Wednesday, June 30, 2010

World cup vs. cup o' noodles

As the world gazes spell bound on fields of grass, as determined athletes push forward without the use of their arms I think to myself "why is the sport of soccer such a fascination in so many countries, but not so much in America?" Now I understand that soccer has its American supporters and participants, but when I compare the enthusiasm other countries exude for soccer to us Americans, I think it is safe to say that soccer is not America's sport. But why? Well I would like to offer one possible reason for this international contrast of athletic appreciation...

First, what sports are big in America? Baseball, Basketball and Football are what I would consider the top 3. Almost every major city in America has a professional team in each one of these sports. Where are the professional soccer teams? Did you even know there is a professional American Soccer league?? What's funny is I typed "American professional soccer," into google and I did not even see the current professional soccer league show up on the first page! America does have a pro soccer league called the MLS, Major League Soccer! What? Have you never heard of the MLS? You haven't been out to cheer on your favorite pro soccer team the Real Salt Lake, or the Kansas City Wizards!? You haven't stood around the water cooler at your work discussing the latest contest between the C.D. Chivas USA and the Houston Dynamo?? Yeah, neither have I. In fact I had to go to Wikipedia just to find out who the MLS teams are! But if I were to say "LA Lakers," or "Chicago Bulls," or "Dallas Cowboys," or "New York Yankees," just about every American, whether a sports fan or not, would at least recognize those team names! However, were you to travel to Brazil, England, Argentina, or just about anywhere else in the world, I would bet the exact opposite would be true. I bet those countries would be very familiar with their professional soccer leagues and teams, that is just an assumption however, I could be wrong.

My explanation for why soccer seems to take a backset in America, is that Americans have become accustomed to instant gratification and soccer provides none. We want our rewards NOW and our consequences later. We are the country of credit cards, easy mac', TV dinners, fast food, get rich quick schemes, fat pills, liposuction, 8 minute abs, virtual reality, gambling etc. etc. We seem to have lost a tremendous amount of appreciation for a hard days work, a warm cooked meal, a steady exercise routine, a relationship built on sacrifice and service and wealth built over years of toil and living within means. Now, what does any of that have to do with sports?

When I watch a world cup soccer game I observe two main things. First, there is a tremendous amount of effort and athleticism displayed in a soccer game. Constant running, sprinting, jumping, sliding, kicking and falling. There are constant changes of possession and very little stopping of play. There is something else that there is very little of as well, and that is SCORING! With all that hard fought and constant effort by both teams, the entire match may have 1 or 2 goals in the entire 90 minutes!!! But the pay off of those goals is SO worth it! But not to Americans! Consider a professional basketball game. In the NBA there is a literal shot clock! In essence the NBA is saying, "If you want to participate in our athletic competition you have 24 SECONDS to score a point, or we are going to take the ball away from you, and give it to a team who will provide some instant gratification, in 24 seconds or less!" Basketball is the microwave dinner of sports! Soccer is the turkey feast. You can have instant points every 24 seconds and watch basketball, or you can have your 90 minute slow roasted turkey feast at the soccer game.

But that is just my opinion. I mean no offense to my fellow hard working Americans. But be honest, I bet someone got bored in the middle of this blog and thought, "This is taking too long to read, isn't there a version of this blog that will fit in a 160 character text message??"


  1. Very true! It made me think of this: “There are just two things about the World Cup that prevent Americans from caring: It involves soccer and the rest of the world. When I hear
    that Tunisia is playing Belgium for the crucial Group H runner-up spot, all I want is a map. The only way Americans are going to learn
    another country's name is if it attacks us.” Joel Stein, Time magazine, 2002.

  2. Can't necessarily say I agree with you on this one, Paul. I think the difference in interest has more to do with simple exposure, as well as cost of resources to play. American football, for example has no more scoring than soccer. It's pretty common for a football game to go 3-0, or even 14-7 (same as 2-1 in soccer). Same deal with baseball. A perfect game, in which one team not only doesn't score, but never even gets on base, is considered one of the most exciting things to happen in the sport of baseball. While it doesn't cost much to play football in the backyard, organized leagues require kind of a lot of expensive equipment. Same with basketball and baseball. Not so for soccer. A third world country can have a youth soccer league without anything but a ball and some PVC pipe to make goals. I think that's why it's a lot more popular worldwide. And once a sport is popular, there's a big snowball effect. If the sport is popular, it's cool to be good at that sport. If it's cool to be good at the sport, it gets more popular. That's why even in other wealthy countries, it's soccer that gets all the big attention. Being a star on Real Madrid in Spain, Juvetus in Italy, or Manchester United in England is just like starring on the Yankees or the Lakers in the US. Beckham kind of thought he could push pro soccer in the US to higher levels by coming and playing in our league, but it takes so much more than a star. It takes slowly building interest from the bottom up, so that every kid in the country dreams of playing for the LA Galaxy, just like playing for the Chicago Bulls. So I don't think it is just the lazy, instant gratification problem. I think it is more that three sports have found a niche of followers from the ground up, and it would take kind of a ton of adjustment for a fourth to gain that kind of popularity. Anyone who follows soccer just a little bit will see what you did: it's an exciting and action packed sport.

  3. I think that is a valid point, and I had considered both baseball and footballs appeal. First of all, I find baseball extremely boring so surely my opinion is baised in that regard, but sticking with my original assertion that the lack of instant gratification is a major deterent to Americans lack of appreciation for soccer...

    Both baseball and football have highly measurable feats of accomplishment that give the observer a strong sense of accomplishment (or defeat) throughout the entire game. In baseball every strike is counted, every ball, every foul tip, every error, every hit, every run on base etc. etc. So even if there is not a "score" there is still plenty of opportunity for an on-looker to receive the gratification of each successful or unsuccessful event. Same with football. The score may be 0-0, but the observer is able to witness the gaining of yards, a change of possession, a great pass, and the ability to guage how well their team is or is not doing.

    What of soccer?? How many stats are kept in soccer? Possession is constantly changing, the movement is fluid, it doesn't matter how many yards your team successfully moves the ball toward the goal, it doesn't matter unless there is a goal. And even though a shot on goal that is retrieve by the goalie is a stat, it provides only a weak indication of game momentum, in my humble opinion. I feel the vague 90 minutes of ambigiuous success lacks the measurability us Americans are so accustomed to. All that hard work, and NO stats to show for it except a 1-0 score?? Surely there has to be more indications of how successful the losing and winning teams were? Even if it was our team who lost, can't we still feel good about how many yards were gained, or how many steals there were, or how many strikes were thrown?

    Although I definitely agree that a sports popularity is largely fueled by popular interest, as most things in our culture are, you don't need any more equipment to play a soccer game than you do a touch football game, and very little euqipment for a basketball game or a baseball game really.

    I just feel us Americans need our gratification to be constant and apparent. Whether it come in the form of a touchdown, a 20 yard run, a strike out, a home run, or a slam dunk. 90 minutes of straight sprinting with no stats!? It's just not worth the effort...

  4. I really think soccer is the poor man's sport. (Hence its popularity in other countries) It takes the minimal amount of resources: Some form of a ball (be it a crumpled paper) and only a visual barrier for a goal. Baseball needs bases, bat, and ball. Basketball needs a hoop and a bouncing ball, football needs less, but the rules are complicated. That's what I think. :)

  5. tl;dr It's popular because it's traditional.
    Some great points raised here.
    I have spent some time as a missionary in a soccer country (Brazil). I come from a family that did not follow sports in any way shape or form, except for an occasional olympic games viewing. My wife comes from a football family (Packers) and has brothers and a father who follow sports quite regularly.
    Based on these exposures, I think the big difference in soccer versus baseball/football/basketball is tradition. My wife's family watches sports together. Her father grew up watching sports and was a big fan of Lombardi, hence the Packers. I have known people who were second or third generation fans of a team. Watching or playing the game becomes a communal, bonding event. The big three sports in the US have been around a long time and have gained a foothold in the hearts and minds of Americans. You watch with your friends. You support the team of your city or school or family.
    I saw those same traditions in Brazil, but with the local futbol clubs. A lot of the people we spoke to had some team that they supported in some way. Either based on family tradition, some city or area they lived in, or some experience or friendship that caused them to support a particular team.
    Economics of the sport may play a role in the sport gaining an initial foothold in a community, but once it becomes traditional and multi-generational, we become trained to see the pace of that sport as exciting.
    I don’t generally watch the big three US sports. I never had an experience growing up to give me an appreciation of them. I do, however, watch soccer. I spent time with soccer loving people, supported their teams, and came to an appreciation of the difficulty and skill of the sport on my own. Exposure caused by and paired with tradition made me a fan.
    I think we are seeing soccer on the rise in the US because tradition and exposure (sometimes exposure through tradition). Hispanic and foreign born support and tradition, youth soccer leagues, heroes and celebrities, all are creating a new generation of fans that will grow up following the sport.
    If it was fencing, would it be the same way? If fencing masters were celebrities, if you grew up watching matches, if you practiced in school, would we be “trained” to see the pace of the sport as exciting, and follow it more? I would think so.

  6. I appreciate your angle on this discussion Sam, there is definitely a traditional aspect to sports. What is fascinating to me is football, baseball and soccer all have strong roots in England and all started to take more organized form around the 19th centurary. (that is according to extensive research I did on Wikipedia before writing this ;) ) Basketball was created solely in the USA in late the 19th centuary. So soccer is considered "the world's most popular sport," (again according to Wikipedia, so take it with as much authority as good ol' Wikipedia warrants). So we have soccer, football and baseball all taking form in England, yet baseball and football took foothold in America, but no soccer. However, soccer spread to all the other parts of the world, except America.

    Basketball was American but not until late in the 19th centuary, yet managed to accelerate in popularity to rival football and baseball, even though it is younger than them both. And for some reason soccer, never gained that same foothold from its orgins.

    So that is something to think about based off very narrow research, and the questionable source of Wikipedia, hehe

  7. Hahahahah!! Paul!! I love the way you think...and I think there is a lot of validity in this. I especially loved the last line.
    Also, you should know that I love soccer.