Football and basketball will always be king of the college sports world. Baseball is a national pastime, while postseason hockey tends to thrill even casual sports fans. Soccer has been the newcomer, at least in terms of fan interest, in American college athletics, but with the games’ popularity beginning to explode, it’s time to start respecting the sport.
Soccer has always been a tough sell in America. With the more violent and action-packed game of football being played in the fall, the low-scoring contests on the soccer pitch have been largely disregarded. Over the past decade, the game’s popularity has begun to increase. In 2014, 5.1 million people tuned in to watch USA take on Belgium in the Round of 16. However, the US national team has been declining since that game, struggling to even attain international relevance, and the MLS has not gained a lot of traction among American soccer fans, who tend to prefer the more competitive European leagues.
College soccer is by far the best non-international option to grow the game in America. Many people prefer college sports to professional sports, and soccer is no different. The MLS game is played at a slower pace, with too many 0-0 draws, and it’s slowly becoming a place for aging European stars to enjoy one last ride, but the collegiate game is played dynamically, with the speed and offense that make the game a little more entertaining. Yet, ESPN and other major sports channels would rather televise football preview shows and old reruns than a high-octane ACC soccer clash. If you Google “top college soccer games of 2019”, about half of the top results are about college football. While there are still some low-scoring games, the natural collegiate rivalries in soccer make games more exciting than the MLS, and parity is increasing rapidly.
This past year, ten top-5 teams lost to unranked opponents, many in high-scoring battles. Underdogs often build their teams to survive sustained attacks from more skilled opponents, but they feature dynamic playmakers on offense that can turn a game in an instant. UCLA outlasted #3 Akron in a 3-2 thriller this year, and unranked Memphis stunned a top-five SMU team with a 4-3 overtime victory. In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, unranked Wright State, making their first ever tournament appearance, took down perennial powerhouse Notre Dame 3-2. The Raiders featured a fast-paced attack and clinched the game on a curling 25-yard blast into the upper right corner. The game was televised only by the ACC Network. The national championship between Georgetown and Virginia saw a 3-3 tie in regulation with two lead changes in the final five minutes, as well as a thrilling 7-6 penalty kick shootout to decide the title. The sport has the storylines, the upsets, the action and plenty more, so what else can be done to improve the popularity of the game?
Improve the Scheduling
The NCAA could do a much better job of scheduling when it comes to soccer, as they often put games at inconvenient times for their target audience – college students – to watch. One example of this was the 2019 ACC Tournament. The ACC Tournament has teams host their first round games, which is a great idea to get student crowds, but their execution of this idea is less than ideal. When Notre Dame hosted Boston College in the first round of the ACC Tournament, the game was scheduled for 2pm on a Thursday afternoon. Why go through the effort of allowing teams to host postseason contests, only to schedule games at a time when the majority of college students can’t attend. The ND-BC game turned out to be a 2-1 overtime thriller, but only a few dozen students were able to watch the game unfold live. Such a scheduling catastrophe would never happen in basketball or on the gridiron, but in soccer? Who cares right?
Market the star players
Joe Burrow. Chase Young. Justin Fields. Trevor Lawrence. Those are just a few of the top college football names, and they are names that almost every casual sports fan would recognize. How many people would recognize the names Joe Bell, Robbie Robinson, or Dylan Nealis? Those were the three finalists for the Hermann Trophy, soccer’s Heisman, but nobody but avid fans of the game would know those names. ESPN is always posting insane graphics about record-breaking Burrow stats – post a damn soccer highlight here and there. The game has the potential to be popular, but it doesn’t help when you don’t market the players at all.
Televise More Games
This works in tandem with point #1, but the NCAA, and colleges themselves, could do much better with making a TV-friendly schedule. Many schools play their soccer games on Friday nights and Saturday, and quite frankly, when you’re competing with football for television time, that’s not going to work. Saturday and Sunday belong to football, and so do Friday nights to an extend. Whether it’s afternoon games on Friday, or shifting games to Thursday nights, there’s got to be a better way to balance the schedule with football. NCAA Tournament games shouldn’t only be available regionally, and with major conferences like the ACC engaging in ranked clashes every week, there should be far more nationally televised games.
Interest in soccer is finally growing, and the collegiate game is the way to take advantage of that interest. It’s time for major sports channels and the NCAA to figure that out and giving soccer its fair share of respect.