Not Exactly World Cup Fever: Why Soccer Isn’t More Popular in the U.S.

by Matt McKinnon

world-cup-2010

World Cup action.

I confess: I love soccer, or fútbol, or football, or whatever you want to call it. I have three sons who play it year-round, both indoors (including the house) and out. And we watch it all the time, more so than any other professional sport. Now don’t get me wrong, I love and watch American football and watch a fair amount of baseball, basketball, and hockey. It’s just that soccer has become our main sport—both to play and to watch. So, I admit: I am not an objective observer here.

Ann Coulter

Of course, then again, neither is Ann Coulter, who recently blasted the sport in her own blog post.

Coulter lists nine reasons that “Americans” hate soccer—from the ridiculous (no.5 You can’t use your hands) to the uninformed (no.1 Individual achievement is not a big factor—tell that to the US Team whom Portugal put out with one brilliant pass from perhaps the world’s current best player; no.2 Athletic talent is not a large factor; and no.4 No threat of humiliation or major injury—again, tell that to the Brazilian Neymar who fractured his vertebrae in the match against Columbia).

But despite her overall offensiveness and ignorance about the game, Coulter does manage to raise a couple of possible reasons: it is “foreign” and often ends in a tie (her other reasons basically boiling down to the fact that soccer, or more specifically, watching soccer, just hasn’t caught on). Even here, of course, her ignorance outpaces her insight, since soccer as a sport that people actually play (both youth and adults) is just as popular in the US (if not moreso) than football or baseball, and is arguably more popular as an organized sport than basketball (though the latter is played more informally).

Neymar on field with fractured vertebra.

Neymar on the field with fractured vertebra.

Her point about soccer often ending in a tie has some merit—even though it is also more a reflection of current US interests than historical ones. After all, both American football and hockey could end in ties until rather recently: the NHL instituted a shootout system in 2005 and the NFL only instituted overtime in 1974, though if no one scores, games can still end in ties even now.

I would argue there are five main reasons why watching soccer has been slow to catch on in the US.

1: Some, like Coulter and others, do indeed see it as a “foreign” game, despite its close relation to American football (where the now popular “forward pass” was once illegal). But even this is problematic, since the US watches many “foreign” sports at venues like the Olympics (more on this below).

2: Closely related to the foreign origins of soccer is the fact that soccer is representative of the current changing demographics of the US. To be blunt, soccer tends to be popular among the growing Mexican and Latin American community, as well as various African and Asian populations as well. Now I’m not saying that someone is racist or xenophobic if they don’t like soccer, only that if you are already racist and xenophobic then you are more likely not to like soccer. After all, soccer reminds us that a majority of the world is not white, and neither is the US for much longer.

Mexico beats US, 5-0

Mexico beats US, 5-0.

3: We are just not as good at it as other countries. This one is more substantial, I think, as well as more complicated. Our women’s team, after all, is one of the best—if not the best—in the world. But then again, most countries around the globe do not support female athletics the way we do with women’s soccer. It’s also one of the hardest reasons to admit: but the fact of the matter is that we watch the Olympics, both summer and winter, even though some of the games and most of the people involved are “foreign”—because, well, the US athletes are usually better or just as good as their competition. This is just not the case with the US Men’s Team: not now, and not in the foreseeable future. Sure, the US goalie Tim Howard had an incredible game against Portugal, and he is arguably the best position player the team has. But he features on an English Premier League team (Everton) that perennially finishes in fifth place or lower. He couldn’t cut it at the powerhouse Manchester United (despite flourishes that suggested he might) and would not even feature as one of the top ten goal keepers at the 2014 World Cup, much less in the world today. This fact is disturbing to be sure, but US players are just not anywhere near as technically good as the players at the highest level of world soccer. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that player development in US soccer remains very much an upper middle-class pastime, and rules like those imposed by the NCAA actually prevent further development compared to soccer in other countries. (World-class players like Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney, and Ibrahimavich tend to sign professional contracts before they’re fifteen and are not bound by rules maintaining amateur status.) The best soccer players in the world are not US citizens, and neither do they play for teams in the US.

US vs Canada, 2012 Olympics

US women’s team vs Canada, 2012 Olympics.

4: Soccer can seem boring to the uninitiated. Closely related to the above discussion of the tie, however, this reason is complicated. After all, where boring sports are concerned, it’s hard to argue that soccer is any more boring than golf, or car racing without the wrecks, or the majority of time in football games spent in huddles or timeouts, or most baseball games. Of course, to the initiated, none of these are actually boring, though the truth is that most sports that have a sizable market-share on TV have gone through changes over the past few decades to make them more exciting to a US viewer whose attention span seems to be getting shorter and shorter. The problem with soccer is not that it is boring, or that it can and often does end in a tie. The problem is the way that the game is played.

super-bowl-commercial

Super Bowl commercials: Verisimilitude at its finest.

5: Yes, the biggest reason that soccer has not grown more in popularity in the US is the complete absence of the commercial break. Those of us who love watching American football and basketball and baseball and hockey do so with the assurance that there will be breaks in the “action” (even if most of this action is watching players in the huddle, or keeping a runner at first, or standing around the free throw line). The point is that the typical US viewer wants to know when, more or less, the action is going to come—in that rather short moment between huddles, or when the bases are loaded, or at the end of the half when there are only seconds remaining. We like to go to the kitchen for snacks, or to the bathroom to relieve ourselves, or to check out what’s on the other channels. But with soccer, you have to watch the game continuously, for 45 minutes at a time, with only the occasional injury or goal celebration to break up the ebb and flow of the game. A score can come at almost any time during the total 90 minutes of the game, making soccer, for many in the US, more akin to waiting for the cable guy than watching a sporting event.

So, in my humble opinion, unless and until the marketing masterminds come up with a way to institute commercial breaks and tv timeouts into a game that lacks timeouts altogether, soccer is doomed to be less popular than its rivals—at least in the US.

Until, of course, the sheer force of our demographic shift ultimately has its way.

After all, what interests the “Average Joe” of today may not necessarily interest the “Average José” of tomorrow.

Mexico fan

This man just might be rooting for Mexico.

Editor’s note: Matt’s post was a little more timely when he submitted it, but I got busy and sat on it for too long. Bad editor! -JP

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