On My Mind

Okay, now I’m really annoyed. It’s not enough that e-Sports has commandeered the word “sport” into its sedentary activity, now it has made a big deal out of taking over an actual sport. In this case, soccer. More specifically, FIFA World Cup Soccer.

Couple this development with the recent news that high school sports participation has decreased for the first time in more than a generation and I am genuinely upset and concerned.

It all came to a head earlier this month with the 15th FIFA eWorld Cup, billed by its organizers as “the virtual soccer equivalent to World Cup.” It was comprised of 32 competitive gamers who qualified to play via the EA Sports "FIFA 19" Global Series, which featured the soccer video game. Those 30 sat around one weekend and went head-to-head for the top prize.

All this was happening while the rest of the country was reveling in its summer at the beach, in the mountains or just enjoying the better weather from Florida to Alaska. Most of the teenagers I saw were swimming at the local pool, or playing in summer baseball, softball, soccer, football or any other summer sport camps. Many were preparing for the school season that begins this month.

The FIFA eWorld Cup participants and fans? They were tuned into FIFA.com, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or Twitch, all of whom broadcast the competition live from London. The Cup was even broadcast in six languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, German, Portuguese and Spanish – for the first time. And while the wasn't as big as the Fortnite World Cup's first-place jackpot of $3 million earlier this summer, the winner did receive $250,000.

There’s no doubt these e-games are increasingly popular among a certain segment, and even grab interest from real athletes looking to satisfy their competitive urges, but it still rankles me that such a wonderful sport as soccer attracts so many to sit around in front of a computer or TV screen to compete.

I found out recently that the recreational soccer program in our town here in North Jersey is down about 20 percent from last year, and about 40 percent from five years ago. While there are undeniably other factors keeping kids off of our local pitches on weekends in the fall – among them, specialization in other sports and an emphasis on elite play – there’s no doubt at least some of these boys and girls are opting to stay home in their warm houses to play games. After all, it never rains on a FIFA e-Sports match.

It is a very real problem for the team sports business and a challenge many dealers, vendors and groups like PHIT America, NSGA and SFIA are facing head on. Who wins the game may decide the ultimate fate of the business of team sports.