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Call Me an Ignorant American


Why I just don’t get soccer – and probably never will.

@BreakTheHuddle

Have you ever noticed that some of the people who arrive early to a particular fad have a habit of behaving in an off-putting manner towards the “ignorant” population? It’s as if they don’t realize that acting superior to everyone else by being “enlightened” doesn’t really mesh with the implicit motive – that the rest of us catch onto the fad as well. Acting this way merely galvanizes people and makes them more reluctant to change their ways.

Some of the “enlightened” and “cultured” friends that I have (you know who you are) act this way about soccer. (A couple will be peeved I don’t refer to it as ‘football”.) Well, at the risk of outing myself as ignorant, I have to admit that I just don’t get “the beautiful game”, and I probably never will. It goes far beyond the following (admittedly shallow) reasons I have for disliking the sport:

  1. It’s boring.
  2. The few times I’ve sat down to watch a World Cup or Premier League game, the flopping and playacting by the players to draw the referee’s attention has been way more shameless than anything I’ve seen in American sports.
  3. And, uh, yeah, it’s boring. Really, really boring.

I could probably continue on with how boring soccer is, and just leave it at that. But I want to explain to all who might disagree with me why – on a deeper level – I just can’t get into soccer. And I want to give those of you who are of a similar mindset some ammunition, so the next time a sniveling, condescending know-it-all looks down upon you for avoiding soccer like a contagious European plague, you can answer back with something defensible.[i]

First of all, we need to discuss the “popularity” of the sport itself. According to most estimates, there are nearly twice as many children playing soccer than baseball in America today. This is a fact cited by many soccer buffs as an indication that a wave of soccer popularity will soon flood the American heartland. The trouble with this line of thinking is that children are not consumers, and consumer spending is what feeds the American sports cycle. For example: a professional baseball franchise (the Los Angeles Dodgers) is going to fetch around $1.5 Billion in an auction sale later this summer. The most valuable Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise is the Los Angeles Galaxy, worth an estimated $100 million.

So despite the fact that more children play organized youth soccer than any other sport (and it’s not even close), the public profile of its best American league can barely rise above that of a niche sport. Sure, kids play soccer, but what do they see when they go home and watch sports on television? They see Kobe Bryant and Lebron James, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter. They become attached through their television sets and become fans (read also: future consumers) at a young age.

Without a high-profile professional league, soccer can never rise above what it is now – a trend to catch on to every four years during the World Cup (and promptly dump afterwards). It’s a vicious cycle I’m describing, and it may seem a little unfair – I am arguing that unless soccer becomes a popular television sport, it’ll never become mainstream, and also that it’s not mainstream enough to become a popular television sport.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that the MLS were to begin to approach the NHL in terms of television ratings. Where exactly would sports fans put soccer on our crowded plates as we graze through the beautiful buffet of American sport? Football is king of Sundays (and Thursdays, soon enough) from August until February. College football owns Saturday over the same stretch of time. The NBA and NHL consume November through June. Baseball begins in April and concludes in October. The only time of the year when one of those sports isn’t in the postseason, or at least near it, is March – which is filled with the NCAA basketball tournament.

There’s no room at the inn for the poor, staggering sport of soccer. America’s sports landscape is saturated with too much goodness to fit anything else into our ever-decreasing attention spans – much less a sport as slow as soccer.

Secondly, Americans seem to fall in love with a sport based upon the television experience of the games. Football (American football) is the perfect example of this. It is the sport that translates best to television. A live football game is difficult to comprehend, at times, because you don’t always have a clear idea of the down and distance, and you can’t always see the fine details of what happens on each play. Television solves all of these problems for us, and therefore football is our most watched sport.

Basketball and baseball don’t translate quite as perfectly, but those, too are games which convert to broadcast form in ways that can hold our attention. Hockey is the one ‘popular’ American sport which is far superior in person than on television, and this is reflected by the fact that ratings are low while attendance is decent. When it comes to soccer, there is very little to hold our attention on a minute-by-minute basis – white team has ball, brings it up the field – blue team has ball, brings it up the field – white team has ball, again, brings it up the field – blue team has the ball, brings it up the field – and on, and on, until randomly one of the teams score and everyone starts yelling.

The argument can be made (and probably should be made) that I don’t understand the strategy in soccer. Fine. At least in basketball, the strategies of both sides are made manifest each time up and down the floor. Football is a game of adjustments – a living, breathing chess match you can see on each possession. In soccer, to the untrained eye, everyone runs around for 90 minutes to ultimately tally a single goal. There are 89 minutes and 30 seconds of failure in every match. It’s just not enough to hold our attention – not through a television set, anyway.

Third, it seems to me that Americans, as a group, rather enjoy placing numerical values on incremental successes – and football, baseball and basketball all provide us with opportunities to do that. As I’ve written about before on this site, Americans are a statistics-crazed people.[ii] The more a sport can be analyzed and documented empirically, the more of us get into it. How else can we explain the popularity of fantasy football, which only feeds into the viewership of the sport itself? If you paid a lot of money to go to a Lakers game, and Kobe Bryant scored 50 points, but the Lakers lost, would you still feel as though you got your money’s worth? I saw Barry Bonds hit a baseball about 500 feet into the right field seats at Cellular Field in Chicago once – and I don’t remember who won the game, but I’ll always remember watching that ball fly. He hit 72 other home runs that year – on steroids, of course – and it doesn’t really matter what his team’s record was that season. Those three sports have numbers that stick in our heads and take us beyond the games themselves.

I can’t imagine the equivalent in soccer. Is there an equivalent? If Messi or Donovan fail to put the ball in the net, do you regret watching the game? Perhaps that makes me shallow, or too analytical, but there has to be something to pay attention to on a moment-to-moment or game-to-game basis, statistics-wise. In soccer, it’s goals, assists, and nothing else.

Finally, America becoming a soccer powerhouse as a way to prove ourselves worthy to the rest of the world is a silly concept, and one which needs to be abandoned. The friends I have who really enjoy soccer are well-traveled, cultured, and intelligent people. Part of me wonders if the reason they enjoy soccer – and yearn for the day when American soccer is relevant on the world stage – is an attempt to reflect this worldliness, somehow. The big, bad American behemoth must prove itself to be adept at ‘the beautiful game’, like our European and South American counterparts, in order to prove we aren’t uncultured barbarians.

Hope Solo, after the U.S. finished second at the 2011 Women's World Cup

I’m not sure that line of thinking is something openly discussed among American soccer fans, but I’d be willing to bet that it’s lurking somewhere behind the surface. And really, it’s such an arbitrary way of proving our self-worth. It’s not as though American Olympic victories in baseball or softball mean anything – we are the only country devoted to playing those sports, for crying out loud.[iii]

I’m not saying that they don’t legitimately enjoy the sport. I am perfectly willing to admit that there is strategy and finesse to the game that I just don’t understand. Nor am I saying Americans ought to be belligerent in their ignorance and feed into the stereotype that, I fear, many around the globe have of us.  What I’d like for all of us – the soccer lovers and the soccer agnostics – is to come to an understanding.

What we ask of the soccer aficionados – please, please, just let us enjoy our American sports, and don’t tell us we are ‘uncultured’ or ‘uncivilized’ or that we ‘have short attention spans’ just because we dislike soccer. Recognize the fact that while soccer is growing incrementally in popularity here in the States, it isn’t ready to explode and replace football as the most popular sport in this country. It’s not even close to hockey, Mixed Martial Arts or Golf.

In return, we non-soccer lovers are ready to admit that there are things about the game that we don’t understand, and that there is strategy involved, and the people who play are phenomenal athletes, and that while soccer may be boring to most of us, that doesn’t mean it’s boring for everyone. And if you refuse to acknowledge all that, please concede us one, small victory…

… Please allow us to never have to see, or more importantly hear, a single vuvuzela… ever… again…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpXN8BvGp_o

Would you like to call me ignorant? Or did this post alter your views on international relations altogether? Somewhere in between? Tell me about it at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, or via Twitter @BreakTheHuddle, or even on Facebook! I just gave you three ways to tell me how terrible or brilliant I am!


[i] My wife played soccer in high school, and we’ve often sparred about the role soccer will play in the athletic careers of our unborn children. I’m lukewarm to the idea – and she is very much for it. But even she was a little skeptical of a soccer post for my blog.

Wife: “What are you writing about?”

Me: “Soccer.”

Wife: “What’s next? A swimming and diving column?”

[ii] I wrote about this a little bit in an earlier post – here is an excerpt:

“If there’s one thing Americans love, it is the idea that something subjective can be made objective. We confuse empiricism with science so regularly that few of us can tell the difference any more. The very notion of an IQ test proves this – intelligence is a concept, not a concrete thing, yet we assume a person with a 140 IQ will be more successful than one with a 130 IQ.”

Read the whole thing here: https://breakthehuddle.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/americas-second-favorite-pastime/

[iii] I used to acknowledge Japanese baseball, but that was before this happened to me: http://espn.go.com/mlb/player/_/id/30966/tsuyoshi-nishioka

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