How American sport finally shed its insularity: A totally late 1980s tale

Author Hal Phillips explains how Europe’s Ryder Cup rise played a role in soccer's growth in the U.S.

Editor's note: Hal Phillips is a noted golf journalist and author of "Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories and The Making of Soccer in America."

During the late 1980s, as super powers went mono, mullets were fashionable and iconic walls came crashing down, it was perhaps easy to miss the internationalization of American team sport. Yet this phenomenon took shape all through this era, step by step, forever changing big hunks of the U.S. sporting landscape in the process.

Prior to this eventful period, fans here in The States followed teams and leagues on a purely domestic basis. In large part, we still do: Our most popular sport, football, has no international component — it is, in fact, played nowhere else on the face of the earth, making country v. country competition impossible. Major League Baseball teams vie for “World” Series crowns, but no foreign leagues or teams take part. The World Baseball Classic, where national teams competed against one another, was the closest thing to a global championship that MLB ever attempted. It launched in 2006, never rose above exhibition status and disappeared in 2013. NBA and NHL campaigns are contested entirely within the confines of North America. For Olympic and world championship tournaments, the U.S. and Canada showed their indifference, prior to 1990, by stocking national team rosters with amateurs.

Dream — GZ — Ryder

In short, Americans were rarely exposed to country v. country team competition. Not surprisingly, they didn’t truly appreciate or much understand it — not until the late 1980s, when the visibility and sheer appeal of the Ryder Cup, soccer’s World Cup and the so-called Dream Team concept convinced us of what we’d been missing.

This brief-but-consequential Age of Enlightenment is a major theme in my new book. Ours used to be a famously soccer-indifferent country. Today, the game is everywhere, on our TV and devices, across American culture. Generation Zero is a unified theory of how we got here.

RELATED: Read an excerpt from "Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & The Making of Soccer in America"

Fact is, U.S. soccer could not grow its professional infrastructure, nor enter the American sporting mainstream, until it qualified for a World Cup — the biggest, richest sporting event on the planet and a competition whose guiding principal and stupendous fan appeal is precisely the international country v. country dynamic that was essentially unknown here. Indifference to soccer here was a cyclical failure of imagination: Missing the World Cup every four years — something U.S. national soccer teams did nine straight times between 1950 and 1990 — meant the light bulb could not go on, and would not go on, for at least another quadrennial. As a result, as recently as 1986, most U.S. sporting fans didn't even know we had a national soccer team.

How and why did all this change?

One important driver was indeed the Ryder Cup, which, as golf fans well appreciate, had been around since 1927 but didn’t capture the public imagination until the mid-1980s, when our European opponents finally made the event competitive. I’d wager that a majority of U.S. golf fans didn’t know their game could so ably and cannily accommodate international team competitions until Tony Jacklin and Co. started winning them, at our expense. Newfound American understanding of this dynamic transformed a sleepy, off-season exhibition into the sport’s fifth major and, by some metrics, the richest event in golf.

There were other links in this rather slow-moving chain reaction: In 1987, a fledgling ESPN took a flier and covered the hell out of the America’s Cup sailing regatta — live from Australia. Remarkably, U.S. viewers started paying attention. Very few Americans gave a damn about sailing in the 1980s. Few give a damn today. Still, in February 1987, for the fourth and what proved to be the clinching match race between Kookaburra III and Stars & Stripes, fully 1,889,000 households flipped on ESPN to watch. It produced 3.4 Nielsen rating, nine times the average for that time slot and the equivalent of what a Duke-UNC college basketball game might then pull on a weeknight. Jingoism is a powerful thing.

SHOP: Buy the book

Two years later, when the 1989 U.S. Men’s National Team finally did qualify for soccer’s World Cup, ESPN was there to broadcast every regional qualifying match. The following summer, TNT’s coverage of the 1990 World Cup, live from Italy, laid another foundation of understanding in the American sporting psyche. We are, after all, as nationalistic as folks anywhere else — maybe more so. These early international team competitions, each in their own way, showed Americans how compelling it was to root for our national teams and against those representing other countries.  

For Americans, however, the light wouldn’t truly go on — it wouldn’t start blinking in Technicolor neon — until a major sport modeled this dynamic for us. Six months after the 1990 World Cup, in the wake of a disappointing Olympic bronze medal at the 1988 Seoul Games, USA Basketball and the NBA resolved to send professionals, not college kids, to compete at succeeding world championships and Olympic Games. Formation of the first Dream Team changed everything. It proved a sensation from the moment Sports Illustrated coined the “Dream Team” moniker — on its Feb. 18, 1991 cover — straight through the ’92 Barcelona Olympics. Hockey quickly followed suit. Then the U.S. hosted soccer’s World Cup, in 1994, and America’s sporting imagination was effectively internationalized.

This was a big shift. Pre-Dream Team, the idea that Michael Jordan could play for the Bulls, then join Team USA over the summer for an Olympic tournament, simply did not compute. American sports fans couldn’t imagine it because the NBA and NHL were never involved in Olympic or World Championship competitions prior to 1992 — while football and baseball had no world championship or Olympic incarnations at all.

This new understanding proved revolutionary. International yachting hasn't exactly taken off, but country v. country dynamics made the Ryder Cup the stupendous cash cow it is — enough so that the LPGA and PGA tours have each created their own international team competitions, as well. The NHL and NBA, whose individual franchise rosters are the most internationally diverse in American sport, have only doubled-down on their commitments to international team competitions. The World Baseball Classic is showing signs of life again (it will return in 2023), and even the NFL is today playing games in London and Mexico City, while reviving the idea of European-based franchises.

No U.S. sport has benefitted more than soccer, however. Regular World Cup appearances have turned the men’s and women’s national teams into 21st century cultural juggernauts. Major League soccer drew 10 million fans in 2022, ranking it sixth among futbol leagues worldwide. U.S. networks annually invest billions in beaming foreign-league matches into American households. The richest and most prominent of those? The English Premier League, where fully half of the 20 clubs are owned by Yanks. Some people feel soccer in 2022 has, in fact, supplanted hockey among the nation’s four major sports.

My book argues that everything we enjoy today in this undeniably rich, mature soccer culture, we can trace back to the late 1980s, to Generation Zero, so named because it all started with them. Through World Cup participation, they finally communicated soccer’s core appeal to American culture. Yet without this broader, coincidental shift in sporting tastes, without an understanding of just how compelling country v. country competition can be, soccer would never have come so far, so quickly.