Why Soccer Hasn’t Risen (and Won’t) in the USA

This is an opinion paper based solely upon my own cross-cultural experiences and observances. If you have any data to support my hypothesis, I’d be glad to hear/read it! If not, I suppose I’ll listen to/read that, too …

 

The 2014 FIFA World Cup is in full swing, and team USA isn’t too shabby in its current standings. It even looks like they’re going to, unexpectedly, make it into the second round! But it seems most conversations, at least in my circles, surrounding team USA are about how much the nation doesn’t know or care about soccer. Sure, news outlets are always talking it up and encouraging further interest in the sport, but we all know it’s just filler until the next “top story” about someone rescuing a cat or something.

Big name players, if they can be called that in the US, try to promote the sport by hosting training camps and speaking up when given the opportunity, but it doesn’t seem to increase interest in the sport among the youth of the nation. Even the big move of the English heavy-kicker David Beckham and wife Posh Spice…I mean, Victoria…to Los Angeles hardly made a dent in the sport’s popularity. If you knew who he was, you were already a fan; if you didn’t, you probably still don’t…or you’re buying his underwear from his post-retirement business.

If you love soccer, you’re probably going to try and get your kids to love it, should you choose to procreate; and if you don’t love, you may let your kids play in AYSO or some YMCA after-school special to let them run off some energy and get more use out of that mini-van. But those who love soccer find it difficult to convert others, and soccer-moms/dads don’t encourage it beyond adolescence. Simply put, soccer fandom in the USA lives and dies with soccer fans having babies. Wow. I just said that.

Why is soccer so popular in most every other nation in world? It’s part of the culture, and it has been for a very long time. You don’t need a reason to love soccer; you just do. You grow up with a nation, a league, and a team. You play before, on the way to, during, and on the way home from school, and then you play some more. Anywhere there is relatively flat ground (emphasis on the “relatively”) and a ball (any ball will do…or anything you can kick will do), there is soccer (real football) to be played. It can be “played” virtually anywhere, and no special equipment is required. Casual play is not determined by equipment, space, or spacing rules; simply kick a ball between a couple predetermined objects on either side of the available space and you score. But you can’t slow down. The sport builds on non-stop action and well-rounded athleticism, which also encourages a healthy and fit body.

The most popular sports in the USA focus on short bursts of energy separated by mandatory down time, fouls, disciplinary action, and strategizing, often with the stopping of a game-clock, if there is one at all (I’m looking at you, baseball). Sure, soccer has its fair share of penalties and posers pretending to be hurt to keep the ball dead, but other than a possible few minutes being added to the clock, the game goes on. If you go to a soccer game, you can expect to be out in less than two hours from start to finish, including a break at halftime! The USA likes high scoring games (bigger is better), and soccer matches often end scoreless or very few goals. A goal equals one (1) point, and “0–0” or “0–1” doesn’t look like much. (Perhaps applying an arbitrary number of points (seven?) per goal would work better for the American mind. Maybe “0–7” looks better.)

The USA also likes athletes who are narrowly focused: heavy-hitters (fat or thin), immovable walls (it doesn’t matter if they can walk very far), those who can move really fast in a straight line (they don’t need to be dexterous), and the like. Of course, there are exceptions, but this seems to be the preference. You don’t need to be “healthy” or well rounded to be a great athlete in the USA; you just need to do one thing REALLY well, and most often not even for very long—there are always breaks to be had.

Breaks: we like our time-outs! We like to see the clock stop, but I think what we really enjoy is manipulating time, the game, and the other side in our favor. (Perhaps that speaks to a bit more than I’ll mention in this post.) We don’t have much respect for, “You have ‘x’ amount of time to do the best you can. Go.” We want it our way, right away. And if someone wronged us, we want to make sure it’s checked, double checked, and righted (instant replay) because we’re American and we’re entitled to our rights! (Has an instant replay amendment been added to the Constitution yet? That’s probably a bit too “Big Brother” for now; maybe in the next generation.)

Let’s take a time-out of our own for a moment. American media pushes agendas and the popularity of most things. Being spoon-fed is such a part of American culture now that people rarely use their “freedom of speech” to express their true preferences. They often wait to be told what their preferences are, and then they repeat the popular expression because…that’s what you do. Marketing is a booming and quite profitable business in itself. It is evident when one takes a look back in time at television and radio shows of the past, for example, and compare the times between commercials as they were then and now. We are inundated with advertisements—being told what we like, want, and need. Okay, time-in.

When we consider that most of us get our sports entertainment via some form other than actually being at the live game and the aforementioned big business of marketing, it’s no wonder we like our sports with a lot of pauses! These provide ample opportunity to push something else in the consumer’s face. In fact, being at the game does not guarantee immunity! I was at a baseball game last week (don’t ask…) and I can’t count the number of audible advertisements and images of something to buy on walls and the big-screen (apparently the away team were a bunch of Girl Scout cookies because those were the pictures that were shown next to their names). You can cram a lot of advertisements into an American sporting even. A lot.

Soccer defies and denies competition with itself. You cannot pause for a commercial break for at least forty-five minutes (halftime), and with as few great scoring moments that occur during the games you don’t want to get up to grab a snack or hit the bathroom. Come prepared or risk missing the big moment. It’s that simple. You know what you like, want, and need during a soccer game? Soccer. It’s that pure.

So, to the point, why hasn’t soccer risen (and won’t rise) in the USA? Answer: Companies that present soccer games can’t suck every possible penny out of the viewer, and that doesn’t work with capitalism. That’s just not American. To start, the only way to make big money is through merchandise, and you can’t sell merchandise without creating a culture that desires it, and that culture is not going to be created because it can’t make money because… You get the idea. Until we can learn as a society to enjoy something for itself without an outside force telling us what to enjoy and how to enjoy it, Americans will forever keep soccer confined to obscure homes, pubs, and the occasional mini-van-driving suburban communities that like to watch their kids mosh in centerfield.

 

I look forward to your nasty responses. Love me.  :)

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