The organization of today's most popular sport, and the beginning of the confusion as to what to call it, began to take shape in London. In 1863, The Football Association met to establish proper rules for an athletic activity that encompassed two teams, a goal and a ball. The result of their efforts is what the rest of the world refers to as football, but what we North Americans call soccer.
This etymological uproar can be blamed on London university students, who had the cheeky tendency of adding "-er" to words. So to them, someone who played rugby was a "rugger." Taking it a step further, they reconfigured "Association" into the word "soccer." By colloquializing the game's vocabulary with their slang, these young Londoners made it their own.
That sense of ownership drives youth fandom and is happening in a very unlikely place: the United States. It may surprise you that here, soccer is now the most popular sport among 12-24-year-olds (if you count the European leagues).
Young North America has been playing it on the school level for decades, but they have never had the access to pro matches they now enjoy. Before Fox Soccer and Gol TV began transmitting top European league matches, these amateurs had no real opportunity of seeing their professional counterparts live.
It is hard to emulate an AC Milan defensive play if you can't actually see it, maybe even harder to begin the hero worship of pro players if you can't see what makes them otherworldly. Baseball little leaguers can continue to enjoy Major League Baseball even after they put their bats down for good, but youth soccer players were hard pressed to keep their enthusiasm alive without access to their sport at the highest levels. Thus, as Americans grew up and aged out of youth soccer leagues, their interest level often waned.
One of the only ways to continue to be part of the action was the FIFA football video game franchise. The domestic popularity of this title has been a driving force in maintaining the buzz. 353,000 copies of this year's release (FIFA 13) were sold in the first 24 hours of its release, a 42 percent increase from the previous release, FIFA 12.
Those dancing soccer jersey-wearing pixels let hundreds of thousands of North American kids live out their dreams of world wide glory. Being able to play online with other soccer-obsessed gamers only increases their feeling of community. They are chatting with (and sometimes screaming at) others around the world who share their love of the game. Thirty-five percent more online FIFA games were played that day (1.4 million).
Things have changed, however, and there are now plenty of ways to be part of the action and continue their engagement.
I predict a significant spike in popularity resulting from the NBC Universal deal to broadcast English Premier League (EPL) matches and the upcoming World Cup. Starting this year, you should expect a soccer-focused, youth-driven marketing bonanza.
Access to the sport will increase exponentially when NBC Universal begins broadcasting EPL matches through their network and online platforms in August. They paid a hefty $250 million for the three-year rights, and will probably utilize their full marketing muscle for its promotion. Better learn to head that ball, Al Roker.
This is the first time that a non-U.S. based league will be regularly televised on a broadcast network.
The 2014 World Cup will be held in Brazil, the nation famous for developing a style of play known as o jogo bonito (the beautiful game). This has added a new level of anticipation to the most popular sporting event on earth.
But what will make this upcoming tournament a greater success in the States is the fact that kids will be able to watch most matches live, without having to stay up late on school nights. Reading morning tweets about overnight results is never the same as seeing the action unfold in real time. For kids looking to be awed by the crafty skill moves of Brazilian forward Neymar, it can't get much sweeter.
Because the popularity of soccer will now be sustained by young North America as they age beyond their playing years, interest in the sport will likely continue well into the future.
So don't be surprised to see more kids proudly sporting Lionel Messi jerseys the same way they would wear Carmelo Anthony's. It's not Pittsburgh Penguin Sydney Crosby's fault his jersey is probably in storage; blame National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman.
As editor in chief of Urban Latino magazine, I was embedded in a similar youth marketing movement. The 90s Latin Boom of art, culture and commerce, spearheaded by the likes of Ricky Martin and J.Lo, was a first for North America. As much as the art and culture were buzz-worthy, what truly propelled this new dawn was the realization of Latino spending power.
Similarly, As much as Messi's art is appreciated, it is the enthusiasm and spending power of North American youth that will finally cement the sport's popularity in the United States.