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A Sporting Conversation: Just how popular can soccer be in the U.S.?

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Daily Reporter sports editor Brian Harmon and sportswriter Grant Freking discuss the topics of the day.

Brian: Grant, you’re very much of The Soccer Generation. My fellow Generation Xers and I were the last to grow up without cell phones, the Internet and on–demand movies. I could tell you about a trip, back around 1992, to a shady video rental store on the east side of Indy, but we’ll save that for an off the record chat. Back to soccer, youngin’. Seems to me international futbol is kind of like the Olympics. It’s immensely popular in this country for a few glorious moments every four years. But, two months from now, will anyone still be talking about Ronaldo, Clint Dempsey and Wayne Rooney? As a futbol fan yourself, do you follow the sport year round?

Grant: (For the record, I grew up with video stores too, only my usual interest was in the gaming section. Long live Nintendo 64!) Follow may be too strong of a word in regards to my interest in soccer at large, but I do keep an eye on the game – especially the men’s national team, as well as some of the broader news going on in Major League Soccer and the big leagues overseas. As far as your first query, no, soccer will likely be pushed to the backburner by us media types by the time football season hits full stride. The game isn’t going away, however. The fact that there are more outlets covering the sport – Nielsen estimates that total TV adverting forked out for soccer events in 2010 was around $265 million; by 2013, that chunk of change rose to $378 million – and the ever-increasing popularity and adaptability of social media just adds to that exposure. Soccer isn’t going to surpass football, basketball and baseball in America’s Sports Power Rankings any time soon, but by the time I have a head of grey hair and spent my afternoons in a rocking chair, soccer will have climbed into the top three, maybe even top two. Football’s safety issues and the exorbitant length of baseball games will only aide futbol’s rise.

Brian: You struck on something with the football safety issue. As huge as the National Football League is in every measure of popularity, I wouldn’t be surprised if it got sued and legislated out of existence. Best guess is the demise of football begins at the youth and high school levels. Concussions are real, scary stuff. Insurance premiums for the local pee-wee leagues, for example, could be the start of the downfall. But, enough with the doom and gloom. Basketball is alive and well in the Hoosier State, especially at the high school level, where Indiana continues to turn out some of the nation’s top players. As for the local pro team, I wrote a few months ago that the Pacers should let Lance Stephenson walk via free agency. I stand by that statement. It won’t happen – Larry Bird is a Lance fan – but I’d take that cost savings, package it with a trade of George Hill and land a true point guard. You, Grant, wrote that the Pacers should keep Lance. After his playoff antics, you still feel the same?

Grant: If I was an actual fan of the Pacers, I would certainly be sick of Lance’s act. But, if Indiana wants to remain near the top of the East, keeping Lance – at the right cost – is the best thing Larry Bird & Co. can do. Lance did nothing but cost himself money with his childish antics during the Heat series and his occasionally maddening play in the second half of the regular season, but don’t rule out a godfather offer from a mystery team, perhaps even the Michael Jordan-owned Charlotte Hornets – yes, they exist again – being enough to draw Lance away from the cocoon Bird has created for him at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Trading Hill would be the best thing for both parties, unfortunately there won’t be many teams clamoring for a fringe starting combo guard making $8 million the next three seasons. And with the Pacers being capped out and without a first-round pick in next week’s draft – it’s safe to say they lost the Luis Scola trade with Phoenix – their options are limited asset-wise. Having said all that, I’m confident Bird will do his best to reshape the roster – neither the Legend nor the fan base will stand for the status quo.

Brian: Hill’s contract is on the high side, but the NBA has proven it's full of owners with more cents than sense. With Frank Vogel swiftly being retained after the series loss to Miami, something else – as you correctly point out – has to give. Speaking of head coaches and job statuses, Mt. Vernon’s Julie Shelton (girls basketball), Scott Johnson (baseball) and Mike McGill (softball) stepped down in the last few weeks. Shelton has been replaced by former MV boys coach Steve Doud. I had never spoken with Doud before he was hired this week – his time as boys coach preceded my arrival at the Daily Reporter. But, a nicer guy you could not ask for. New Palestine girls basketball coach Brian Kehrt speaks highly of Doud, and that’s enough for me. As for Johnson, who resigned, MV co-athletic director Derek Shelton told me the school would aim to hire a teacher from within MV as the new baseball coach. Teacher or not, I hope the Marauders find some continuity for their baseball program. The next hardball coach will be MV’s fifth of the last six years. It’s no coincidence that the New Palestine baseball lineage of Marvin Shepler-Al Cooper-Shawn Lyons stretches decades and has included massive on-field success.

Grant: The next coach of the Marauders will inherit a talented group that’s certainly capable of contending for a Hoosier Heritage Conference title. Mt. Vernon had a pair of all-conference selections this spring in sophomore shortstop Noah Powell – a player Johnson spoke very highly of – as well as junior pitcher James Stricker, a talented righty who had his season cut short by injury. And while we’re on the baseball subject, Brian, what are your thoughts on the suddenly surging Cincinnati Redlegs?

Brian: I don’t know much (as readers rejoice in agreement), but I do know it’s ridiculous to get too worked up about a struggling baseball team early in a season that lasts nine months. So, as a Reds fan, I didn’t panic as they stumbled out of April. Cincy’s strength, much as it has been for four or five years now, remains the pitching staff. With Billy Hamilton hitting closer and closer to .280 and Joey Votto returning from injury, the offense is rounding into form. When Jay Bruce starts hitting like Jay Bruce, the Reds will surge toward the top of the National League Central under new manager Bryan Price. I was never a Dusty Baker fan. The former Reds manager gave way to Price this season and, strangely, Price continues to do one thing that drove many Cincy fans crazy: slot Brandon Phillips into the cleanup spot. Among managers who clearly know what they’re doing, a final shout out to the aforementioned Lyons and the New Palestine baseball program. Witnessing the Dragons’ surge from a 9-7 club early in the year to a regional champ was one of the most pleasant surprises of the local spring sports prep scene. The success of the Greenfield-Central girls track and field program was another fun story to track. Now that we enter into the time of year where I send you to cover demolition derbys, potato sack races and cornhole action, what stands out to you, Grant, from the spring sports campaign?

Grant: The weather. Though rain seemed to play more of a role in washing out games/meets this spring, it doesn’t get better for a sportswriter than doing your job outside. From covering baseball at Eastern Hancock to shuffling from event to event at the girls track State Finals at Indiana University, it was a very enjoyable spring sports slate for me – I’ve got the farmer’s tan to prove it.

Contact Daily Reporter sports editor Brian Harmon or sportswriter Grant Freking at grsports@greenfieldreporter.com or at (317) 477-3227.

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