Soccer is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. During the 2006 World Cup, Major League Soccer had about 48 million U.S. fans. It was a heartbreaking year for American fans. In a game against Ghana, the referee handed the team the penalty kick, which they made to eliminate the U.S. It was a far worse performance for the team than 2002. But the sport's popularity grew. Today, there are some 70 million fans in America—a 44 percent increase. Why exactly soccer began to spread in 2006 is difficult to say with certainty. But in the case of both baseball and football, each sport’s boom in popularity has been closely linked to the mass media of the day. Baseball had radio. Football had television.
Soccer, in the U.S., has social media.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Twitter was launched in 2006, the same year American soccer found its audience. And regardless of the reasons for the sport's growth, its fans have certainly taken to the medium. According Nielsen, Americans tweeted some 977,000 times about the UEFA Champions League soccer final on May 24 of this year (an 88 percent increase from the year before). By comparison, a NBA Playoff game between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers was tweeted about only 641,000 times. The Indy 500, a day later, got only 125,000 tweets.
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Twitter’s appeal to the soccer faithful may be in part due to the access it gives the sport’s notoriously loyal fans to their teams. This connection played out, for example, when 38-year-old Eric Shertz, a fan of the Philadelphia Union, died unexpectedly in his sleep in May. Fans and players alike connected on Twitter to mourn his death.
The late fan was a member of Sons of Ben, the largest support club for the team, and had been a season ticket holder since the team’s inception in 2010. Hence:
According to Tony Silvia, a media studies professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Twitter’s relationship to soccer is similar to baseball's growth around the newest medium of its day, radio. “In a way, baseball on the radio was the first virtual experience,” he tells Newsweek. “People bonded around a distant sport,” listening from on the radio from far-off places, with little idea of what the games actually looked like. “These days it’s through social media.”
It is difficult to imagine the experience of baseball before television. Most fans had never seen any baseball parks outside their own. And newspapers rarely published photographs of athletes, leaving the appearance of many of the most famous stars up to the imaginations of radio listeners. An early video of Babe Ruth, discovered in March of this year, illustrates how alien cameras were to the sport. In a silent, black-and-white film of Babe Ruth at batting practice before a spring training game against the Cincinnati Reds in March 1920, the 6-foot-2 lefty hacks away at ball after ball in his baggy uniform and frumpy New York Yankee cap. Afterwards, there is a short clip of the Bambino’s face, up close, studying the camera lens, seeming to wonder what, exactly, this new medium is.
According to Greg Wilsbacher, the curator of the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina, it is unclear whether how many in Ruth’s era ever actually saw the film. In those days, these short, silent, fragments of baseball film were bundled in “blocks” with other news clips to be shown or not shown in movie theaters across the country, at the theater owner’s discretion. So for most of America, those snippets before the start of their movie would be some of the only images of Ruth. “The lion’s share wasn’t seen by the public,” he says. As a result, the great slugger, and the game itself, lived largely in the imaginations of those listening to the games in their living rooms.
“[We] do for ourselves what television could never do for us and, in fact, works against: We learn to use our imaginations to create the game as ‘we’ wanted it to be,” Silvia wrote in Baseball Over the Air. As he points out, in the days before television, few actually knew what Babe Ruth looked like. “It’s one reason...why Babe Ruth created such a sensation when he appeared in a local town on a barnstorming tour.”
During the silent period, says Wilsbacher, “you could be a citizen journalist.” People would show up at games with affordable, easy-to-use film cameras. “When they converted to sound that became a much more commercialized space.” Soccer, he notes, is in many ways similar to early baseball. People experience the game in fragments on Twitter, filling in the details as they please. During the in between times, the details are left to the imagination.
According to data published by Twitter, when a team scores a goal or makes a noteworthy play, the number of tweets spikes. For example, after Ecuador's Christian Noboa bloodied his head in a brutal collision with France's Blaise Matuidi, fans made Vines of the crash:
When Uruguay's Luis Suarez was suspended for nine matches after he took a bite out of Italy's Giorgio Chiellini, fans took to Twitter to debate his punishment:
In the case of baseball, the medium of radio started to shape the game. “People started to imagine the game the way they wanted it to be,” Silvia said of baseball. Much of the lore and superstition surrounding baseball—the Curse of the Bambino, the Curse of Coogan's Bluff—came out of the imagination of fans.
It’s hard to say how Twitter and other social media shape soccer—if at all. But the sport seems well-suited to the medium. Unlike baseball and football, in which games are scheduled for prime-time television spots, soccer happens in time zones around the globe. Many fans are trapped in dreary cubicles when the games are playing out. They follow their teams on their computers, desperately refreshing their Twitter feeds, taking in whatever fragments of the game they can catch in the moments when their boss isn't looking. In this way, as Silvia put it, “social media is introducing the U.S. to soccer, the most popular sport in the world.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the university where Tony Silvia teaches and the title of a book he authored.