Can soccer ever become as American as apple pie or baseball? The Fenway Sports Group hopes so. After introducing 37,495 Fenway Park fans to Liverpool, the group’s dream looks even closer to becoming a possibility.
In October 2010, Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner and his business partner John Henry of the Fenway Sports Group purchased controlling shares of Liverpool FC for the low price of $300 million, a steal by sports franchise owner standards.
But like most Americans, Henry was admittedly a soccer novice at the time of the purchase. Henry even told Business Week he knew “virtually nothing about the Premier League, or soccer in general.”
Why buy something you know nothing about? For the Fenway Sports Group it was all about potential.
A June 13 article by the BBC noted that the Premier League inked a deal worth $4.6 billion with the Sky and BT television networks, securing the television rights to the 116 games per season. This marked a 70 percent rise from the previous deal.
If the sport is so lucrative, why isn’t the US in the business of soccer?
We certainly can’t blame it on the numbers.
The American Youth Soccer Association claims to have more than 300,000 players between the ages of 4 and 19. The Super-20 League and the Super Y-League have almost 1,000 teams with players from 13-20 years old, making it one of the most widely played sports in America.
Perhaps the reason soccer has yet to hit its stride in the states is because we have made it too American.
In US Major League Soccer, (MLS) there is no system of promotion and regulation. In European soccer leagues at the end of each season, the best teams from lower divisions are promoted up, while the worst teams in higher divisions are demoted down. In the US, at the end of the season there is a playoff series similar to the US Major League Baseball or the National Football League playoffs.
Or perhaps soccer just hasn’t had its time to shine, until now.
Werner and Henry are credited with breathing new life into Red Sox Nation. Bill Simmons, editor-in-chief of ESPN’s online review Grantland, told Business Week that the duo “couldn’t have been better owners coming out of the gate,” when they took control of the Red Sox in 2002. He noted that the pair has brought the number of corporate sponsors from 35 to 95 over the past decade.
With Liverpool, the pair is looking to do the same.
Liverpool, like the Red Sox, is an iconic team. The team has won its fair share of titles, but has lost its luster in recent years, similiar to what the Red Sox went through prior to winning the World Series in 2004.
To help win a new wave of fans, The Fenway Sports Group brought Liverpool to the church of Boston, otherwise known as Fenway Park, to play a friendly match against AS Roma.
“It’s sold out, it’s a beautiful night, what an event to take in,” Patrick Lyons, owner of the Lyons Group in Boston, said following the match.
When asked if he believes soccer can ever really make it in America, Lyons said, “If the NFL moves over it sure can. It surely made it in Boston tonight.”
But maybe the sold out crowd last night proved that there is room for both the NFL, MLB and maybe, just maybe, there is still room left over in America’s hearts for MLS.
Ryan Pradit of New Hampshire represents a new breed of American sports fan. Pradit, who attended the game last night with friends, admitted that he only joined Red Sox Nation after learning the team’s connection to Liverpool. “I’ve honestly supported Liverpool longer than I’ve supported the Red Sox. I got into the Red Sox honestly, because of a girl, but also because of its ties to Liverpool.”
Pradit, like many others, believes that soccer’s time is coming in the US. “I feel like it will become big within the next three to five years, especially with the work of John Henry and everybody else at Fenway sports group.”
Anthony Iannantuoni may be the type of fan that the Fenway Sports Group dreams of.
Iannatuoni travelled from his home in Montreal just to see Roma take on Liverpool. “I’ve travelled to Italy to watch a game. Every time they travel to North America I am there."
But this game was a one time only event. The grass covering the infield was a lighter shade of green than the rest of Fenway Park, subtly reminding attendees that this game was only temporary. Soccer will have to make a more perminant move to compete with all-American baseball.