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American interest in soccer on the rise thanks to high-quality play, bigger TV deals

American interest in soccer on the rise thanks to high-quality play, bigger TV deals

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By Sam McKewon / World-Herald staff writer

Chris Whitney had followed English Premier League soccer for a few years, but an oft-cited, well-known match on May 25, 2005, set the hook for good.

The Union of European Football Associations Champions League, which pitted the best professional clubs from all over Europe, staged its final that year in Istanbul, Turkey. A.C. Milan (Italy) vs. Liverpool (England). Milan took a 3-0 halftime lead. Typically insurmountable. But Liverpool tied the match with three goals in six minutes, then won it 3-2 on penalty kicks. Whitney, watching on TV, eventually became a fierce Liverpool fan.

“Incredible,” said Whitney, sports director at KLIN radio in Lincoln. In April, he cemented his journey as a Liverpool fan, taking in a match at its home stadium, Anfield, against a rival, Chelsea.

“It was a bucket list item,” Whitney said.

In part thanks to the Internet and recent, bigger TV deals, Premier League fans are popping up all over and fueling the growth of soccer in the United States and Nebraska. Major League Soccer, after a rocky start in its first decade, is doing the same stateside.

Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United — the latter is the New York Yankees, if you will, of English soccer — are four annually popular and strong teams, but the 20-team league itself is the main attraction, growing its base of supporters through NBC Sports Network, which controls American broadcast rights to the league. The final “Championship Sunday” of the 10-month EPL season — 10 games on 10 networks on May 11 — drew a 1.56 rating. Game 1 of the NHL Stanley Cup finals drew a 1.7.

What’s behind the growth of American interest in Premier, Champions and other leagues around the globe? Creighton coach Elmar Bolowich — an avid fan of Germany’s top teams, such as Bayern Munich — has an idea. The product is that good. The best in the world playing the best in the world. A lot.

“These teams are well-oiled machines,” Bolowich said. “Beautiful to see.”

One reason: They’re every bit the financial engines that top American teams are, and can attract the top players in the world. Manchester City, which won the Premier League, had a “wage bill,” or payroll, of 220 million pounds this year. That’s roughly $370 million and dwarfs the Los Angeles Dodgers payroll of $235 million.

Payrolls are in part driven by a deregulated free market that allows for pricey player transfers and loans.

“The movement of players — they wheel and deal all the time — makes the transfer market really crazy,” said Lincolnite Bradley Staskiewicz, who also started following Liverpool after the 2005 Champions League final. Like many, he’ll watch matches online or on NBC Sports Network.

Staskiewicz added that while a league like the NFL is capped at 32 teams, professional soccer has hundreds of teams and several tiers in each country. In England, teams move up or down in divisions depending on their success. The Premier League each year relegates the three bottom teams in its league to the Championship division of the Football League, and promotes three teams from that division.

Korey Donahoo, co-founder of the soccer supporter group the American Outlaws, used to follow Fulham (set for relegation after finishing 19th), but he stopped enjoying the team once American players left the club. He switched his interest to MLS — a once-struggling, now-flourishing, 19-team American league that’s been around since 1996 and just signed the most lucrative TV deal in its history with ESPN and Fox.

Sporting Kansas City won the 2013 MLS Cup and boasts one of the league’s best stadiums — Sporting Park — which fans filled to 107 percent capacity last year. The team recently got its first supporter group in Omaha, too — the Omaha Boys.

“I followed the Royals and the Chiefs, so it seemed like a natural fit for a team to support,” said Ryan LeGrande, co-founder of the group. It started with four guys in the basement of Barrett’s Barleycorn bar in Omaha, and now the group is up to 10 to 15 members, he said. LeGrande has been to 12 games in Kansas City. Via email, a Sporting KC spokesman said the club has 22 season ticket holders in Nebraska, and between SKC youth soccer partnerships with Sporting Lincoln FC and Omaha FC, more than 2,000 tickets are bought by their club members annually.

“I’d compare it to a game at Memorial Stadium,” LeGrande said. “The tailgating, the atmosphere. It’s loud — people don’t stop chanting or singing throughout the whole game. It’s probably one of the best atmospheres I’ve been to for a sporting event.”

And the quality of the play is improving, too. Ten MLS players — including two from Sporting KC — made the 23-man World Cup roster for the U.S. men’s national team. National team stars Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey returned from European club teams to play in the MLS. No longer, LeGrande said, is the league just for developing young players or serving as a final stage for older stars.

Bolowich, who knows a number of the MLS coaches personally, agreed.

“Now the MLS is doing it with U.S.-born players, which is fantastic,” he said.

There are two “supporter sections” in Sporting Park — one of them is known as The Cauldron — and LeGrande said both are two hours of long, live noise-making. Nobody sits. The fan next to you becomes your “best friend.” There are songs, flags and chants. It’s nearly a rock concert — except the instrument is a ball.

When Whitney went to Anfield in April — Liverpool lost — he saw an event that reminded him of so many Nebraska games he’s covered. Liverpool wears red, for one thing.

“The whole sporting endeavor takes ahold of the community,” Whitney said. “Liverpool is a lot bigger than Lincoln, but there are a lot of parallels there. Getting to see some of the best players in the world in person — and experience what a match day over there is like — is certainly something I’ll never forget.”

He certainly won’t forget the singing. Anfield is one of the Premier League’s older stadiums, not yet outfitted with the latest technology and fan amenities that American professional teams insist they need to prevent empty stadiums. In Liverpool, the rallying cry — nearly three minutes long and every bit the spectacle of Nebraska Tunnel Walk — is a 1945 song from Rodgers and Hammerstein, the most popular version of which was recorded by Gerry and the Pacemakers, a band from Liverpool, in 1963. Liverpool Football Club fans have used it as their anthem since, embracing it to such an extent that its words are etched on one entrance gate.

The song’s title: “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

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