Euro 2012 and Soccer's Road to Becoming America's Beloved Sport

Ned HarwoodContributor IIIJuly 9, 2012

KIEV, UKRAINE - JULY 01:  Captain Iker Casillas of Spain lifts the trophy after victory during the UEFA EURO 2012 final match between Spain and Italy at the Olympic Stadium on July 1, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Whether you watched every game on the edge of your seat with a bag of chips or occasionally tuned into the ESPN family of networks, you at least got to glimpse some of the marvel that was on display during last month’s Euro 2012.

It was one rollercoaster ride where we had the pleasure of witnessing some of the greats of all-time put forth world-class days of work in one of the most prestigious tournaments the sport has to offer. There were some incidents we would like to forget, but more importantly, memories we will forever cherish.

Simply put, hopping on this rollercoaster gave you a front-row seat for a tournament to remember. A tournament with an impact. A tournament that signals this wonder-ride has just begun.

It all starts with the coverage. ESPN’s monopoly over the sports world has its flaws, I’m the first to admit that, but the network was absolutely fantastic in its display of the tournament for the full three weeks.

From cross advertising throughout the channels, to allowing plenty of time for pre- and post-game analysis, this might have been the most effectively televised soccer tournament in American history.

The TV ratings were up 50% from Euro 2008, and the total viewership surpassed 40 million for the first time in history. The Spain-Italy final, which was less than competitive for most of the match, still set a record as the most watched European Football Championship game in US history.

These were the types of statistics we wanted to see. This was the progress we have long been talking of to a point where we even questioned ourselves if it was actually happening.

Soccer is becoming one of the premier sports in our country, and excellent coverage like ESPN has been providing on these tournaments, even the occasional MLS highlights that wander onto our 11 o’clock SportsCenter, will help the sport’s inevitable rise in the US become more evident to the common eye.

Not that it isn’t evident already. Since 1987, youth participation in the sport has increased by roughly 2.5 million and youth interest is on the rise as well. A recent ESPN poll shows that the sport is now second in popularity for people aged between 12-24.

The study also shows that nearly 1/10 of the surveyed people consider themselves avid international soccer fans. That number was merely a dream twenty years ago.

The popularity of the sport has increased to a level many never expected it to actually reach, and with more and more parents now pushing their kids away from the recently discovered dangers of football, soccer players could continue to drastically increase in numbers over the next few decades.

Am I saying soccer is destined to grace the country as the preferred sport while we legitimately watch our national team go out and contend for World Cup glory in Brazil? Of course not. Like everything, this is a process. It's a long ride we have been talking about and anticipating for so long, but now have cold, hard facts to prove there actually is a final destination.

Soccer haters beware. As the youth generations that admire the world’s sport continue to age and take over the media world, suddenly everything will start to change.

No longer will we be seeing just David Beckham’s yellow card on the SportsCenter highlight, but full analysis of how the Galaxy should deal with his suspension. 40 million viewers for a European tournament? Try 50 or 60 million tuning in to watch the sport they love.

This is what our future holds. By tuning into the last month of action you agreed to embrace the ride and what this future has to offer. I’d just like to say, welcome aboard.