Last week, I had the opportunity to attend an event in Washington, D.C., called Soul Food Sessions. It was an eight-course dinner curated by black chefs that included passed appetizers, a fowl dish and dessert. It was a family-style dinner setting, so you were encouraged to sit amongst folks you didn’t know and make friends. ’Twas a very good time.
My fiancee and I got in a little bit late, so most of the tables were fully packed, so we sat down between two couples across the table from one another and then we commenced to making friends. The customary small talk started, ya know, what’s your name, what do you do, etc. Well in the midst of this small talk, it turned out that we were sitting right next to one of the captains of Washington’s Major League Soccer club, D.C. United’s Steven Birnbaum.
Now, I’m a soccer fan, and because D.C. has a soccer club, I’m a D.C. United fan. When we sat down, I knew he looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place his face. After his fiancee mentioned that he played soccer professionally and was the captain of the squad, I was like, “Oh!! I knew you looked familiar.” He’s even plastered on a billboard not too far from my house, which is also not too far from Audi Field, the new D.C. United stadium.
Why do I bring this up? I’ll tell you why. We were in a major U.S. city sitting next to a professional athlete from the most championship-heavy team in the city (D.C. United has won four chips to the Redskins three and the Wizards and Capitals one, though the Caps just won this year) and I’m pretty sure nobody realized it.
I do need to qualify that I have no idea how many people stopped to take pictures with him before we got there. It’s entirely possible that upon entering the venue, the whole club went up like it was a Tuesday. But I know that I’m a soccer fan and didn’t recognize him immediately. Considering how non-soccer heavy the United States is, I think it might be safe to say that, while some people may have recognized him, a significant number of folks did not.
Now imagine if you go to Barcelona and Lionel Messi walks into an establishment. I’d wager that homie is getting mobbed. Or Neymar in Paris or back home in Brazil. These footballers are rock stars in so many places in the world, but in D.C., and presumably, in many cities in America that are home to soccer clubs, star players on most of the teams wouldn’t get much attention.
Which is interesting as soccer continues to rise in popularity in the states. According to a recent Forbes article, soccer is poised to become the third most popular spectator sport in America, after football and basketball. Currently, baseball holds the No. 3 spot, though the share of spectators is declining, leaving the door open for soccer. And still, I’d bet that despite a rising profile in America, where its best players are international superstars elsewhere in the world, I wonder how noticeable they’d be amongst America’s most recognizable and unmistakable superstars.
Wayne Rooney just joined D.C. United from Everton. But after having played most of his career as a star with Manchester United and for England’s national team, I’m pretty sure that though we’re all really happy to have him in D.C., unless he’s standing next to Bryce Harper who is specifically telling people that Rooney is great at his sport, the vast majority of folks in D.C.—sports fans included—probably wouldn’t recognize him on the street.
In the rest of the world, soccer is largely the most important national sport. In the U.S., it’s not and likely never will be despite its growing popularity. Professional soccer players just might be sitting right next to you at an event and you might not know it. Or maybe you would. But if LeBron walked into a room, we’re all pulling out cameras.
I sat next to a professional athlete for dinner and didn’t know it definitively for a while and I’m a fan of the sport and team. That’s the U.S. relationship with soccer in a nutshell.