April 21, 2006

Soccer sucks?

so after the comments left on my last post, i think it's probably a good time to put down some thoughts about america's redheaded stepchild sport: soccer. here are some basic facts:

- more children and youths play soccer in the united states than any other organized sport. period.

- soccer is by far the most popular sport in the world by any measure.

- almost everyone else in the world calls "soccer" football, or futbol. it is also referred to in other countries as the "beautiful game"

- no professional soccer league has ever flourished in the united states; it has never come close to approaching the Big sports: baseball, basketball, football, and (now) nascar

so this is somewhat of a strange confluence of facts, don't you think? everyone in the country plays soccer. everyone in the world LOVES soccer. and... for some reason, soccer is not that big in the united states.

first off, let's address my personal thoughts on the game of soccer (futbol). i like it. as a kid i played ayso soccer and enjoyed it enough. heck, everyone i knew played soccer also. i loved basketball far more, but i certainly didn't dislike the game played with feet. i think, in general, americans feel this way about the sport. there is nothing WRONG with it. we enjoy playing it enough. but for some reason, we don't get embedded into the culture and excitement of the sport like other countries do. when i took Sociology in Sports in college, we spent an entire segment of the class talking about this. there were all sorts of theoretical and cultural explanations for the lack of popularity in soccer throughout the country, including "Americans didn't invent the game so they think it sucks." at the end of the day though, i think there are two reasons for its lack of popularity: the television and we're not the best.

i guess it's not really JUST the television, but more the television married with the relatively late arrival of the game in the american consciousness. but let's get to the point: soccer kinda blows to watch on television. it's true. it's a beautiful game with amazing intricacies and fast action, but restricting it to a television screen is impossible for the tv producers of a soccer game. they either have to pan out too far, turning the players into ants scouring around a ball that you can't see, or they have to pan in and see, at any time, the player with ball and maybe 20 meters radially around him/her. in soccer, that does not come close to properly representing the complexity of the game.

let's compare that to basketball, where 90% of the time all ten players on the floor can be seen well within the screen. the boundaries of basketball are restricted to a 94' long playing field, of which participants will usually only use half. in football, players line up in two rows of amassed bodies prior to the snap. true, action often runs off the screen, but the excitement of all running plays can generally be noted on-screen, leaving only passing plays to the imagination of the viewer. also, americans like seeing people hit each other.

baseball can focus on the central figures of the game (pitcher, catcher). nascar is in theory a simple conceptual ordering of cars, meaning that you can focus on a single vehicle and still, based on its standing, have a clear understanding of the overall action of the race, as it is (conceptually, at least) a two-dimensional game. that leaves just soccer and hockey, neither of which display well on television and neither of which have (really) captured widespread excitement in the US.

but why does this matter when actual in-person viewers and players of these sports can clearly grasp the intricacies of them? well, mostly because soccer started "behind" and is trying to catch up. to flourish professionally in the US means to get fans, and fans want to see one of two things from sports they watch on television: 1) excitement and understandable complexity (aesthetic experience), or 2) something that they can't or wouldn't want to do themselves. basketball? people feel like they understand the game (even thought they don't) and they can't dunk. football? people feel like they understand the game (but it's far more intricate than they think) and they don't want to hit or get hit. nascar? people feel like they understand the game and they don't want to risk their own lives. soccer? they can't understand everything that goes on on the field (cuz most of the time they can't see it) and there is nothing particularly dangerous or mystifying that is done on the field.

so that brings us to the second point, because if it's just that people in america need those two aspects of the television-viewing experience to get excited about a sport, then why isn't the WNBA blowing up? one could argue it's because the women don't dunk, but several women have dunked in the past few years and that has led to zero increased interest in the sport. well, it's because americans don't like watching less than the best on tv. we don't watch division II football because "it doesn't matter". we don't watch minor league baseball because the majors are there. and therein lies the problem with the wnba: people inherently treat it like a minor league because we don't perceive the players to be as good as nba players. period. that's it. if the wnba all-stars played the nba all-stars in a full-court 48-minute game and beat them, then people might start watching the wnba. so, for soccer, because we know so many countries have been at it for so long, there's very little chance that we're watching the best players in the world in the mls. and so we don't watch. it's a mindset. so combine that perspective with the fact that soccer is the new guy, and there is zero traction.

so what does soccer need? fostering a grassroots approach to the game is not going to turn it into a big professional sport in america. no chance. people are too entrenched with football on sundays and nascar on whichever day it is that they race on. what soccer really needs in america? it needs the US mens' team to win the world cup, more star players coming to the mls from europe, and some television breakthrough that allows people to better experience the game. until then? until then i guess mainstream america thinks soccer sucks.


At 4/21/2006 12:16:00 PM, Anonymous King said...

i didnt play soccer as kid, so I cant speak on it, but i'm 90% certain that 75% of children worldwide have played soccer at one point in their childhood. I'm also 95% certain tht 90% of the grown men playing futbol at the park on saturdays are from mexico. Its really really boring to watch on tv compared to american football and definitely harder to focus on than baseball. I've been to a few soccer matches and its a LOT more interesting in person (then again, what isnt?), but the tv experience is just not happening.

Anyway, we should play some pickup soccer on sunday.

At 4/21/2006 02:15:00 PM, Blogger Giuseppe said...

And thats why Futebol which is what they call it wont be embraced in the US culture.

Im an Avid supporter and ahve played soccer for my Highschool and College teams which has made me in better shape and its agood exercise avenue.

Its Popularity in europe is as big as they say it is and a major Influence to young kids its all they know go to Brazil thats all they play.

The TV experience can be boring but so is other sports,Once you learn to love it you will understand it.

Forca Futebol

At 6/14/2006 10:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best athletes in the United States DO NOT play soccer. Until then, well...we get to watch guys that are 5'7" and 145 lbs. get dominated.


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