The Real Reason Soccer Isn’t Bigger in the US (and a Realistic Explanation of How That Could All Change Some Day)

You can’t even mention the World Cup these days without touching off the tired old “soccer will never be big here/why isn’t soccer bigger here” argument, which at this point is more ritual than debate. But in light of the US team’s superb run in Copa 2002, which concluded with Friday morning’s 1-0 loss (a match where the Americans actually outplayed the Germans, who were saved only by the brilliance of goaltender Oliver Kahn), maybe now is as good a time as any to cast some actual light on the whole issue of soccer/futbol in the United States.

Reality 4, Perception 2, but Perception wins anyway
First, why isn’t soccer more popular in America? (As a spectator sport, that is – it’s wildly popular as participatory activity.) A number of theories have been suggested: it’s comparatively low scoring, there’s not as much action, it doesn’t provide enough numbers for the statistic-fetishist American sports fan, it’s not TV-friendly, and so on.

Admittedly, there’s probably some truth to that last one (for sure you ain’t going nowhere if the networks don’t love you, and they’re not going to love anything they can’t sell lots of commercials for). However, we also know that where there’s a dollar there’s a way, and I simply can’t imagine that this is an insurmountable problem. I mean, it’s not like the sport is unwilling to help sponsors generate a little brand awareness. In Europe, where they pride themselves on being far less materialistic than us vulgar, money-grubbing Americans, they actually put corporate logos on the front of soccer uniforms. Can you imagine if the Dallas Cowboys were to replace the number on the front of the uni with a giant Nike swoosh? (Actually, yes I can, and it’s probably only a matter of time, but you get my point.)

All that said, the stats argument seems a relatively minor complaint and the first two arguments are pure hooey.

Take the scoring objection, for instance. Sure, a lot of soccer games end 2-1, but how often do you hear people threatening to never watch football again when a game ends 14-7. 14-7 = 2-1, folks. Would you be happier if FIFA made each goal worth seven points? I admit that soccer is dogged by the perception of low scoring, and from a marketing perspective that’s a real issue. But it’s nowhere near as big an issue as a lot of half-witted sports reporters and sports talk hosts pretend it is.

How about the boring/no action argument? Please. Soccer runs a 90-minute clock, and the ball is in play for about 95% of that time. How does baseball compare? Now listen, I love baseball, but I promise you, the average Major League Soccer game provides the crowd with about 25 times as much action as the average Major League Baseball game (and this is coming from somebody who has played hundreds of games in both sports). Football? Well, there’s a lot of speed and violence, for sure, but try this. Next time there’s a game on sit down with a stopwatch. Every time the ball is snapped start the watch, and when it’s whistled dead stop it. At the end of the game see how much actual action there was. Five minutes, maybe 10, tops?

Again, reality isn’t the issue, perception is. And overcoming the “boring” perception is a substantial challenge that the sport’s marketers will have to address if they hope to become a legitimate, viable top five attraction.

The real problem
So if I don’t believe the real problem with soccer lies in any of the common complaints against the game, then what is the issue? Actually, it’s pretty simple, and it makes perfect sense.

See, why would Americans invest their hearts and souls (and hard-earned cash) in a game that we aren’t very good at? Soccer may be the world’s game, and the World Cup may be the biggest sporting event on the planet, but there’s pretty much zero risk of us competing at an elite level, much less winning. And make no mistake, Americans like to win. We insist on it. We’re used to being the best and at some level we probably feel it’s our right. And frankly, we don’t much trust any sport where godforsaken France is better than us.

Think about it. What sports will Americans plop down their money for? Football? You betcha – and we’re the best at it (of course, that’s pretty much by default, isn’t it?) Baseball? Our game, and we’re the best in the world at it. Hoops? Ditto, although the rest of the world is slowly catching up. Hockey? Ummm, well, we’re #2 right now, and to be honest, our fourth most popular sport draws pathetic TV ratings (which sucks, because I feel like you can’t possibly not love the game if you know a little about it).

What else? Well, to a lesser extent, tennis, golf, maybe even a little track and field. Boxing. Stock car racing. And these are all sports where if we aren’t the best at the moment, we were recently enough and fully expect to be again in the near future. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, there is pretty much no sport that Americans care enough to watch in significant numbers that we aren’t a world power in.

If you win it, they will come
Now, all that said, it makes sense. As much as I love sports, I don’t invest a whole lot of my emotional energy in the Uzbek goat-roping championships, either.

However, what this does suggest is that soccer might well have a bright future as a spectator sport in the US if we become an international power. That’s right. If our national team were one of the world’s top five sides, I assure you – I guarantee you – American consumers would fight for a front-row seat on the bandwagon. We’ve been told we ought to like soccer because everybody else does for all these years (and what do we hate worse than being told what we ought to do?), and meanwhile we’ve struggled to even qualify for the World Cup. We’ve gotten our knickers dusted on a regular basis by third-rate countries like freakin’ Brazil. And you want to tell me that if all of a sudden we were dominating the sport the way we dominate basketball that people wouldn’t be lining up for tickets and merchandise?

Trust me – the fortunes of professional soccer in the US will rise up righteously if our national team continues to improve. We took a major step in World Cup 2002 (thankfully – that pro soccer survived at all after the way we embarrassed ourselves four years ago is testament enough to the possibility the sport holds here), and if we can take another step in 2006 – maybe reaching the semi-finals – I’d expect to see a lot more black ink on the MLS ledger.

Now, one final note, and let’s be clear about it. I’m not stupid – I’m not saying that soccer will displace football or baseball or basketball or even hockey, nor would I necessarily want it to, because I like watching those sports, too (I mean, come on – ACC basketball, Broncos football and Avalanche hockey? It doesn’t get much better than that). But the US is a nation of something like 275 million people, and I feel certain we can find room for another financially viable entertainment sport.

But I wouldn’t rule anything out, either. If you’d told somebody back in the early 1930s, when Papa Bear George Halas was playing hell trying to give away tickets to see his pro football team play, that someday its popularity would rival that of baseball’s, they’d have locked your crazy ass up.

But when was the last time you and your boys saddled up for the annual full-tilt World Series Sunday party, hmm?


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