IP Sports Roundtable: Soccer in the United States

Why Can’t Soccer Catch on in the United States?

It’s the number one sport in the World, but it’s maybe 5th most popular in the United States. Professional Leagues have struggled, even though almost every kid has played soccer at some point in their childhood. Why can’t soccer catch on? What can be done to make it better in the States? Is there a way to capitalize on the World Cup?

Jeremy: I think there are multiple reasons why it hasn’t caught on, but I do think that it can catch on. Just look at the reactions of fans on youtube.

1. It’s such a slow, frustrating game (aka boring). You have to try to string together multiple passes in the back, no where near the box, and shots are few and far between. The only interesting parts are when the ball is near the big box. Sure baseball is a slow game, but with every pitch, there’s a chance for a score.
2. The U.S. has never had a top flight team. We’re used to having the best baseball, basketball, football, and hockey players play here in the states. But since the top competition is worldwide, we don’t see it. U.S. players are good and some are world class players, but the leagues that have been here are not world class.
3. The fact that we play it as kids may hurt it because we see it as a child’s game, as opposed to football and baseball, where we see men playing it. The difference in skill and competition between grade school soccer and high school soccer is less than the difference in baseball and football. Baseball and football get much more technical in high school, but soccer is the same: just string together passes, make a good run or pass, and put the ball in the net. A lot of teens choose football or baseball over soccer.

Chad: I agree with Jeremy’s second point, we love the best and the best isn’t the MLS. One point I’ll add on as to why it hasn’t caught on in the US is the rampant diving. With a player like Ronaldo who goes down if anyone is close to him, he’s going down, and that’s one thing we don’t tolerate as American sports fans. We expect that if you’re capable of playing, you will play and play your hardest. And we especially hate players who fake injuries and the like. Think of how people felt about Manny when he gave up on the Red Sox before they traded him to the Dodgers. There is such culture of diving in the sport that Americans just can’t get behind it.

Em: Some good points from both Chad & Jeremy.

There are a couple of reasons why Football/Soccer isn’t more popular here, though I do think continued success in The World Cup is helping.

I think the biggest help would be creating a Football Academy along the lines of Holland and Germany would help immensely. We would have more elite players, thus creating more interest domestically when they perform in the World Cup and also lead us to better results. If we had players recognized internationally, this would piqué the curiosity of sports fans at home.

I know I’m in the minority, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve become turned off by the NBA, and Baseball with all of their off field issues (doping, lack of professionalism, lack of parity among teams etc.) and gotten into Football/Soccer a lot more.

The bottom line is America needs a new hero, and the second best stage – next to The Olympics – is the World Cup. Now that ESPN is on board, there’s never been a better time.

Warren: I found through talking to people that many didn’t find it appealing due to the large amount of stoppages, lack of goals and the multiple dives that can affect the outcome of a game. In the US and Canada, in schools, students are ridiculed for joining soccer teams whereas joining one of the other major sports is seen as an actual accomplishment. That attitude is maintained as these kids grow up so they get their children to avoid going into the game. To make the sport more engaging, the MLS has to try and build on the US performance at the world cup and try to draw over superstars from Europe, maybe introduce some different rules, like red cards on intentional dives, video replays and other changed to help ‘improve’ the game.

Will: Jeremy’s second point is bang on the money – Americans are use to paying to see the best and its painfully clear that the MLS isn’t the best. One has to think that to get the club game over in America that FIFA either needs to work with UEFA to develop a proper club World Series or have UEFA follow the example of the NFL and bring several Champions League games to America.

Disagree with the third point – soccer is an incredibly sophisticated game with the best teams and players being incredibly skillful. However that increased skill level is more often shown by the positioning of the players and how they work together to control the pitch, indeed because the skill level is lower often matches between lesser teams are more visceral because the game becomes more ragged. However if you haven’t grown up watching high-level soccer its difficult to appreciate the subtleties of soccer just as when I watched the Superbowl this February I was utterly and completely befuddled. And on that point I’m astonished that Warren raises the amount of stoppages as a problem – anytime I watch an American sport I’m astonish at the constant interruptions and the languid pace.

The other thing is that soccer is a very flexible sport with the various leading countries having developed a different way of player depending on their national cultural. Brazilian football is very different to Spanish football which in turn is very different to Italian football. International competitions are homogenizing football styles to an extent but even now there are very clear national characteristics that fans usually take pride in. Because America has no consistent tradition of professional soccer you haven’t been able to bend soccer so that it better reflects what you want from the game. For example traditionally (its changed over the past ten years) there has been no diving in the English game because it was seen as cheating whereas in Argentina it was seen as the admirable and intelligent trickery.

There’s also the issue that soccer lacks the major organisation trying to get the sport into America on a permanent basis. FIFA controls the world cup and has seemingly done a good job in making that a major event in even the American sporting calendar but it doesn’t control the club game. That club game is based on national and contential associations who while they’re interested in making money in America don’t particularly care about building the American game.

However to be honest the main reason soccer hasn’t taken in America is that you guys are busy watching other sports. The NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB all have their hooks into the American sports market and their not given up without a fight. This means that soccer is ridiculed for being foriegn and struggles to get the television exposure that the Big Four enjoys. Nothing unusual in that, American sports leagues trying to market their sports to the European market suffer the same problems, just as soccer is attacked as being girlie due to diving plenty of Rugby fans attack American Footballers for the all protective clothing they wear.

But to be honest the big secret is that America’s attitude to soccer is nothing special. While it is the world’s game, there are plenty of countries that don’t have it as their major sport. The Indian Sub-Continent’s major sport is Cricket, China has no real tradition of football, Japan loves baseball and in Australia soccer is fifth behind both Aussie Rules Football, Cricket and both Rugby codes. There is nothing unusual a country having developed its own sports and preferring to play them – particularly one as large and prosperous as America. The clamor for America to fall madly in love with soccer is really the product of FIFA and ESPN both longingly looking at the money they could make together.

Jeremy: My third point wasn’t a knock against the skill of soccer players or sophistication of the game. In soccer you have to be in the best of shape, running almost nonstop for 90 minutes. It takes tremendous skill to place the ball passing, bending the ball on shots, headers, and dribbling as well. The main point I was trying to make in #3 is that we associate soccer with children playing and it being a child’s game, maybe not quite as manly as baseball or football.

Another point to argue is that there isn’t much of a history of soccer here so we can look back and have memories of great players of the past in America. Not many people can remember back to SLU of the 1950’s and say, wow, that team really was the best, or really remember any great players. The only reason I know of their dominance is because the PBS station near me has played the story of the SLU soccer program recently. Older people tend to reminisce more about the baseball and football players of the past and relate them to being the best of their day. Johnny Unitas, James Brown, Stan Musial, Lou Gehrig.

Russ: The one thing I have not read yet is that anyone here has played for any extended amount of time. Just like everyone else, I played when I was younger but actually played until I was about 18 in competitive leagues and through college in intramural leagues. I enjoy the game, the passes, the strategy and how the game works. However, I am not someone who goes out of his way to see it live or on television. The question is why.

Part of it is that it has been stated before. The MLS is not the top league in the world where the leagues that are thrust at us daily are considered the best. But it is also not the worst. We do have exceptional talent and a new drive to make the MLS respected throughout the world. There are worldwide sponsors joining the league and new stadiums being built specifically for soccer. There are cities in the US where soccer is relevant. Those are the places where the revival needs to start.

Also, inner cities are not a place that soccer will flourish. When was the last time you tried to do a slide tackle on asphalt? If you do try, enjoy your stay at the hospital.

I do not think any of us have the answer as to why soccer is not a top sport in the United States. However, what we do realize is that it is a worldwide sport that takes skill, ability and that if there was a weekly game on ESPN, we would probably watch it.

Trent: I have a lengthy bit to propose later but I figured I’d chime in with a little now.

For starters, there is a weekly MLS game of the week on the ESPN networks, but there is not a set day for it to happen (sometimes it’s Wednesday or Thursday, sometimes on the weekends) so it can be a bit of a crapshoot.

For the record, this week’s game is Thursday night at 9:30 EST between Chicago and Real Salt Lake.

Once the Premier League and La Liga resume, they will both feature weekend contests (PL on Saturday for the most part, La Liga on Sunday) as they did last term.

The fact that there has not been a league side that has been consistently dominate, in an odd sort of way, has actually hurt the early league because loyalties, while becoming more strongly entrenched, are not to the level of other major franchises in other sports and those that come into the league now are often drawn to newer sides that (Seattle aside) may struggle early, causing the casual fan to switch over to a successful side of that season only to watch them struggle and jump again without really landing with one single side and thus not attaching themselves permanently to the game. If, for example, LA Galaxy were to rattle off three or four titles in a row, you would begin to see an even stronger LA base as a whole, because they have the champs, but two local rivals who will be more interested when their team competes against the Galaxy, much how teams take more interest in playing the big boy sides (i.e. the Manchester Uniteds, Barcelonas, Inter Milans, etc.)

Another catch is that the League will need an influx of American talent. Baseball and hockey get away with their multinational squads because the American Leagues are considered superior and as such, players from other nations want to try their luck here. That is not the case in MLS, where while maybe the best US players are abroad, much of the up and comming players in the sport are mixed in with fringe competitiors that can’t quite make an impact in the Mexican Leagues or the Brailian Leagues, etc. If the US can produce and larger crop of better players, might be able to grab attention to the league as the play improves.

The old man actually has a pretty reasonable arguement for his own reason of watching the Premier League as opposed to MLS. Beacuse the quality of play is so vastly different (the speed, for instance, is night and day) there is a willingness that, if you are going to watch the game, you want to watch the more exciting product. An influx of young talent would help, but it must be American talent before it really takes hold it places that don’t have a side to root for.

Russ: On the television comment, let me restate it.

If the MLS had a game of the week on a major non-cable network, is what I thinking. All the other four (including the NHL) have it. The NHL even has their New Year’s Day special.

Trent: That would have to be ABC’s call at some point, since they would be the network that would have the rights to the games (under the Disney umbrella) to do so. The only one I think they’ve ever done outside of the World Cup is the All-Star contest.

Someone mentioned that part of the problem is a lack of history, something that could be understood and related to future generations. If the current MLS can become a solid league for the next 10 to 20 years, it has a chance of becoming that history that can be related to.

The roots of the game are ones that are not very strong because of the direction that was chosen in the 1800’s. Before the formalization of the rules of both rugby and soccer, it was one collective game called football. As the rules were being divided in the 1860’s in England, they were similarly being split in the United States. While Columbia and Princeton preferred rules that were similar to soccer and association football, Harvard, along with McGill University of Toronto, played a style similar to rugby, with a notable exception being the shape of the ball itself (Harvard used a sphere-like ball while McGill fancied a more oblong ball).

When Harvard and Yale squared off for the first time, they played in the different styles (Yale had played the Columbia style) and Yale quickly developed the knack for the more rugby centered contest. From that point on, soccer would be put on the back burner by colleges and universities as rules were implemented that gradually changed the contest in the game of football the American people know and love today, namely with the introduction of the forward pass.

Because soccer was relegated to mainly immigrant players, it was buried in the sands of time so to speak for the next half century until the 1950 England-USA contest in the World Cup. The result, a 1-0 win by the US, while not necessarily bringing much attention to the game, was a result against England that was well received. An idea for a league finally sprang up in the mid 1960’s after the English won the World Cup, resulting eventually in the NASL. Because it could not hold on, however, soccer once again took a set back in the national scene. Underneath it, however, a youth system that had been present began to churn out more and more players, though it would take the 1994 World Cup to finally bear fruit to the situation.

In order to acquire the rights to the ’94 World Cup, FIFA President Sepp Blatter (Yes, he’s been there way too damn long) mandated that the US form a new league, which we now call MLS. Unlike other leagues, MLS was formed as a single entity system, in order to minimize the loss of revenue in the early going as teams had to rent stadiums to play in. As the league has gone on, teams have begun to turn profits by moving into soccer-specific stadiums, increasing add revenue and sponsorship and adding major network TV deals (ESPN, FSN) in order to broadcast more games.

At this point, history is slowly being built. Where as other sports for decades have had stories of old to tell from generation to generation, soccer has not had anything of note to relate to. In the early part of the 20th century, where in England they would have played five a side pick-up games, most youths played baseball as, much like soccer is today, little was needed more than bodies, a ball and a stick to get a game going. Because of the way history is presented, soccer has had zero representation in the collective pastime of the American conscious. It is events like the last few World Cups and these times that will have to be held on to in order for the game to take root into the stream of American thought before it can fully and truly catch on.

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