January 3, 2014

Fightin' Words: New Year brings new sport to OKC

Adam Troxtell
The Express-Star


This year has a lot to live up to sports wise if it is to match 2013.

Many milestones were reached, so many great games played out in front of our eyes, and it was this way from the global stage all the way down to the state. Any Murray won Wimbledon, Phil Mickelson finally won The Open, the Sooner ladies took the national softball crown, Bedlam was as crazy as it could get, and Cowboys basketball is going full steam ahead into the Big 12 calendar behind the exploits of Marcus Smart. In between, we had an exciting, drama-filled Super Bowl and one of the best Iron Bowl games this generation will ever see.

Of course the biggest moment of 2014 may have already happened, since by the time this column goes of to print the Sugar Bowl will be underway. Aside from that potential upset, the biggest change in the Oklahoma sports landscape that could mark 2014 will not come from one of the already established sports. One only has to look at the biggest sporting event on the calendar and some fresh activity out of Oklahoma City to realize this.

It is a fact that the World Cup, soccer's most famous tournament, is the world's most watched event. It is estimated 700 million people watched the final of the tournament in 2010. Out of those, 111.6 million in the United States watched at least six minutes of the tournament, a 22 percent increase from the reach in 2006, according to The Nielsen Company. By contrast, the Super Bowl had 111.3 million American viewers in 2013, and that was also record.

What's interesting about the 2014 installation of the World Cup, held in Brazil, is that it comes at a time when Oklahoma is reaching its own soccer milestone. The Oklahoma City Energy FC (which stands for Football Club) will begin playing in the USL PRO league in March of this year. It appears as though the timing could not be more perfect.

With attention drawn to the world's game, it could easily translate into a higher than usual interest in soccer locally. For the first time in decades, Oklahomans will have a professional soccer team to support, if they so choose, while also thinking about their own national team lining up against the world's best. It's the sport's perfect storm, and Oklahoma will be in the middle of it.

Of course, there is still the matter of how the public will actually react. Energy's stadium for the first season is at Bishop McGuinness High School on the north end of Oklahoma City. It's hardly in the thick of things. Then there's the tendency for first-year teams to struggle, making it difficult to keep a solid fan base coming back week after week. Sure attendances and television viewers tend to rise during world cup years, but by how much and the after effects of this are up in the air.

Regardless, 2014 will be a big year for America's fastest growing sport in Oklahoma. Growth and expansion can only be seen as positive at this point. It will also be interesting to see how the state embraces the game after the success of the Thunder. The fanfare around the Energy won't come close to that of the basketball franchise, but there is still a lot of sports passion to be given in a state with only one professional team to support. The newest franchise will also have to contend with the still popular view that soccer is strictly a foreign game, despite more and more evidence to the contrary popping up with each passing year.