Frontier Psychiatrist

Why Don’t More Americans Love Soccer?

Posted on: July 2, 2012

A soccer fan in Park Slope, Brooklyn after Spain’s 4-0 victory over Italy

[Note: Chris Q. Murphy wrote this piece on the eve of yesterday’s European championship match between Spain and Italy. Despite Spain’s 4-0 victory and a record television audience, his thoughts stand]

I couldn’t help but marvel at the sea of red Spain jerseys and the cross-section of Brooklyn types packed into a local watering hole last Wednesday for the EuroCup semifinal match between the favorite “El Rojo” and the opportunistic, insurgent Portuguese side, featuring the controversial captain Cristiano Ronaldo. As an enthusiastic, though hardly avid, soccer fan and Portugal supporter, I was tickled to see a healthy mix of Americans, foreigners, ex-pats, and supporters of both sides gathered around TV’s swilling an international selection of beers in a Brit-owned pub on a weekday afternoon, all in the name of soccer.

But maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. While the guys who have been playing on club teams on the banks of the East River and in pick-up games in parks all over the city might argue that soccer never went anywhere, it’s undeniable that soccer is experiencing a Renaissance in New York. This is evident not only in bar receipts during high-profile international tournaments and the number of pretty young girls wearing “Ronaldo” jerseys, but also in the fact that supporters of big-name English clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool have their own bars to call home. Even the less-than-sexy but perennially rock solid club, Tottenham Hotspur, has its own very own robust and voracious supporters club in Brooklyn.

This is to be expected in an international city in like New York, but, with more and more matches being shown on ESPN proper (as opposed to its neglected stepchildren ESPN2 and the online ESPN3) and Fox Sports (prime viewing for English Premiere League games) and Univision being included in most cable TV packages, how is it that this resurgence in interest in international, professional versions of one of the most popular youth sports in America has not become more widespread? The problem seems to be three-fold: the lack of “time outs,” the role of soccer in youth culture, and the continued dominance of Spain on the intentional soccer scene.

The overwhelming success of American sports in the entertainment marketplace is due, in large part to the symbiotic, “chicken and egg” relationship between sports and advertising. As if Fox and ESPN’s somewhat-recent ability to influence the start times of Major League Baseball games weren’t already suspect, this relationship becomes even more problematic when one considers the fact that televised NHL, NBA, and NFL games are beholden to “TV timeouts” – mandated breaks in the game for commercials. Aware that their hold on marketplace would crumble without TV, these leagues continue to kowtow to networks, and, in the process, change the way the game is played.

Soccer is nearly unteleviseable. There are no timeouts. Period. Despite excessive (and exciting) post goal celebrations, broken legs, and player substitutions, the clock keeps ticking. While this rule proves for exciting flow of game play and expects much of the players in terms of self-pacing and sportsmanship, it also proves ultimately detrimental to soccer’s hopes of gaining more popularity in the States. No timeouts = no commercials. No commercials = no TV. No TV = no popularity growth. But let’s not be obtuse. America isn’t the only place that sports are big business. There is just as much money spent on and earned in European soccer despite the aforementioned lack of opportunity for television commercials. Some of this revenue is recouped in naming rights – a concept that brings chills to the spine of many an American sports fan. Sure: many corporations have successfully found their way onto the facade of American sports stadiums, but you’re far less likely to find the name of a beer distributor or airline stretched across the chest of an American athlete.

The dichotomy between this lack of mass appeal and soccer’s predominance among youth sports, however, produces a different set of questions – all of which can be answered by the lack of television exposure. A quick visual scan of the playground outside any middle or high school will tell you that, just as much as they enjoy actually playing sports, kids like repping their favorite teams, and players by donning their t-shirts, jerseys, etc. Kids’ seemingly sudden buy-in to the American cult of personality speaks to their newly found sense of identity and their emergence as consumers. With minds still quite impressionable, kids find heroes only on billboards, in magazines, and most often on television. Obsessed with the “New American Dream” (fame) and the more traditional model (money), these kids aspire to emulate the sports stars they see on the tube. They buy the shirt. They play the game. Suddenly, 12 year-old Johnny Soccer, previously uninterested in self-image as defined by celebrity, shifts his focus to basketball or baseball, sports in which sexier and more marketed stars such as LeBron James and Derek Jeter are easier to recognize and emulate. Thus soccer dies on the vine along with his youth. Perhaps even more disturbing are the gender roles that become cemented during this time in a child’s life’s, as girls, in large numbers, abandon the once gender-neutral sport of youth soccer for the “more traditional” world of femininity. Be they boys or girls, another generation of soccer players and fans is lost.

Full house for the Italy-Spain game at The Black Horse, a Brooklyn soccer bar

It is with equal parts excitement and trepidation that I ready myself for final match of this EuroCup tournament (Spain vs. Italy). While I am fairly certain that it will garner an enormous television viewership, it’s likely that the play in said match will drive away as many potential American fans as it will inspire. With the Spanish side on the precipice of winning an unprecedented third consecutive major FIFA tournament and Italy having won the last major (the 2006 World Cup) prior to Spain’s run, this should, by all means, ensure a fantastic match, at least for the majority of fans around the world.

The casual American sports fan, however, will likely scoff at what is sure to be a slow-paced, possession-oriented match. There’s sure to be lots of passing, a fair amount of defense, and (the death knell) very little scoring – the kind of game which casual American fans mockingly presume is the only kind of soccer match. This presumption is so ubiquitous that it has even been parodied on The Simpsons. Sadly, in this case, the prediction is entirely warranted. Spain’s game is built on keeping the ball by passing, passing, and passing, but rarely scoring. A 1-0 win by the Spanish side is far from rare. Italy has traditionally played slow, defensive soccer (a subtle distinction from the Spanish style) and, despite the young Mario Balotlelli’s dramatic and acrobatic play, continues to exhibit a style in line with said tradition.

What the audience is likely to see stansd in stark contrast to what American sports fans largely expect: fast play, high action, and lots of points on the board. The lack of these elements is what most plagues soccer’s popularity amongst the casual American sports fan. Football has long been the most popular sport in America – a sport, while slow,  scores in seven point increments. Baseball notably won back legions of fans (who had turned off to the sport after the 1994 players strike) via Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire challenging a long-standing home run record (the quickest way to put points on the board in and otherwise “low and slow” scoring game). Soccer matches, on the other hand, are not only often decided by a single goal, but rarely see a total of more than four goals between both teams.

The lack of interest in such a sport seems to point to a larger “product over process” philosophy present in all facets of American life. A touchdown – or a run – or a goal is a tangible product – one that’s easily understood (and cheered for) by all fans regardless of their knowledge of the game. More scoring = more cheering. Cheering en masse = sense of belonging. Sense of belonging = enclave of like-minded fans. It takes a more sophisticated understanding of a game to appreciate not only the intangibles, but the more subtle aspects of play; and soccer is all about subtleties. Serious fans are likely to praise a team or player’s ability to maintain possession of the balI as they are to celebrate a goal. It’s all about process; and I guess only the butcher wants to know how the sausage is made. This is not to say the knowledgeable and sophisticated American sports fans don’t exist. The football fan who describes the game as a chess match and the baseball traditionalist who prefers pitchers duels and “small ball” to the slugfest that many baseball contests have become come to mind. Soccer surely has these types of fans state-side as well: the ones who appreciate the finer points of a passing game and the need for the shower of hugs and kisses the often shirtless hero receives after scoring a single goal; but with the aforementioned lack of TV exposure there simply aren’t enough of them.

Now, many of my fears could have been allayed had either the opportunistic and free-flowing Portugese side (featuring the aforementioned uber-creative matinee idol Cristiano Ronaldo) defeated Spain or had Germany (widely considered the favorite) continued its (relatively) high scoring and efficient run past Italy in the semifinals. Both squads would have held far more appeal to the general American TV audience. To make matters worse, the Spain/Portugal match was decided by penalty kicks – which American sports fans hate even more than the slow pace of soccer itself.  Even more baffling, Ronaldo, did not even participate: his decision to wait for the fifth and final kick, presumably to dramatically nab the final shirtless glory of the match, rendered him unnecessary after his team’s was defeated in four kicks.

Still, Spain is the favorite in the championship. Should they win, it will create yet another quandary: having won three in a row, they will be precisely the sort of dynastic success American sports fans love by playing the way the same sports fans seem to like least.

I’ll probably watch the match at home – too embarrassed to hang out with my Spanish friends and (ironically) not interested enough in the Italian side to root for them in public. Regardless of where I am, I will try to keep count of Spain’s hundreds (no exaggeration) of passes and hope that Ronaldo or Balotelli do something exciting, because, despite my loving the game, there’s a little part of me that’s American, too. All the while, I will imagine a world wherein I could watch these matches without having cable, sadly knowing that, despite the millions of people tuned in today, I could cut and paste this discussion for Front Psych come World Cup 2014.

Chris Q. Murphy is a Brooklyn-based musician and songwriter.  He’s also been known to teach people things, take photos, and write off-handed non-fiction about his fancies. He’s too old, fat, married, and fatherly to be a hipster, but shares many of their ideals.  

 

 

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6 Responses to "Why Don’t More Americans Love Soccer?"

>> I could cut and paste this discussion for Front Psych come
>> World Cup 2014.

Ouch! 🙂

To be clear, Rodnee: my “cut and past” comment had everything to do with the sad state of soccer in America and NOTHING to do with Spain’s continued dominance. PORTUGAL 2014!!!

As a French person, I’ve always found it weird that soccer never really had any success in the US, especially because of the huge impact it can have here in Europe, but I guess although I find it quite sad, what you said about the slow pace and lack of advertising opportunities not helping its attempt at a breakthrough is quite true. I find it interesting though that the opposite is also true, sports like Baseball or what we call ‘American Football’ (which I believe is just regular football in the US) aren’t very popular in Europe, although they’ve also been getting bigger in the last ten years or so.

Ellen,

Sadly, I think the growing appeal of American Football is because it is a highly-merchandized form of organized violence. While I don’t dismiss the serious strategy within and the preparation before the games, the popularity of this game signals a sad return to the dying days of the Roman Empire – except these Gladiators get paid a shit-ton of money and go out in hopes of maiming another human being on a weekly basis.

The baseball thing has long-interested me. As a matter of fact, baseball is the sport that I am the most knowledgeable about and have been a die-hard fan since I was a kid. The proliferation of “America’s pastime” is largely due to that title. In the post WWII years, when America really showed the world who’s boss (a biiiiiiiiig wink and a nod there), other rebuilding and developing nations seemed to emulate American culture in hopes of finding the correct makeup to paint on those ever-present and smug-ugly smiles Americans seemed to wear regardless of the situation. Things like jazz and baseball seemed the most obvious I guess. While this is a terribly over-simplified version of cultural globalization, it seems an apt one. In concert with my aforementioned comments on football, it’s worth noting that global baseball growth has stagnated over the last twenty years. It has certainly flourished in Japan (a healthy American trade partner) and much of Latin and Central American (geographically convenient, eh?), but, as evidenced at the World Baseball Classic (MLB’s HOPELESS attempt to do a World Cup style tourney), these are really the only places that give America a run for its money.

The other problem (that I considered addressing in my article but opted not to as it was already quite long) with soccer taking off in America (and its continued success in Europe) is the deregionalization of sports fandom in America. Americans love a “winner”, so, fans do not only support their local teams, but rather the teams who win the most – regardless of geography. From the little I know, serious AND casual European fans live and die by their local club teams. It’s a symbol of tradition and regional identity. While the USA is all about boasting the former, our interest in the latter is sadly lacking as the country becomes more and more mushy and homogenous with each WalMart that opens up.

hi

You made a very good point about football (soccer).
The rest of the world do not care if more american love soccer or not. They enjoy their game and international competition, thats it.

Speaking about time-out, soccer dont need it.
Trust me, if you stop the game every 2 minutes, you will kill it.
Fans like a non-stop action game. Like jazz music.
Soccer have Ads and commercial. They put it in jersey, stadium, TV. All soccer team have ads on their jersey.
Do you know AON pay Manchester United $40Million per year to put their logo on players jersey ? Now, the NBA want to follow what soccer do (logo on jersey, skip the olympic for a world cup of basketball…).
Now, General Motors (chevrolet) forggo the Superbowl for Manchester United.
Samsung pay Chelsea FC $20 M.
In Europe, the team make money and of course TV do too.

Soccer is broadcasted in TV all over the world. Even ESPN and FOX battled for the TV right for the 2014 WC in Brazil.

Soccer fans are the most engaged is every sport. They know how to cheer, to sing to encourage their team.
As you said its more about the subtle: the skills, pace, speed, balance, tactic, vision, the goalkeeper, the head ball… I went to a hockey games, Canadian football game but they never have the level of excitment or eccstatic atmosphere that soccer have. Its not even close.
One last thing: i understand if Christiano Ronaldo did not want to take the penalty kick for two reasons:
Casillas, the goalkeeper of Spain is his teamate in club. So Casillas knows how he kick the ball. Second, 3 or 4 week before that game, he missed a kick in the semi-final of a champions league against Bayern of Germany. Then after 2 hour of play and lot of pressure, its not that easy to take a shot.

Thanks

Reblogged this on MattDaddy572's Blog and commented:
I have noticed, through Facebook friends, that soccer is indeed enjoying a surge in international appeal.

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