Technology, Nationalism and the World Cup

High Technology, Opinions Posted Jul 2, 2014 by chenpr

Well that was a bit disappointing. The United States Men’s Soccer Team, after surviving the “Group of Death” to secure a berth in the World Cup’s final 16, was—despite Tim Howard’s heroic and historic effort in goal—outclassed and beaten by Belgium 2-1, a score much closer than what actually happened on the pitch.

But the story of this World Cup for the United States went further than the product on the field, as extensive social engagement, online viewership and national pride prompted people to question soccer’s place and ascension in the American sports hierarchy.

CNN recently reported that during the first week of the World Cup, Facebook reported more engagement (posts, likes and comments) than the Super Bowl, Sochi Winter Olympics and the Academy Awards combined. FIFA, international soccer’s ruling body, noted that the USA had accounted for 23 percent of the total engagement on its website during the tournament. My personal Twitter timeline was fully soccer-centric during the USA matches, as news outlets and individuals joined the sporting Twitterverse in showing support and updates from the matches. WatchESPN, ESPN’s live online streaming service, broke records for unique viewers, concurrent viewers and total minutes watched during the USA Germany match, peaking at 1.7 million viewers. The USA Belgium match peaked at 1.5 million WatchESPN viewers, and the telecast also had the highest overnight rating for a World Cup match on ESPN.

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A natural first instinct would be view soccer as an up and coming, youth-driven sport that will soon force American media to start including the Beautiful Game as part of “the big 5” rather than omitting it from the current big 4 (baseball, basketball, football and hockey) team sports. But I’m of the mind that the popularity of the World Cup has more to do with factors other than soccer.

Today’s technology is markedly enhanced and more widespread in comparison to that which existed for the 2010 World Cup, and broadcasting the games during standard work hours lent itself to Twitter and video streaming services, allowing more people to participate. Other reasons for the World Cup’s popularity include the fact that the only other prominent team sport currently in season is baseball (mid-season at that), and that the event lasts just four weeks. But the strongest contributor is our sense of nation.

For the same reasons the Olympics continue to be popular, the World Cup beckons new fans, excited about the prospect of a team representing their country. Add in the USA’s less than stellar World Cup history, and it’s the perfect recipe for underdog, nationalistic excitement. As a soccer fan, I do hope the game is burgeoning here in the United States, but that remains to be seen.

I’ll remember the World Cup action fondly, for Twitter and streaming video, and with the Fourth of July approaching, as a nice affirmation of our patriotism.