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Pele pitching football to States

In the U.S., football -- or "soccer" as it's called there -- is primarly a kids game  

By CNN's Maggie Lake

NEW YORK (CNN) -- It's one of the great sports mysteries of our time: Why does America's interest in football -- or soccer, as they call it here -- lag so far behind that of the rest of the world?

With the World Cup tournament getting under way, some companies are trying to change that.

MasterCard has hired former World Cup champion Pele as its ambassador, while Nike is spending big bucks hoping the "football" bug catches on in the United States -- where it's still more of a kids' game.

"I think between eight years and 20 years, the youngsters at that age know the big sport is soccer, no doubt," says Pele. "College, the women. Pro, when you get the professional level, then you have a problem, because you have baseball, American football and basketball to compete."

Says Joaquin Hidalgo of Nike Football: "What's happening right now with those 8.5 million kids in the United States, you have a generation of kids actually growing up with the sport. ... They are real soccer players versus my generation."

Determined to build on that corporate interest, U.S. Major League Soccer bought the rights to broadcast the World Cup from distressed German media company Kirch and sold them off cheaply to U.S. television networks ABC and ESPN.

Pele is pitching football to the States on behalf of MasterCard  

Not only did that ensure the games would air in English, but it helped serve the league's broader aim of growing the fan base.

"Our goal is to be the portal that soccer in this country goes through," says Don Farber of Major League Soccer, noting that many U.S. fans are immigrants from Mexico and Central America who will cheer on their native countries' teams in the World Cup.

It may be that changing demographic which is giving football its biggest boost in the States.

According to Nielsen Media Research, Hispanic TV households are growing at a rate of 19 percent per year and watch more television per week than the average U.S. household -- a fact not lost on advertisers.



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