- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Standing near an RV in the infield at a NASCAR race, the subject of soccer and the World Cup came up, quite unexpectedly.

“What’s the World Cup?” race fan Rich Possinger asked.

OK, so he admitted he actually did know a thing about the world’s biggest sporting event. But like many Americans, Mr. Possinger was not setting aside time to watch the U.S. team, which on Monday took the field for its first game.

“I’m waiting for the bug to bite,” Mr. Possinger said, “and it hasn’t yet.”

Might not happen anytime soon, either, given America’s dispiriting 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic in the opener in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.

Four years ago, the U.S. made a surprise run into the quarterfinals that sparked a bit of soccer madness back home.

Four years, however, is a long time to milk a couple of wins.

“Soccer is just a sport that’s still not dominant in the United States,” said Randy Chavez of Albuquerque, N.M. “I’d rather follow baseball, football or basketball, rather than what the rest of the world calls ‘football.’ ”

Indeed, the world’s most popular sport is big only around the fringes in the United States — played by plenty (mostly children) but watched by few (mostly die-hards).

The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association said more than 17 million people played soccer at least once in 2006, third among team sports behind basketball and football, which surpassed soccer in the past year.

“The NFL and baseball appeal to people who aren’t even fans of the sport,” said Tink Lim, also at Pocono Raceway to watch a NASCAR race. “It’s a cultural thing.”

ABC’s broadcast of three matches from the opening weekend, none of which included the U.S. team, drew an average overnight rating of 2.8 (about 3 million viewers), a 65 percent increase over the network’s average from two matches during the opening weekend of the 2002 World Cup. Of course, those games were played in Asia, meaning they were on in the early morning in the United States. The average rating for two games that ABC broadcast during the opening weekend of the 1998 World Cup in France was 2.5, 12 percent less than this year’s tournament hosted by Germany.

Not surprisingly, the World Cup was performing well on Spanish-language network Univision, which is broadcasting all of the games. An average of 2.6 million viewers watched the first eight games of the tournament on the network, which normally outperforms ABC and ESPN in World Cup ratings.

By comparison, the French Open women’s final, televised early Saturday on NBC, drew viewers in about 1.9 million households. Even on its worst nights, the Winter Olympics drew about 16 million viewers in February.

Meanwhile, in other countries, fans and governments put a high priority on the World Cup.

Through much of the Middle East, a satellite network is charging steep viewing fees, leading to some dramatic action. In Egypt, the head of the Nile Sports Channel asked for United Nations intervention. The king of Jordan ordered public TV screens be set up so low-income citizens could watch.

In Indonesia, not being able to watch the World Cup simply added to the trauma after last month’s devastating earthquakes.

“Our sorrows are complete,” a local named Kusumo said as he sifted through the rubble that was once his house.

Of course, the United States has pockets of hard-core soccer fans.

Games were on TVs all weekend in shops and bars across Manhattan. In Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, several people were wearing soccer jerseys, even though the big event there was a bike race. In Minneapolis, John Nahrgang went to a downtown bar called the Local to watch the game surrounded by other die-hards.

“I don’t think I’ve ever anticipated a sporting event for so long,” Mr. Nahrgang said.

He was the exception.

“Not a sport I’m interested in,” said Jeff Ahern, while he took in a Boston Red Sox game over the weekend.

ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 are doing their best to hype the coverage.

They’ve got studio shows, a la ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight,” to break down the action. They’re televising all 64 games, even though the time change means they won’t be on during prime time.

In fact, the U.S. started playing Monday around the time “The Price Is Right” was ending on the East Coast. And by the time Bob Barker was signing off, about five minutes into the game, the Americans were already down a goal.

“If they start off in the first few rounds making progress, then my interest will develop,” said Mike McTernan, while watching a Little League T-ball game in Albuquerque. “If they get blown out in the first couple of rounds, then maybe not.”

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