’t even compete with hockey. Bob Keisser from the Press-Telegram knows better.

The three Stanley Cup finals telecasts on NBC have earned Nielsen ratings of 1.6, 2.5 and 3.0, respectively, and while it’s nice to see them rising, those numbers are about as low as you’ll ever see for a prime-time network telecast. The 1.6 rating for Game 3 of the Edmonton-Carolina series was the second-lowest all-time in NBC prime-time history.

The highest rating for a network NHL telecast isn’t exactly prestigious. Game 7 of the New York Rangers’ historic win over Vancouver in 1994 earned a 5.2 for ABC.

Now keep a few things in mind. First, he is talking about the finals between the Hurricanes and Oilers. Not opening rounds. And it was in primetime evening hours, not the middle of the day, on a national network. At the same time, the World Cup saw ratings increases in the triple digit range of 200% or more.

Meanwhile, soccer is seeing some of its best Nielsen ratings ever with the 2006 World Cup.

ABC’s tripleheader last weekend averaged a 2.8, a 65 percent ratings jump over 2002. The Trinidad & Tobago vs. Sweden game topped the three at 2.9. ESPN2’s average after eight telecasts was a 1.5, a 200 percent increase over 2002. That number was flush from a 2.4 rating for the U.S.-Czech game, the highest-rated telecast ever for the network.

The Spanish-language audiences on Univision are also setting records, with its 5.4 national rating for the Mexico-Iran game the highest in the network’s programming history. In Los Angeles, Univision affiliate KMEX earned a 5.5 rating for the U.S.-Czech game to ESPN2’s 2.1. It did a 12.5 for the Mexico-Iran game, compared to the 4.9 ABC earned.

Imagine that: Sports with long traditions in the U.S. are looking at soccer ratings with envy. Yes, Magellan, the world is flat after all.

Again – middle of the day matches, not prime time. One ratings point is 1,102,000 homes. Of course the NHL ratings have been steadily declining in part due to the recent strike. So what about basketball? The NBA finals are in full swing. The Houston Chronicle (HT The News Blog) has some local ratings info as the Dallas Mavericks make a run for the title. Again – this is the final round, not the opening rounds the World Cup is still in.

We refer to KXLN’s (Ch. 45) Nielsen ratings for the first 17 games on Univision. Fueled by an 8.7 rating and 18 share for the Mexico-Iran game on Sunday, Channel 45 is averaging a 3.2 rating thus far, up 28 percent from four years ago. Much of the bump, of course, stems from a more favorable European time slot (late mornings and early afternoons in the U.S.) as opposed to the early morning slots from the 2002 games in South Korea.

Still, the Mexico rating was impressive – third-best in the nation, in fact, behind 12.5 in Los Angeles and 9.2 in Miami. English language games, meanwhile, are averaging 1.4 in Houston on KTRK (Ch. 13), ESPN and ESPN 2 in Houston, up from 0.4 in 2002.

Channel 13 had a 2.6/5 rating for the Mexico game, giving a bilingual Houston rating of 11.3.

And that, in turn, segues us into the NBA Finals. Through three games, Channel 13 is averaging an 11.1 rating, which ranks eighth among the 55 major markets. ABC’s national average of 7.9 is up from 7.1 last year, but the Mavericks and Heat may have to stretch the series to seven games to beat last year’s 8.2 average, which was second-lowest in modern Finals history.

That’s pretty impressive, in a local market with a home team making a run for the NBA Championship. A three game NBA average of 11.1 compared with a combined 11.3 rating for the Mexico-Iran match. Not exactly apples to apples, but impressive all the same.

So I think we can say that the World Cup is capturing the attention of Americans. Will MLS matches compete with NBA games during the regular seasons, perhaps not yet. But there is change afoot.

This awakening of soccer fans in the US apparently has some people nervous. First, the US has a sizable and noisy contingent of fans in Germany. DF in Deutschland has written some great stuff about the US fans in Germany who attended the Czech Republic match and the Italy match. We made the world sit up and pay attention at the Italy match where a large contingent of American fans (helped by local Ramstein Airbase) acted just a loud and rowdy as any European fans. That. Just. Doesn’t. Happen.

So DF was incredulous when he saw a recent editorial in the Guardian wishing the loud, obnoxious US fans would just go home.

When I read stuff like this, I’m often reminded of a sportswriter friend who observed in 2002 that a huge part of the lukewarm reception of the US national team’s success derived from resentment that America was becoming part of one of the last few major world arenas where it’s historically been absent. Now it appears that the analogue is happening with respect to the USMNT fan following. In other words, there’s a party going on and lots of people-e.g., Marina Hyde-doesn’t want the US to be there. The resentment is clear in the egregious double standards applied to each teams: witness the outpouring of affection for T&T by neutrals, by contrast (though to be fair the neutrals in Fritz-Walter-Stadion on Saturday night ended up pulling for the US after seeing how they played).

And here’s why articles like Marina Hyde’s make the world a worse place: the World Cup, and soccer more generally, provide a venue in which people can put aside their differences of belief and opinion and recognize instead one thing they all have in common. Every single US fan I know who came over here for the Cup did it because they love the game of soccer and want to be part of its quadrennial global celebration.

Read the entire post. He knocks the editorial writer down a few pegs, rightly so. But this raises a very interesting point. Are we prepared for a minority of fans who look down their noses at us for the way we choose to enjoy soccer? Yes, we call it soccer. Get over it. We don’t expect you to call it soccer. But American football will always be football and ‘that other football’ just doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as soccer does. Who cares if we say zero instead of nil? Means a shutout all the same. I will say I’ve heard more and more US fans adopt ‘pitch’ when describing a soccer field. It sounds cool (shameless plug). But how we choose to talk about soccer among ourselves shouldn’t matter. American soccer will never be able to exactly conform to European football, even though we all play by FIFA rules. There is a mini upheaval going on in youth soccer as national officials try to push down "how it’s done overseas" into a youth program that may not be able conform 100% after years of an American flare (watch for future posts on small sided matches, non-compete, etc. once we return to our regular youth soccer programming) The debate is intense between people who feel we should be ‘just like Europe’ to succeed while others feel we need to learn from Europe’s success, but our youth development programs will always have an American aspect to them.

Soccer in America will always be unique in its own way. We don’t want to change how it is played overseas and most of us would never dream of suggesting so. All countries have jingoistic jerks who think their way is the best way, but they are thankfully in the minority. Our political beliefs have no bearing on our soccer beliefs. Like George Bush or hate him, a soccer fan is generally a soccer fan. Don’t forget that just under 50% of Americans voted against George Bush and cannot wait until he fades into the dustbin of history. Holding the mistakes of recent US foreign policy against us during the World Cup proves nothing.

I would hope we would be accepted as we are. That is all we ask. We have suffered for years as fans of a sport few of our countrymen understood and the ignorant made fun of. We are finally gaining acceptance as a ‘real sport’ and view this World Cup as a coming out party of sorts, helped along by new media, sports writers who aren’t stuck in the past, the growing ‘Soccersphere’ (HT to ThroughBall), and live national broadcasts of all the matches. Soccer in America will always have an American flavor to it and I believe that is a good thing. But when our teams compete on the world stage of football, we’re there to support our team, not try to change how things are done.

You will find ignorant people in any country and ours is no exception. I’ve seen numerous bloggers talk about their surprise over the intensity of the US fans in Germany, in a godo way. If you seek out ignorant people, you will find them regardless of nationality. But like DF said, if you want to do your best to exclude us from the world club that is football, come out and say it. Don’t seek out freaks to make a strawman argument about how we deserve to be excluded. We won’t stand for it. We’ve suffered as fans for far too long and done our best to adapt and grow a sport in a country that didn’t understand it. Our fans and our team have earned their place on the world stage through hard work and dedication. How we will be welcomed is up to you, but I certainly hope Ms. Hyde is also one of the exceptions, not the rule.