First off I’d like to say a couple things. I’ll be calling the beautiful sport played with the feet (mostly) and a black and white ball “soccer” for no other reason than this is what I was raised saying and it’s how I think of the game. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, so it is what it is. Also, I will be referring to the United States of America as “America” because it’s easier to type, not because of any deep-seated and strange beliefs about the American-ness of those living in North and South America. Moving on.
Soccer has always been a second-hand sport in my friend groups. In high-school soccer was a lesser sport, something that would never and could never be seen as comparable to the higher sports, your football, your basketball, your baseball. Despite the fact that the soccer team at my high-school was actually good, while the football team notched repeated zero-win efforts (the transition from 9-man to 11-man football set us back decades), soccer still never rose to the level of respected sport.
But why is that? Why has the sport that is so popular with the rest of the civilized world always been considered inferior? Why has it never caught on? Is this just something I’m way off on? I’m always looking for something to do, a new hobby, a new restaurant to check out, a new sport to get invested in; so why don’t I care about soccer? I have a few ideas why the beautiful game hasn’t sparked stateside that I’d like to explore.
Idea #1: The Glutton Theory
Could it be that soccer has never caught the eye of most Americans because there just isn’t enough scoring? It sounds dumb, heck, it is dumb, but I don’t think we can discount it out of hand. Surely it isn’t pure chance that the least popular of the big four sports, hockey, is also a game where 4 goals for a team translates to a W more nights than not. Americans want action, they want success, they want big flashy plays, home-runs and hail-marys, not ball-control and surgical passing. This could definitely be a part of it, but the popularity of baseball make me think that it can’t be the whole reason. Baseball is slow, it’s grinding, and there’s not even the constant ebb and flow of movement across the field that soccer provides. But what do the numbers say?
A quick google search tells us that in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, about 2.7 goals were scored per game. For baseball, 8.33 runs were scored per game during the 2013 season. A hockey ticket in 2014 was most likely to buy you a view to 2.66 goals in any individual game. This actually surprised me at first, because I’ve always thought of baseball as a much lower-scoring sport, but then I realized that I wasn’t wrong about baseball, I was wrong about soccer and hockey. Soccer and hockey are much LOWER scoring sports than I’d known. These number give more weight to the we-want-scoring theory of soccer irrelevance than I would have given it otherwise. While this is a good start, there’s still more theory to mine.
Idea #2: The Stubborn Individual Theory
Americans are individualistic. We pride ourselves on our freedom and our ability to look past pomp and circumstance and come to our own conclusions. To this end, we looked at the world, saw the world’s football, and said, “fuck that, we can do it better.” We decided to add armor, smush the ball a little bit, and changed brutal contact from being a foul into being necessary to the sport. After all that, we decided to be real dicks and call our new sport “football”, and have the cajones to get indignant when somebody says “football” is “soccer”. It’s all ridiculous. Point being we like things our way, just as the super-simplified founding fathers narrative teaches us.
I couldn’t think of a good statistic to illustrate this idea, so this one’s going to be more of a thought experiment. When we think of the most popular American sports, they’re all, well; American. We made baseball, we made football, we made basketball. Sure, football and baseball are largely derivative of rugby and cricket respectively, but they are undeniably sports uniquely identified with America. Hockey originated in Canada and quickly found it’s way south. According to another round of google research, we find that all four sports came into being in their modern-incarnations in the mid to late 19th century. Similarly, England is credited with modern soccer’s advent in the mid 19th century (although some form of the game is said to have been played for thousands of years). Again, I was surprised by what a quick search turned up. All of these sports had much shallower roots than I had previously thought. Sure, I still think that there’s some push-back against soccer in America because of a stubborn individualism, but I don’t think it’s the only thing holding the sport back. In fact, those dates of discovery lead me nicely into the last idea I had.
Idea #3: The Distance Theory
This ties a lot into theory #2, and the idea is this; maybe we don’t like soccer that much yet because it wasn’t here early enough to get a foothold. All of these major sports came into their own in the mid to late 19th century, a time when travel and communication was far more difficult and costly. Entertainment was far more scarce and the amount of time dedicated to leisure far less. People worked far harder just to survive and would never have fathomed that one day there would be a fool like me with TOO MUCH FREE TIME searching for new sports to occupy me. This is the simplest of my three ideas, but it’s the one I like the most. I think a lot of theories about why soccer hasn’t caught on are working backwards from the assumption that soccer won’t catch on, or from the assumption that it can’t. The idea that it’s just a cultural difference seems silly to me. The idea that there’s not enough scoring could be a barrier, but surely it couldn’t shut it out entirely, and it’s a disservice to American sports fans to assume they could never come to appreciate a non-native pursuit. The stubborn American individual might be hesitant at first, but now that we have so much free time we need more sports than ever.
While it’s a bit anti-climactic, I truly think that soccer hasn’t caught on to this point because it hasn’t had enough time. Soccer is going to join the major sports to make a big five, unless it simply assumes hockey’s place among the big four. For a long time I was one of the gluttonous, stubborn ones who dug my heels in and raged at the low-scoring, foreign semi-sport that was soccer, but now my eyes are open.
Average attendance at a Major League Soccer game in 2017 was 22,113. That puts the MLS ahead of the NBA and NHL in per game attendance, both of which averaged about 17,000 for the 2016-17 season. The NFL and MLB are still outstripping the rest, with 70,000 and 30,000 averages for 2016 respectively. Now, the MLS doesn’t have near the marketability of the NBA, but I have to think that a lot of people would be shocked that the MLS is putting up those attendance numbers. The number of games in each sport’s season undeniably has an impact, but mobilizing 20,000+ people to go to a game is a feat whether you’re playing one game or a thousand. The MLS is getting 22,000 people out of the house and into a stadium on average ONLY 20 YEARS INTO ITS EXISTENCE. THAT’S NUTS. The NBA only drew a shade over 6,000 per game after 20 years in 1966, which even taking into consideration the technological and networking advances made is still mind boggling.
Soccer is a great sport, a fun sport. There’s not a lot of scoring but there is so much technique, so much speed, so much finesse. The scarcity of goals makes each one so much much more important, every strike that much more special. I grew up with an inexplicable disdain for soccer because I never invested myself in it like I did with other sports. My heart broke when the Yankees lost, and the purest happiness I’ve known was screaming at the TV when God pinned that ball to David Tyree’s helmet and the Fiends of Foxboro were slain. I’m excited to feel that way about soccer. I now believe that there was nothing ever stopping soccer from catching on in the U.S., its time was always coming.