We have entered the season of professional sports saturation. Just take a look at the last few days: Saturday featured a staggering number of college football upsets, a new women’s U.S Open champion, Albert Pujols tying A-Rod atop the all-time home run chart; Sunday was the first full day of the NFL, some juicy Stephen Curry trade gossip, Game One of the WNBA Finals, the men’s tennis U.S. Open final and Pujols passing A-Rod. On Tuesday, we had Aaron Judge getting ever closer to the still-kind-of-magical home run mark of 61.
And every sports week will look like this well into 2023. First off, we have entered football world, with the NFL and college football dominating every Saturday and Sunday. Also looming in the months ahead: the beginning of the NBA, NHL and college basketball seasons, the World Series, and an endless supply of Pay-Per-View events at which people punch each other in the face. For people who work in sports media, it’s the busy season, the time of the year when no one schedules vacations, and when everybody makes their money. It’s a constant fight for eyeballs. Think of this as sports’ extended Sweeps Week.
I think that’s why this has been the quietest build-up to a World Cup I can remember. Do you realize that the World Cup — the biggest sporting event in the world — is only two months away? Do you know where it’s taking place? Do you know who’s broadcasting it? Do you know who the United States plays? Are you sure the United States even made it? (They did.)
For the first time, the Men’s World Cup this year won’t take place in June, when it has been held every four years throughout its history. Instead, in highly disorienting fashion, it will get going the week before Thanksgiving and wrap up on December 18 — the shortest window ever for the tournament. This isn’t just one of the busiest periods on the sports calendar, but the busiest, or at least most hectic, period in Americans’ lives every year. The World Cup selected dates that make it most likely to be ignored by the American public — the very country it’s been trying to fully win over for decades.
The reason for the time shift is kind of about weather, but really about FIFA corruption. FIFA — which experiences massive corruption scandals about as often as it holds World Cups — awarded the 2022 edition to Qatar way back in 2010. The tiny country won the sweepstakes not because it put together a compelling bid or had facilities ready to accommodate massive crowds. According to the Department of Justice (and many others), Qatar triumphed because it bribed FIFA officials. The place certainly didn’t make sense on the merits. It had no stadiums ready for play, and it used exploited migrant labor to construct the ones it had to build. Qatar isn’t exactly a soccer hotbed, either; the country’s teams had never qualified for the World Cup. And it’s also very, very conservative: homosexuality is currently against the law, and has already been controversy about how little soccer fans will be able to drink.
Beyond the moral hazards, there’s the heat. Qatar averages 105 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year, and despite an initial claim from organizers that “heat is not and will not be an issue,” it turned out that not all stadiums could be air-conditioned. So in 2014, FIFA moved things to November. That switch caused all sorts of headaches with professional soccer leagues, since the tournament now falls in the middle of their seasons. Hence why this World Cup is so compressed, taking place over three weeks rather than the usual four or five. The world’s premier sporting event is essentially now being squeezed in.
In the United States, moving the event to November sure feels like stuffing it into a back room and slamming the door. It has been eight years since the USMNT reached the tournament, having ignominiously failed to do so the last time around, in Russia. That means the last time the U.S. played a World Cup match was July 1, 2014, 3,066 days ago. In his July 4 address that year then-President Obama joked about considering USMNT keeper Tim Howard for his next Secretary of Defense. That’s how long ago it was.
In its first World Cup game this year, the U.S. men’s team squares off against Wales on the Monday before Thanksgiving; the next one after that, against England, will fall on Black Friday. You tell me how much attention you’re going to have for soccer during that time. And these are not academic concerns. For all the attention the USWNT received during its World Cup title run in 2019—and they eventually got a ticker-tape parade, one that Bill DeBlasio kept butting his nose into—one of the reasons that team garnered record-breaking television ratings was a simple one: The match took place during the day, in June, when there was nothing else on television. (Other than some men’s tournaments no one really cared about.) You could watch the whole thing, uninterrupted and undistracted, with nothing else to divide your attention. With everyone tuning in, the USWNT had the stage to itself, played spectacularly, and won a World Cup. It’s why, among other reasons, that team was so popular, and why they still resonate three years later.: We were all paying attention. This won’t be the case in November.
As if to make up for the Qatar mistake, FIFA awarded the 2026 Men’s World Cup to the United States, Mexico and Canada, in June. Soccer fandom in general has finally blossomed in this country in a serious way, and a poorly scheduled World Cup won’t ruin the sport’s ascension in America, or the anticipation that will build ahead of ‘26. But most fans here are following European leagues, and still not paying much attention to the U.S. men’s soccer team. To become truly competitive, that organization requires much more buy-in from the American public than it’s currently getting. And with the World Cup going head to head with the NFL this year, that’s a tough ask.
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