LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Other Key Figures for American Soccer's Success
In America, it's all about the star power.
Whenever you see a sports celebrity at another event—whether it's another sporting event, awards show or what have you, the announcers are always keen to point them out. The television cameras pick them up in a flash.
The latest example of this phenomenon was LeBron James' visit to Anfield to watch the Liverpool-Manchester United match, played Saturday.
James, who assumed a minority ownership with the club last semester mere weeks after Fenway Sports Group had bought the club from George Gillett and Tom Hicks, had yet to cross the pond and take in a match played by his new charges before this weekend.
With this visit he brings an interest of soccer from America with him. Kids all over America who might not hold more than a passing interest for the beautiful game had football on their radar as they checked their Twitter feeds over the past couple of days. That's excellent publicity.
King James is not the first one to bring an sense of spiked interest in soccer. There are some various other sports figures who have actively shown interest in the sport.
Pelé is arguably the best soccer player to have ever played.
After his final game with Santos in 1975, many thought he was done with his soccer career. Instead, he took his world-renowned talents stateside to the newly formed North American Soccer League and the New York Cosmos.
With his name alone, soccer emerged in America in the 1970s as a true sport for Americans. Popularity for the Cosmos skyrocketed.
It was unfortunate that this league was so short-lived and, collapsed in the early 1980s due to lack of money and dwindling interest from fans. Frantic franchise moves had debased the fan groups most of those teams had worked to attain.
Despite its short life span, the NASL led to talents like Johann Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Gordon Banks and Pelé becoming household names in America—the precursors to Beckham, Henry, et al.
Never heard of the NASL? Well, listen to the excitement of the announcer and the crowd from this Tampa Bay Rowdies indoor game from 1977.
I think he was excited that Rodney Marsh scored.
Kobe Bryant has made no secret of his love for the soccer world.
As a youth, he lived in Italy for a few years while his father pursued a professional basketball career in the country. Bryant became hooked on AC Milan, one of the most successful European sides in history.
He is also a huge fan of Barcelona, their former manager Frank Rijkaard, and former Barcelona superstar Ronaldinho.
Bryant has been seen in quite a few Nike advertisements that express his sentiment for the game. He has been somewhat of an ambassador for the advancement of the game in America and has been a part of a few celebrity soccer matches, even breaking a few ankles with his skills and footwork.
The NFL Lockout caused some madness from Chad Ochocinco.
From bull riding to sky diving—he tried it. Well, okay. He didn't sky dive, but who's to say he wouldn't have if the work stoppage had dragged on.
Anyways, the beginning of this insanity came when he wanted to try out for MLS side Sporting Kansas City.
Now, he may not have played all too well in his trial (he hadn't played consistent competitive soccer since high school) but boy, did he create some hype!
ESPN swamped the Kansas City practice facilities, providing daily updates on Ochocinco's progress—or lack thereof. It created massive amounts of attention for the MLS league itself and the Kansas City team.
While critics pointed to the move as being nothing more than a publicity stunt—denigrating the league for allowing so absurd a move just to generate hype, the fact remains that Kansas City's popularity bloomed during the trial.
Personally, I would have loved to see Ochocinco play in the MLS. He seems like a target man to me, with his height and his speed. He may not have the eye for goal, but it certainly would have been exciting to see.
Golden Boots himself brought the majority of the attention to not only MLS and the LA Galaxy, but to American soccer as a whole.
David Beckham, the marketing genius that he is, signed for the LA Galaxy on a 5-year contract for a reported $250 million in 2006.
With his name alone, the American game has changed. While the initial furor has subsided, Beckham still brought attention to what was once considered a boring professional league.
Some will argue that it's still a tad boring to watch, but with the Designated Player rule that helped bring Beckham here, it has brought in players like Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Rafa Marquez to entertain fans and non-fans of the league.
Now this is a more recent development, potentially for the good of the name of soccer in America.
With the threat of no NBA season, James makes this visit as a minor shareholder in the Liverpool side.
If the NBA season had been going on, a visit like this would likely not have been possible, due to the fact that the NBA season mirrors the EPL's August to May schedule.
To underline what this could mean, LeBron seems to have had a really good time at the draw between Manchester and Liverpool (from his Twitter):
One of the single best experiences of my life!The excitement that these fans have is like no other.Extremely loud start/finish
I hope that he really has enjoyed his time at Anfield. What this could mean for the name of soccer in America could be potentially huge.
Liverpool jerseys are already being sold in Fenway Park merchandise kiosks. Who knows what the next move could be.
There has been a lot of star power behind the progression and advancement of the beautiful game in the United States.
With these big stars giving Americans something to cheer about and look forward to with soccer, hopefully soccer can become a truly big game here.
Sure, it has come a long way since the introduction of the first professional league in the 1970's, but there is still a lot of catching up to do with other countries, who are still decades ahead of us as far as support for the world's most popular game.
Though this may be the case so far, there is a lot of promise for the future of soccer in America