Sifting through the various responses to Michael Jackson's death over the weekend, I was struck by something David Segal wrote in the New York Times. Segal posited that it would be impossible for another musical artist to match his success. Not his talent, mind you, but the command of the marketplace that allowed him to sell 28 million copies of "Thriller" in the United States. Today's world offers countless more routes to success than the album/radio/MTV triad that spurred Jackson to success.
I found myself thinking of that point at halftime of the United States' Confederations Cup final game with Brazil. The U.S., up 2-0, was 45 minutes away from their first international trophy and you could already picture the way headlines and talking heads would spin the victory into the watershed moment for soccer's acceptance as a spectator sport in this country.
But the same fracturing that makes another Jackson (or Beatles or Elvis)-sized national music figure impossible makes almost any cultural phenomenon impossible. That includes sports, where all soccer or snowboarding or anything else can hope to do is maximize their subgroup.
Look at what happened after the Miracle on Ice. It's been nearly 30 years since the U.S. won gold at Lake Placid, and hockey remains a sport followed closely by the truly devoted while lacking very little of the national, general traction of other sports. And that's with the majority of the time being spent in a world that wasn't as easily carved up into tiny niches as the one we live in today, as well as with what's considered the world's finest professional league.
The MLS will never have that distinction. That means keeping tabs on the best U.S. players will take some effort, while trying to sell a mid-level product to a country that only knows elite sports. There will always be a hardy group that loves the sport, loves the league and understands what it is, but selling that on a grand scale is awfully tough with so much competition for time and dollars. The argument that more and more people grow up playing soccer and will become fans doesn't hold much water, either. Plenty of people like to go swimming, but Michael Phelps doesn't have swim meets packing arenas around the nation.
No, it seems more likely that soccer will become an Olympic-type event in this country. When the World Cup comes around, people will focus on the U.S. team the same way they focused on Phelps last summer. If the U.S. wins, that will be great and the stars will be lauded as heroes for a week until the nation turns its eyes to someone or something else.
That's not a knock on soccer, because it is hard to imagine anything short of unspeakable tragedy capturing the attention of a massive number of Americans. Everything else is just content, meant to occupy the eyeballs long enough to keep you from checking out another channel, website or cell phone.