Oct 14, 2009

One reason why football (soccer) will might not be a major success in the U.S.

Fellow soccer bloggers Caught Offside yesterday offered up seven reasons why football (soccer) will never be a major success in the U.S. It got lost in all of the hullabaloo over Charlie Davies' accident but I wanted to take the time to address it now.

First things first: Caught Offside are wrong on all but one count, namely that the sport is not stat-intensive enough to become a major deal in the U.S. And frankly, even that's debatable. The others (others sports have a headstart, the U.S. is not very good at soccer, there aren't enough interruptions for advertising, there's no full-time buzzer, not enough cheerleaders and the love of other sports is too great) are, to put it politely, completely off the mark. Many of them are not even true in their own right, much less as reasons for why the sport will fail (again) in this country.

Other sports have a headstart? Sure they do. Just like baseball and basketball did when pro (American) football entered the mainstream in the 1960s. Where was ultimate fighting 10 years ago? Prior to the 1980s the NCAA college basketball tournament was not even televised in its entirety. There are countless other examples of sports entering an already crowded marketplace and succeeding in a major way. A lot of this, it is true, was due to technological advancements (the ubiquity of televisions in American households in the 1960s for pro football) or major events that captured the attention of the nation at the time (think Bird vs. Magic at the 1979 NCAA basketball finals) as well as other factors. So yes, other sports might have a headstart. Big deal. It doesn't mean anything.

The "love of other sports is too great" argument is really no different than this one. Whether these sports have a headstart or people simply love them too much, it just drives home the same point: that there is no space for another "major" sport. But there is always room at the top in America. Just ask the ultimate fighting guys or Lance Armstrong or Tony Hawk or Bode Miller or anybody else who is a household name in this country in a sport outside of football, baseball, basketball or ice hockey.

The U.S. is not very good at soccer? Compared to whom, Brazil? We played them to the letter in the Confederations Cup final a few months back. Yes, they did beat us, but it was darned close. At the last World Cup, in an otherwise meek showing, the U.S. played a scoreless draw against eventual champions Italy. I'm not even bringing up the 2002 World Cup. You might argue the U.S. is not (yet) world class in soccer, but "not very good"? That's just not very accurate. Besides, you want not very good? Look at the U.S. ice hockey team's performance at the last Olympics. Or look at our baseball teams, which performed poorly not only at the last Olympic games, but at the World Baseball Classic. Yet baseball and hockey somehow remain popular, major, sports in this country.

The 'not enough stoppages for advertising' argument is as old as television itself. For the 1994 World Cup advertisers and media companies figured out a way to televise the game "commercial free" by putting a big corporate logo in one of the corners of the screen alongside the game clock and score. Problem solved. If this was still an issue, ESPN never would have acquired the rights to Premiership and Champions League games. Even without constant commercials, soccer sells on TV. This is not only a non issue for the sport's popularity (or lack thereof) in this country, but not a factor, period.

The full-time buzzer argument is even more nonsensical. "There is something very exact in nature about the way the big sports in the U.S. come to a halt," writes COS. Maybe, but what's inexact about a final whistle? Seems pretty finite to me. Baseball doesn't have a final buzzer either, by the way. Baseball games don't even have a clock, in fact. But that's okay because baseball isn't very popular in the U.S., is it?

Nor does baseball have cheerleaders. But soccer does at all levels in this country. High school and college for sure, and with various MLS teams as well. Ever heard of the ChivaGirls? Meanwhile several pro football and basketball teams don't have cheerleaders either. Nor does hockey. Nor does NASCAR. This argument sounds like it was made by somebody who is not very clued in to U.S. soccer. Or U.S. sports. Or, well, pretty much of anything.

Sure, Americans love their stats and there might (might!) be something to soccer's more ethereal nature that keeps it from becoming a major success in this country. (Though one could point to figure skating and gymnastics to nullify that point). More likely, other factors are at work. One of these is the very nature of MLS itself. The top U.S. professional league was created largely so American players would be able to earn money playing in their home country. In this, it has been an unbridled success: nearly every member of the national team got his start in MLS and the nats are more successful than ever before. But MLS, despite its moniker, is not a major soccer league. It is not the EPL. It will probably never even come close. That's fine of course, but there is something to the argument that American consumers clamor for the best and will accept no substitute. But the popularity of events like the World Cup will only grow. If we make a deep run in South Africa next summer we'll see exactly how much.


  1. Quality, I believe is the biggest problem with MLS. There are some very good players but the game on the field leaves a lot to be desired. I go to the games becasue its the best we have got. But even after seeing "B" squads of foreign teams we need to improve the product on the field.

  2. man i love soccer but can't stand the mls but i still sat to see it on tv. am used to the speed from the epl and so on mls is too slow make you sleepy i was seeing the game tonight between NYRB and RSL new york played poorly salt lake had speed the game was nice but we as fan want to see more action. is action we want lift the cap bring in players that can give me my moyen worth and see if more people wont want to see major leage soccer go fower