CINCINNATI - The lights were out, the air conditioning down, the freezers dead. No electricity all along the east-side of Cincinnati.
Over in East Hyde Park, inside Hap’s Irish Pub, however, a faint glow. Cell phones.
It was the first Monday of the World Cup, and the Hap’s regulars weren’t going to let a little power outage come between them and their favorite sport.
“We had seven people per phone standing around watching the (Germany-Portugal) match,” said Nathan Thomas, a manager at Hap’s and the son of the owner, Daniel Thomas.
Such is the dedication around Cincinnati this summer surrounding the World Cup.
Old fans are coming back. New fans are signing up. Casual followers are turning obsessive. Obsessives are losing their soccer-loving minds.
“I think it’s definitely been on the rise for possibly even 10 years but definitely the last 5 years,” Thomas said. “It’s good to see everyone getting on the same page as the rest of the world.”
The United States match against Portugal, June 22, drew Nielsen ratings that surpassed those of the World Series and the NBA Finals.
Bar patios around town are overflowing. Crowds at Fountain Square erupt with emotion every time the United States team even approaches a shot on goal.
“It’s kind of like the Olympics for soccer,” said Sean Buffington, who grew up playing soccer in Oakley. “To soccer fans I think this is more important than an Olympic title.”
But as the last of the “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants fade next month with the end of the World Cup tournament, one can imagine the Carol King classic, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” playing in the background.
Will all the fans, so passionate about soccer during this World Cup, still be watching the sport this fall?
“I think that question still remains as it relates to soccer,” said Sam Riber, president of Riber Sports Marketing Group. “No doubt it’s one of the hottest things going as we talk today."
The "next big thing?"
The concern is maintaining the momentum. The U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup in 1999 with Brandi Chastain famously celebrating her clinching goal in a sports bra. Fifteen years on, women’s soccer is still struggling to capitalize on that moment.
Cincinnati, long a hotbed of youth soccer, should be in better position than most places to keep the World Cup party rocking. Bo Schuerman, business manager for Youthletic.com (a Scripps company), said his team has identified 267 youth soccer clubs in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area.
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“The fact that we’ve got one of the largest youth soccer participations in the country per capita basis says volumes for the city,” said David Satterwhite, president of the Cincinnati Saints professional soccer club, celebrating its fifth year.
“It’s a massive amount of people. The fact that all those kids are playing and they love it and they have a professional league now that they’re able to follow. Those kids are gonna grow up and be fans. It’s more of a generational thing for us. It’s still growing immensely. It starts with the kids. I’m part of that generation that really first grew up with soccer. Now I’m having kids, and I want to take my kids to a professional soccer match. That’s kind of the generational thing.”
Thing is, though, the idea that soccer was just one generation away from taking America by storm is almost three generations old.
“I remember playing in the mid ’70s,” Riber said. “Everybody said, ‘Soccer is gonna be the next big thing.’ People have been saying that for a long time, but it’s never really happened.”
That being said, Riber is optimistic. He offers several reasons why 2014 finally could be the breakthrough – including the increase in televised games, the Internet’s ability to connect the globe, America’s growing Hispanic population, and even the popularity of soccer jerseys as fashion statements.
"Time will tell"
Locally, Satterwhite and the Cincy Saints certainly are doing their part to promote the World Cup, their teams and the sport. They have helped organize the Fountain Square Watch Parties , attracting huge crowds downtown to watch the World Cup matches on the big screen over top Vine Street. Satterwhite estimated that 7,500 people watched the U.S. versus Portugal match at the Square.
“Part of my plan to prove that this city does have a soccer market,” Satterwhite said. “That’s what we’re really hoping – that it carries over. People see what an awesome time they had at Fountain Square and that carries over to them watching their local pro team.”
The scene downtown reminds Thomas of his World Cup experience in France 1998.
“I will say that the very coolest part about this is how busy Fountain Square is,” Thomas said. “Because that is a very European scenario where everyone is in the square watching the big screen.”
Meanwhile back at Hap’s, Thomas has no worries
that the passion for soccer will sag. The bar has a reputation as one of the area’s most popular places to take in an English Premier League match.
“We used to get the random Arsenal shirt,” Thomas said. “Now you come in on certain matches and it’s just full on gear, scarves. Some of the Manchester games, the whole bar is red.”
Maybe Hap’s is a special case. Or maybe it’s a sign that soccer isn’t going away--this time.
“It’s a story we’ve seen before,” Riber said. “Hopefully the ending is a little bit different this time. It’s shaping up to be a much more positive ending, or evolution is probably a better word.
“There are a lot of variables that go into it, to say that it’s going to be sustained. Time will tell.”
Get to know your local soccer pros!
- The Cincy Saints have a Y ouTube channel
- Check the rosters for the men's and women's teams
- Follow @CincySaints on Twitter
- The website includes the 2014 schedule and more information
- When at home, the Saints play at Stargel Stadium, 420 Ezzard Dharles Drive (Taft High School, Cincinnati)
Connect with contributor Ben Walpole: firstname.lastname@example.org