Note: The opinions and thoughts contained within the Editor's Column are the sole property of the author and are not necessarily reflect the opinions of members of the American Cross Country Skiers, organizational sponsors, and/or xcskiworld.com advertisers.
Mia Hamm And The Secret To XC Success
Note: This installment was written in the summer of 1999 hot on the heels of the close of the 1999 women's World Cup soccer tourney (won by the U.S. women's team). Now that the U.S. men's soccer program has climbed another step on the international ladder following the 2002 men's World Cup, this piece seems just as relavent three years further along the journey.
While America revels in the afterglow provided by the 1999 women's World Cup soccer crown, mass media types have been quick to point out (rightfully) the significance the entire event had for the women's athletic movement worldwide. As a longtime proponent of female opportunities and advancement in XC skiing, we here at xcskiworld.com can only applaud these sentiments. Yet there are two other significant messages provided by the soccer hysterics for the XC world the mainstream media has entirely missed.
Build The Dream And The Money Will Follow
Though the rest of the world embraced soccer long ago, it is no secret that the U.S. has remained largely ignorant of the world's most popular game. The big three money team sports...baseball, basketball and football (gridiron as it is correctly referred to elsewhere)...have dominated media attention, public affections and (perhaps most importantly of all) corporate financial backing for most of the 20th century. Hockey has also made major inroads in the last 10 years. Golf, tennis, and certainly motor sports all command their share of the sportspages and sports marketing dollars.
Now that the secret is out that the U.S. is a dominant power in soccer (at least in one gender), one by one the powers that be have come running to jump on the bandwagon. Led by a groundswell of public support, the media and major corporations now canÕt get enough of the "golden girls" and suddenly soccer is the "in" sport.
What is most significant in this phenomenal transformation is that it has truly been the grassroots support that has forced the average zillionaire company or media outlet to change their collective mindset.
Whereas the 1996 hometown Olympic gold medal by the very same women's soccer team barely registered on the attention scale with the money brokers...seeing 70,000 people show up to watch the women's gold medal game in Atlanta did. Whereas the 1994 men's soccer World Cup (held in the U.S.) and subsequent Major League Soccer seasons have been mildly interesting to both corporations and the media alike (even sportschannel ESPN which broadcasts the MLS games in the U.S. rarely features highlights during nightly Sportscenter shows)...what has "suddenly" grabbed the suit and tie gang by the throat is the incredible growth of youth and teen apparel and equipment sales.
And so it goes...now that the money is guaranteed for soccer in the U.S., you can bet your cleats the U.S. is going to remain a women's world power (and most likely gain men's ground as well) for some time to come. Yet the heart of this success will lie in the public support that occurred well before the money ever started to pour in.
What does this mean for XC skiing?
Pretty simple. If we want to see XC gain ground on the global stage, we all must do as the U.S. soccer fan did just 6-10 years ago. We have to support everything and anything that will grow our sport.
We have to teach children and teens the lifelong world of fun that is XC skiing and nurture a love for the essence of the sport. We have to get behind effective educational and promotional projects that get positive messages out to the widest possible audience. We have to make nuisances of ourselves with media and corporate bosses and let them know day in and day out that we exist, that we are consumers...and that we are ticked off they won't give our sport the time of day (despite demographics that beat 90% of the most "popular" sponsored properties). We have to become consumers ourselves and support companies, retail outlets and media that involve themselves in our sport.
In short, we have to build the future for ourselves. The net is wide open, it's up to all of us to get the ball in there.
Generations To Goal
Like many soccer fans in the U.S., I've struggled for many years to understand why it has taken so long for soccer to emerge in the U.S. on even a medium stage, let alone something one could call "main stream". Interestingly, the parallels in this achingly slow journey to XC skiing are numerous.
I found my answer to the "why not soccer" riddle a couple years ago while watching a collegiate womenÕs game here in Oregon. Out on the field were a group of athletes that ranged in talent and fitness levels as has been the case for decades now in the U.S.. The fact that they happened to be young women gives rise to another profound sociological issue (Title IV) but what jumped out at me at the time was what surrounded the athletes on the field. As I looked around I found the answer not only for longterm U.S. soccer success but for success in XC skiing as well.
Supporting generations that grow up with the sport themselves.
America has had youth, teen and collegiate soccer programs for decades now. Certainly not as widespread as they are currently, but we've had them and had them for a long, long time. We've also had world-class facilities, Olympic Committee bucks, and even casual media interest.
Yet for decades the U.S. has been a soccer laughing stock (at least on the men's side) in terms of international performance. Even grassroots participation and interest has been achingly slow to gain a fraction of the following the sport enjoys elsewhere on the globe.
But this is now changing and changing rather dramatically. Why? I suggest that the reason is simply that the first and second U.S. soccer generations have now grown up and they are building a better future because they know first hand the beauty of the sport.
Think about it this way. We know that children and teens are remarkably influenced by the attitudes, behaviors and biases of their parents. When the the American Youth Soccer programs were getting started back in the 70s and 80s, soccer was generally seen as a playground game by adults of the day simply because they had no point of reference to believe or feel otherwise. The adults leading both school and recreation programs had horribly little formal education in the game and (far more importantly) had almost universally zero cultural education. They rarely saw soccer on TV, almost nobody went to games, Pele was the only player anyone had ever heard about...worst of all, the adults teaching the game had not, for the most part, ever played the game themselves.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. competitive results languished for decades despite all the apparent bells and whistles for success. We had athletic kids, fields, balls, programs, development ladders, etc...and yet we were awful. What everyone was missing was that although we had "the goods", the fundamental knowledge base and the critical feel for the game was missing in the adults that were responsible for helping those kids to the next level.
Now skip ahead a couple decades. The children playing those early games are now adults. They are parents and grandparents. They have disposable income. They have initiative to go out and create new soccer programs or support existing ones. They work in college athletic departments. They work in corporate marketing departments...or they may even own the company. They even write for papers and work for television studios.
Most significantly...they have the feel for the game somewhere in their soul.
Take all these factors into account and you can see what I was watching surrounding that lone college soccer game. The players were not any different. Athletes are athletes. It was the supporting cast that had undergone a complete transformation.
Instead of having to beg and plead to find someone willing to coach the soccer team, many U.S. schools at all levels now enjoy a choice of very knowledgeable and motivated coaches. Instead of having to convince kids...who then have to convince their parents...that soccer is a viable sport, now entire families are part of the recruiting process. In a similar vein, officials, community sponsors, local media and so on all our part of the generational shift towards a booming sport.
O.K., it all sounds great, but where are the implications for XC skiing?
Using purely a U.S. frame of reference, XC had a tremendous grassroots boom in the 70s and 80s. Equipment flew off the shelves and participation numbers started to bring corporate money into the sport much like the early AYSO years for soccer. Just like soccer, XC youth and teen programs enjoyed a massive growth period. And again, just like soccer, most of the people running the new XC programs had little to no formal education in the sport and little to no personal education as a participant themselves.
Over the past twenty years change has been slow to come within this formula...but it is coming about. You are reading a product produced by one individual that fits perfectly this generational time lag. Throughout my entire career I struggled (as many U.S. skiers do) to find coaches, programs, support, etc. that matched my ambition and needs. Today I work constantly to make the future different for Generations XC yet to come. I am not alone, not by a long shot.
The "sudden" soccer revolution was decades in the making and all of us with XC need to take heart that we will someday see a similar revolution take place out on the ski trails of struggling ski nations. Rest assured xcskiworld.com will be first to report the news.