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Friday, September 30, 2011

Like it or not, soccer is gaining momentum

(by Spencer Checketts ksl.com 9-27-11)

It’s not debatable that the rivalry game featuring Utah and BYU football going head to head is the single biggest and most important annual sporting event in the state of Utah.

Sure, there are the rare exceptions. The Winter Olympic Games in 2002 and the Utah Jazz NBA Finals years in ’97 and ’98 are somewhat recent examples. But year in and year out, nothing touches Utah-BYU football.

But is that changing?

Where were you two Saturdays ago when the biggest annual sporting event in the state of Utah was taking place?

Maybe you were one of the 65,000 fans down at LaVell Edwards Stadium, witnessing the most lopsided rivalry game victory for the Utes since 1922.

Maybe you were parked in front of your TV, remote in hand, watching the rivalry game and flipping back and forth between some great college football games. Does anything else in sports even matter on a beautiful fall Saturday?

Or maybe, just maybe, you were in Sandy at Rio Tinto Stadium watching soccer.

Think that’s funny?

There are 20,000 people in attendance to watch Real Salt Lake defeat Sporting KC who would disagree with you.

Am I implying that soccer has overtaken football (or even basketball) as the state’s sport of choice? Absolutely not.

But what I am saying is that in seven years on the local sports landscape, Real Salt Lake has carved out an undeniable niche of loyal, dedicated and passionate fans. And on a day where, historically, most of us put everything else in our lives on hold to make way for one of the longest tenured college football rivalries in the sport, RSL sold out its game.

A soccer game.

It was a soccer game that started at the very same time as the annual football clash being played only 40 miles south of Rio Tinto Stadium. This means something.

This is not some cry to arms to encourage soccer haters to give the world’s most popular game a second chance. Or even a single chance, for that matter. A few short years ago, I couldn’t stand soccer either. It takes time to understand what the game is all about. I don’t expect American sports fans to allocate the proper amount of personal investment needed in order to make soccer a part of their sporting DNA. We are an impatient people.

I’ve heard it all concerning the shortcomings of soccer as it pertains to appeasing the appetite of the average American sports fan. It’s boring, the players dive and cheat, there’s not enough action, no real sport allows for so many draws, the best soccer is played overseas, etc., etc., etc. Got it.

But what the current trends indicate, both locally and nationally, is that if you continue to ignore this growing niche, you do so at your own risk of sounding out of touch and ignorant. No, soccer probably is not close to overtaking any of the “Big 3” of football, basketball and baseball in this country, but it’s closer than you think. Tickets sales are trending up across the board, and sponsorship sales are very strong.

A recent TV deal with the newly branded (as of Jan. 2) NBC Sports Network ensures that a total of 49 regular season and playoff games will be seen in more than 76 million homes. The quality of the soccer is drastically improving. Like it or not, this sport and this league are creeping their way into the American sports landscape.

RSL head coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey have given Utah sports fans something to be proud of. Real Salt Lake recently clinched the team’s fourth straight playoff berth. In 2009, RSL made an unlikely but an incredibly exciting run that culminated in hoisting the MLS Cup by defeating David Beckham, Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy in the league finals.

After finishing second in the Supporters Shield Race a season ago (the award for the best record in MLS), a late season surge has RSL back in the same discussion once again. Earlier this season, Real Salt Lake came a whisper away from defeating Monterrey in the CONCACAF final and becoming the first team from MLS to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup, a tournament won by the likes of Inter Milan, Barcelona and Manchester United.

Real Salt Lake, after some initial bumps and bruises, is now among the class of MLS. Soccer fan or not, that’s something to be celebrated as a fan of sports in Utah.

So if you were watching BYU battle Utah in Provo two weeks ago, or you were in the comfort of your own home catching the action on TV, you may have heard a small roar coming from 90th South and State Street.

Get used to it.

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