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Eisenberg: World Cup Replicating NFL's Emotional Vibe


There was a familiar feeling around town Sunday in the hours leading up to the World Cup soccer match between the United States and Portugal.

It felt like an NFL game day, a Sunday when the Ravens played.

Bars and living rooms were packed with fans in their colors. Strangers hailed each other on the street. A few beverages were consumed.

The sense of camaraderie was palpable, and quite simply, a blast.

The game was an emotional roller coaster for American fans, an early low followed by several shrieking highs, and finally, a numbing ending – a last-second Portugal goal that turned a seemingly certain win into a tie.

When I commented that it was amazing to see fans enduring such highs and lows, someone said to me, "Oh, this is how it is every Sunday with the Ravens." It certainly felt as if the Ravens had lost a heartbreaker to Pittsburgh when Portugal scored late. I think people around here got a sense of how Denver's fans felt when Jacoby Jones caught "the Mile High Miracle."

On Monday, a somber disappointment persisted and a lot of stomachs were still in knots, but there was no doubt a grand time had unfolded. The national TV ratings for the match set records, and Baltimore was ranked among the top 10 markets (eighth).

The fact that the World Cup is replicating the NFL's emotional vibe, even just temporarily, is quite a compliment for soccer, which has long sought a larger niche in America's crowded sports scene. Pro football's popularity sets the standard in this country; you want that comparison.

But while the ramped-up interest says a lot about soccer's ascendancy, it also says a lot about how different the fan experience is today.

For the longest time, you didn't really qualify as a serious fan of a team unless you heard the roar of its crowd and joined that roar. Attending games was the defining metric.

That's no longer the case. The sense of community surrounding a team can be just as strong away from the stadium.

The USA-Portugal match took place in the Amazon, for crying out loud, about as far away as you can get, but thanks to the sophisticated camerawork, hi-def technology and giant TVs that are the norm today, fans could sit in their living rooms or a bar and feel as if they were at the match, sweating the jungle heat. A great swarm of Americans were on hand for what surely was a memorable experience, but those at home had a better view in some respects.

Yes, TV and radio have connected long-distance fans for decades, but the experience is much more intense these days. Watching sports on TV has become so mesmerizing that teams are trying to replicate the experience at their stadiums. Giant video boards, in-stadium apps and wireless hot spots are all part of an attempt to give fans at the game what they're missing at home.

Believe me, the Ravens and every team are endeavoring to make sure fans keep buying tickets instead of settling for their living rooms.

Then there's social media, a staggeringly powerful force in creating a sense of community. Fans not only love to talk to each other and follow expert analysis during games, but they interact with the players they're cheering for – a bonding experience that didn't exist until recently.

According to the Associated Press, there were 4.9 million soccer-related tweets sent out during the United States' opening match against Ghana last week. A bunch of Ravens live-tweeted Sunday's match, so you could follow your favorites from one team following their favorites from another team.

Some of the soccer frenzy has enduring, old-school sources. A sense of national pride has fans cheering for their national soccer team, while local pride has them cheering for the Ravens.

The fact that the soccer team is performing well doesn't hurt, either. Nothing quells enthusiasm quicker than a few defeats, and conversely, nothing pulls you in faster than when a team rewards your emotional investment. The Ravens have done that with five playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title since 2008. The soccer team hasn't lost in this World Cup.

Sunday's disappointment notwithstanding, the soccer team is playing well enough that it still has a chance of advancing out of its qualifying group, and I think I'm feeling a cold coming on that may keep me from working on Thursday around noon when the big game against Germany kicks off.

I think a few other people may catch that cold, too.

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