Right now, everyone everywhere seems to have an opinion about the World Cup. I'll spare you mine, with the exception of this: In 2010, a lot of the discussion has moved away from "does soccer suck?" to actually discussing the teams and games with some semblance of passion. This is nothing short of remarkable, especially as World Cup discussion finds its way onto the airways of the same sports talk radio stations that fought so hard to keep it down for the better part of the last 20 years.
However, rather than discuss this year's World Cup, or the stupidities of FIFA in controlling officiating and adopting new technology (nice to know the Pac-10 isn't the only large organization with ineptitude in this area), I instead want to focus on one key thing for Coug fans: Just why isn't men's soccer on the official WSU sports roster?
Now, you might be saying WSU already has a men's soccer team, and you'd be right. They exist as a club team, and they were the 2008 NCCSC champions (woo!). Still, not a single member of that squad receives an athletic scholarship, and as a club team they aren't officially recognized by WSU - meaning they cannot compete within the cozy confines of the soon-to-be Pac-12 conference.
This doesn't seem fair for a group of young men who play the world's most popular sport while taking their regular course load. Especially when their female counterparts at WSU get full-fledged NCAA status and are the ones who draw the most fans, get to go to the NCAA tournament, play on the nicest field, etc. Now, I don't want to get into a fight over Title IX, which mind you is one of several reasons WSU fields a full-status women's team and not a men's. Instead, I want to focus on the future, and just why now is the right time for WSU to commit a men's side into the Pac-10.
1. The money will be there
WSU won't be rolling in the dough they would've been had the Pac-16 come to fruition. However, they still stand to command a whole lot more cash out of their next television deal (regardless of the network) than from their current one. Couple that with the increased exposure the school will get as part of the new Pac-12, and the checking account Bill Moos works with could be commanding millions of new dollars each year.
Finances (namely the cost of fielding a football team) are a large reason men's sports get the axe when the Title IX rules are applied to the athletic department. However, WSU could conceivably add men's soccer and another potential revenue-increasing sport - women's softball - rather easily under the umbrella of the expanded conference.
This doesn't even take into account that soccer is a fairly cheap sport to put on relative to football, baseball, and many other Pac-10 sports. Teams are small, equipment needs are relatively minimal and the largest expense by far would simply be travel. If WSU could find a way to cover the cost of a few plane trips, they can cover the cost of carrying the sport. And, most importantly, it's a sport that could pay for itself. Which brings me to my next point.
2. Soccer can be a revenue-generating sport
Proponents of soccer catching fire in the United States seem to be waiting for a key moment to skyrocket that sports' popularity in this country. That hasn't happened, and I doubt it will, even with Landon's Goal this year following Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt back in the 90s. Still, the fact remains soccer's popularity has increased at a steady yet remarkable rate in the last ten years, and it shows no signs of slowing. Soccer is due to catch up to many of the other revenue-creating sports in this country in the next 10 to 20 years, and thanks to its low cost to put on, soccer could become a revenue creator very soon, rather than a strain on the athletic department's budget.
3. It opens up WSU to soccer-friendly markets
Recently much has been bandied about WSU putting down some solid roots in the Tri-Cities. After all, it's a growing area, and is a prime location to draw future season-ticket holders from. And if you happen to be on the freeway in Pasco, you may notice a massive youth soccer complex off to the side of the road. Youth soccer has been very strong since the 90s, and continues to be throughout the Northwest. But the Tri-Cities strike me as an area in particular that could give their kids yet another reason to choose WSU over another school.
That's not to say it's the only area the athletic department should be targeting. It irks me to no end that young soccer players in Spokane and on the West Side of the state have no choice but to be Huskies if they want to play Pac-10 soccer close to home. That's unacceptable.
Furthermore, if WSU wants to put some action behind their words with regards to diversity on campus, it helps to field another competitive sport that a large number of minority and international players are passionate about.
4. The sport doesn't actually suck
A lot of people have already figured this out, but just to clarify I'll go over these things again. Offsides? Not so bad, and it makes sense from a tactical aspect. Ties? Also, not that bad. Sometimes life isn't about a black and white result. And there's always overtime for the key matches (I won't get into PKs right now, though). The lack of a "real" clock? Fine, since most refs stick to the amount of extra time they say they will allow, and the game generally ends at a point where the play stops, rather than a buzzer stopping the play, which makes sense. The lack of scoring? You'll get over it, trust me. And the diving? Shouldn't be too prevalent among American players, since it runs counter to what 95% of our soccer fans believe about faking injuries.
5. The fans will get behind it
One of the most remarkable things about attending Sounders FC games has been the atmosphere. The Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC fan clubs in Qwest Field remind me most of the kind of passionate fans you'd see at, well, a NCAA basketball game. Or football game. They are loud, they are wild, and they stand throughout the whole course of the game. Sound familiar?
I laugh at the idea that soccer fans are too different to make the cross over to college sports fans. Anyone who 'hates' the fact that soccer fans sing might want to re-think raising their voices to the WSU fight song. And scarves? Team scarves are pretty cool in their own right, and quite frankly necessary anytime after October in Pullman. Soccer fans are organized, which is nothing new for Coug fans who want to do the gator chomp or do any number of chants. And the whole stadium-to-stadium callback of "Seattle" and "Sounders" is eerily reminiscent of our "Goooooo" "Coooouuuugggsss". Soccer and college are such a natural fit it makes me hard to believe they haven't been brought together already.
And that's the thing that blows my mind about all this. If you've seen any of the exciting matches of this World Cup - USA/Algeria and Italy/Slovakia come to mind - would it not be absolutely incredible to see that sort of game played between the Cougs and Huskies? In front of 30,000 strong at Martin Stadium? You can't tell me you wouldn't be going crazy if Landon Donovan was a Coug and the ball going into the net crushed the Huskies' chances instead of Algeria. It would be like the bubble screen to Trandon Harvey, or the wide open catch by Brandon Gibson. Same euphoria, different sport.
Why isn't soccer big yet in the NCAA? I'm not sure. Part of it is a lack of interest, but that's building. Part of it also has to be that the best young players can go to Europe and get paid, but it's the same in basketball and that hasn't changed much (save Brandon Jennings). And some of it has to be that schools like WSU just aren't even fielding competitive teams yet at the highest level. That we can change.
There's a little bit of a chicken and egg thing going on with college soccer. What comes first: the sport itself or the fan support? I'm not sure. In a lot of ways they go hand in hand. And I'm shocked that the sort of atmosphere we see for the Sounders hasn't yet come to the NCAA. But it will. It may take 20 years, but I'm confident at some point a soccer Apple Cup could provide a similar fan environment to the football version today.
It's going to take time, and maybe some of it is a dream, but soccer is arriving in the U.S. And if WSU wants to be a part of it, what better time to start than right now?