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Making Sense of The World Cup

June 20, 2010

It’s going to be difficult to avoid things related to The World Cup Tournament for the next few weeks, so it seems like an appropriate time to discuss what we call “Soccer” and what most of the rest of the world calls “Football” and understand just why just about every other country is fanatical about the sport and why the USA isn’t, but why that might be changing.

Let’s start with our perspective. There are four big team sports that Americans follow with regularity: Baseball, Basketball, Hockey and our version of Football, with the yard markers and the oblong shaped ball. And there are rivalries in these various sports that help define each particular fan. The Yankees and Red Sox competition in Baseball is world renowned. We just witnessed the latest in the series from the Celtics and the Lakers on the hardwood. What about Michigan and Ohio State on the college gridiron? (And certainly there’s many college rivalries involved in all these various sports.)

Hockey is the sport that most resembles the game in question, and for most US residents, it’s also the fourth go-to choice of the four big sports. Of course Canada is steeped in Hockey, but that has to do with the climate of their country. It stays cold in Canada until May, and is frigid again in late September. Why wouldn’t they embrace a game that’s played on ice? And by proxy, we got involved with that game because our neighbors were so connected with it. How could we not at least have a mild interest in hockey when the country that shares our longest border is living that sport, practically year round?

But the NHL, MLB, NFL and NBA are all organizations with teams that have long, storied histories. By comparison, the MLS or Major League Soccer in North America got started in 1993, the same year that Nickelodeon stars Keke Palmer and Miranda Cosgrove were born, so not much of a legacy there. And really, it’s the pro leagues in the USA that gain the most attention, with the College sports following after that. So, if you don’t have a pro league that is well established and well attended, you probably aren’t going to get a lot of attention.

When you’re dealing with the professional teams in those big four sports, fans are formed based on the geography. Where you grew up is often the team you follow and support. You bonded with your father over a baseball or hockey game he took you to see. You went with your co-workers to a Monday Night Football game, or at least an after work viewing at a local bar or hangout. And as for College, you have the alumni of the various universities, so every school has an instant fan base. There’s no way to create a similar scenario with soccer.

From the perspective of the rest of the planet, football is a defining force, and a symbol of national pride. Most countries have clubs that play each other, just as our US ones do for the sports mentioned above, however there is a long standing history of this sport for those fans, just as there is for US fans of our team sports. So, that is a part of it. But The World Cup is, much like the Olympics, an opportunity for countries to prove to the rest of the world just how impressive they are on the pitch, how well they can defend and score and to give bragging rights to all others that they are the best in the game.

Sure, the Americans call it the “World Series,” but it’s not really, when you see that only one Canadian and twenty-nine US teams can ever play in it. It’s the same with the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup and NBA Finals. These sports are insulated. We only get to see a true world Basketball tourney in the Olympics. Major League Baseball is helping with the “World Baseball Classic,” but even that is in its infancy and still needs some work to become something that has a lasting quality.

No, clearly Football is one of the true “international” sports. But there has been a vicious cycle that has held it from succeeding in the States.

Soccer is not a money making sport here. Which means that not only aren’t there the facilities to equal the amenities available in the other major sports, making soccer appear as “second rate” to potential fans, which keeps them away, which means less money available for those teams. But also, athletes who might consider a professional career would not even consider soccer as an option, so the players that could potentially make the game even more exciting are playing other sports! The average salary of a Men’s pro soccer player is 85,000 dollars, which doesn’t sound bad, but compare it to the average salary of a Men’s pro basketball player, which is about 2 million dollars.

But, believe it or not, I think this World Cup season may help to make Soccer more interesting for Americans and the reason why: Television. With the HD coverage and the cameras that are available to cover the action, we are getting closer than ever to being on the field with the players. We can see their actions and reactions in a way that simply wasn’t possible during the last World Cup in 2006. And when it comes to sports, it’s about knowing the players, seeing their personalities, understanding what they’re trying to do and feeling the heart in their game. Now, we actually have a squad that has those qualities, and we have a way of letting the country view that from a better than front row seat!

This doesn’t work as well for American Football, because the players there are geared up in helmets and pads that don’t permit you to see them much of the time, so this sport has some hope for gaining some personality recognition. It doesn’t hurt that the Head Coach of the USA team, Bob Bradley has his son Michael Bradley on the squad, and Landon Donavan, the most prolific scorer, wouldn’t look bad in a Nike Ad. Plus captain Carlos Bocanegra is a name you really should know, and the entire squad is filled with interesting players, like DeMarcus Beasley, who left the US to make a good living playing in Europe, or Tim Howard, who says his Tourette’s Syndrome might actually make him a better goalie.

Soccer is a sport we all played at some point in our lives, whether it was in grade school with classmates, high school in intramural games or college against other universities. It’s a worthy sport and a challenging one. So as you watch some of the coverage of the World Cup Tournament, and you should at least watch some of it, understand the qualities of the game and the players of it. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get a hint of what the folks in the rest of our Global Village have been rioting about for years.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2010 11:52 am

    I read somewhere that another reason soccer hasn’t taken off in America is that it’s difficult to fit commercial breaks into the televised game, because of when and for how long breaks are taken in the game itself. I don’t really watch sports so I don’t know how accurate that is, but it sure sounds like it could be… (Wow, I have great debatin’ skills, huh?)

  2. June 20, 2010 4:38 pm

    My father and I would watch Rugby/Aussie Rules Football whenever we could when I was growing up, and I learned to love those two sports. Soccer never really did anything for me, because it just wasn’t…interesting to me the way those other sports were. Most of my friends were soccer players, but…eh. We had other common interests (they were Band Geeks for the most part, too). Then I got into college football, because I live with a guy who comes from a football/rugby family (rugby!!!) and who could explain the sport to me. So I learned to watch it, and sort of understand the rules. He and his friends were always into soccer, and I never got it.

    But.

    I’ve recently started watching games (on my own, no less!) and have really started enjoying soccer as a sport. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, really, and takes so much skill, agility, and endurance that I can’t imagine being able to play it. And you’re right, the ability to get down on the pitch and focus on the players makes it a more personable and human experience, and helps get people involved in the intricacies of the game.

    Also, I may or may not have crushes on some of the players (I’m looking at you, Carlos Bocanegra!)

    Laura: The only breaks in a typical soccer game come in at halftime. That’s part of why I’m slowly becoming a fan; I can’t stand the timeouts in American football (though I do love that sport!). What I do find interesting is that a ton of soccer players have uber endorsement deals, even though it’s not quite as popular in the States.

  3. June 21, 2010 11:41 am

    Great post, cuz. This issue hits very close to home in two ways:

    1) I lived in Europe, and definitely feel a bit more attached to European Football than its American cousin.

    2) My cousin June, a phenomenal soccer player, pretty embodies some of the issues with American “soccer” addressed in this post. He’s nearly 40 and active, but if the soccer wave had hit about ten years earlier, the mind boggles.

    Again, this gave me a lot of great food for thought. Excellent, Dean.

  4. June 21, 2010 12:24 pm

    I’ve always had mixed feelings about soccer… being of Italian descent, I grew up playing a street version of calcio but the older I got, the more that got replaced by variations of baseball (such as stickball, softball and punchball) as well as street football and roller hockey. I think having four entrenched sports leagues would make it very difficult for anything else to gain a toehold without some unique selling point. I live in a big lacrosse town and from what I’ve seen and read, I suspect that sport is likelier than soccer to move up in the mass consciousness because of a strong college base.

  5. chava22 permalink
    June 21, 2010 12:32 pm

    Fascinating post–I had never been able to figure out why soccer had never “caught on” here, and now I know.

    It is really too bad we cannot share the passion for soccer with, you know, the majority of the world today. Maybe it will eventually catch on.

  6. June 24, 2010 11:44 am

    @laurak – In a way, you’re right… as far as broadcasting games, there is no “natural” break in football as there is with those other 4 sports, be it time outs or inning breaks, so inserting commercials (in their standard form) is tricky… what if someone gets a breakaway goal during that Ford commercial? However, with newer forms of ads, that can run as you watch the action, that could be changing.

    @eieioj – This version of football really does have a lot of beautiful subtleties that I think will be better covered with the new HD cameras and super slo-mo that’s available now. It was just a matter of having the equipment to show it to the masses here in the States and having commentators that can point out these elements. But Hockey has gotten bigger in the past couple of years, and that bodes well for soccer. It didn’t hurt that Team USA advanced either!

    @Snarky’s Machine – I remember going to Giants Stadium to watch a Cosmos game because the world’s most famous soccer player, Pele, was playing. It was an event and the place was packed because people wanted to see history. Of course, more recently David Beckham was doing similar stuff in Los Angeles before his injury. I just wonder if the other sports didn’t have such lucrative contracts and football was on an even level with basketball and baseball to attract the elite athletes, maybe it would have caught on a lot sooner? We’ll never know for sure, but certainly marquee names help draw reporters to cover a sport, which helps draw fans to watch it, and where the fans go, the money follows…

    @redlami – Maybe they should try a version of Calcio in the US! With all the WWE fans out there it might catch on with them! But seriously, you’re right, with so many leagues with so many fans, there is very little room to squeeze in another major sport. Maybe if soccer “happened” during one of the baseball strikes, that would have given it an instant boost! But, the thing that puzzled me was everybody knows the game from school and there are plenty of Soccer Moms out there. It’s going to take that series of marquee names, or really 2 names. Just like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, or Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire with their steroid laden efforts, when you have a rivalry going, that just attracts attention. So Beckham really needed someone equal to the task of equaling him to drive the interests up. Maybe there will be two in the near future.

    @chava22 – Thanks! I think Team USA’s advance to the round of 16 will definitely take it a step closer, and should they survive that… who knows?

  7. June 28, 2010 12:01 am

    Futbol is 100 times more exciting than baseball. I don’t know why we don’t just get with the program and make that a national pastime.

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