In the last edition of Goal Posts, I raised the question of why soccer has struggled to gain mass appeal in the United States. Thanks to all the readers who offered their views on this question.
Keep in mind that I am not judging soccer as enjoyable or not to watch (I was surprised some readers of the last blog assumed soccer is my favorite sport). Quite frankly, I think soccer is a great sport for kids because they run around a lot and get exercise, but believe that receives relatively little attention as a spectator sport in the United States, particularly given three values of American culture:
a) Winning matters
b) More is better
c) The world is a just place. We get what we deserve
Thus, I am focusing on two "why" questions related to soccer in America. Below are seven factors that I believe help explain "why" soccer has struggled to garner popular favor across the U.S., and "why" the U.S. has been less successful in soccer than in other sports.
1) The United States is not good at soccer.
Ok, that may sound a bit strong, but imagine for a moment the excitement that our Olympic basketball team generates when they qualify for the Final 16 in the Olympics. The men's basketball team is castigated if they don't win the gold medal. Every time. In a blowout. If they win, it's not by as much as the Dream Team of 1992. If they lose, they are awful. If they lose a close game, they choked. Plain and simple: Americans expect a winner. This is no different for any of our major sports. Whether it is football, basketball, baseball, hockey, or even volleyball or softball, Americans do not get excited about being one of the top 16 countries in the world.
Although the U.S. played with passion, they frankly did not deserve any better than they got. Consider this statistic: The US Men's soccer team played four games in the 2010 World Cup. They played a total of right around 400 minutes (90 minutes per game + injury time + extra time vs. Ghana). They held a lead for exactly 1 of those 400 minutes! In their pool play games, the U.S. led for 1 minute out of more than 270, yet earned the #1 seed. Something seems strange about this. Consider that if Algeria had scored in the 91st minute against the U.S. (instead of the U.S. scoring), the Americans would have been last in their pool. Yet one win and an ESPN soccer analyst claims the Algeria win will go down in U.S. history.
Going from first to worst based on one goal is a small margin of error, and brings us to several other reasons why Americans do not get a kick out of soccer.
2) Tie games:
Of course, one of the reasons the U.S. could lead for 1/270 minutes and earn the #1 seed is that several of the games in their pool were ties. In fact, 14/48 pool play matches (29%) ended in ties. Consider two quotes:
"Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."
"A tie is like kissing your sister."
Both of these quotes are heard early and often by young athletes in America. Our culture is one that puts a premium on winning. As a result, the fact that soccer matches can end in a tie in the World Cup does not sit well with many Americans. With one minute remaining in their match vs. Algeria, it appeared the Americans were headed for their third straight tie. How would Americans have perceived four years of training thatr resulted in consecutive kisses of the three different "sisters"?
3) Low scoring
The mean number of goals scored in the World Cup this year through the 32 pool play matches was 3.34 (1.67 goals per team). That means there were lots and lots of 2-1, 1-1, 1-0, and even 0-0 games. In fact, 75% of matches had 3 goals scored or fewer, indicating that a few blowouts shifted the mean higher. 31/48 matches had 2 goals or fewer, which means that 2 goals was the median number of goals scored. Although low scoring games do not seem to sit well with Americans in many sports (see rule changes in football, basketball, and baseball over the years to maintain or increase scoring), and it is apparent that the scant amount of scoring sends American spectators elsewhere.
The one benefit of low scoring games: close, competitive games that come down to the wire. 75% of pool play matches (36/48) were decided by one goal or finished in a tie. This should make for dramatic and intense finishes. The downside to lots of close games is that these low scoring close games also increase the likelihood that...
4) Too often, the better team does not win
Rightly or wrongly, Americans like to believe in a just world. People get what they deserve in life. If you want something bad enough, you can achieve it. This is a hallmark of the American Dream. Yet time and time again, World Cup matches are won by teams who have fewer shots on goal and lower times of possession. This unpredictability leads to confusion among American fans, many of whom are only casual followers of soccer and watch more intently every four years during the World Cup.
5) Too often, ambiguous calls or rules blur fans' understanding
Whether it is an offsides call to disallow a goal or a foul that leads to a penalty kick, the low scoring nature of the game oftentimes magnifies one call that can swing an entire game. In the NBA, the Celtics and Lakers were scoring in the 90's in most games. Thus, one controversial foul call that sent a free throw shooter to the line is perceived very differently than the same occurring in a soccer game.
6) Timing of game
What other sport is unclear about how much time remains? At the end of a soccer match, the referee adds injury time, but even then neither fans nor players know exactly how much time has been added. What a bizarre way to end a game. Imagine Kobe Bryant dribbling down court, down one point, and unsure of whether there are five seconds, fifteen seconds, or fifty seconds. It makes no sense n world competition to have less than precise timing available to the players.
7) Kids don't aspire to be soccer players
Sadly, the almighty dollar has much to do with what sports children persist in, even given the long odds of them becoming professional athletes. Bottom line: High revenue sports generate more media attention in any culture, and provide bigger paydays. In America, football, basketball, and baseball (and to a lesser degree, hockey) fall in that category. Soccer does not.
So how can the popularity of soccer in America be increased? Let's keep in mind some basic American values: America is a culture that values winning, extremes, money, and the perception that people get what they deserve.
What could be done to increase the popularity of soccer in the U.S.?
1) Win more games. To win more, more young elite athletes need to pursue soccer. That will require the creation of a premier league that is respected around the world (the MLS is not at that level) that receive media attention on the level of the major sports in America. Had the U.S. made a deep run in the 2010 World Cup, we would have likely seen soccer gain momentum. After today's loss to Ghana, odds are that American interest in soccer around the U.S. will be back to normal shortly.
2) Eliminate ties. While we are at it, eliminate shoot-outs. Just picture the NBA Finals being decided with free-throws by Sasha Vujacic and Nate Robinson will decide the game. Instead, why not remove a player from the field of play every three minutes. The number of players would gradually be reduced, leading to an eventual goal. In the rare case the tie went on for quite some time, imagine an epic one-on-one battle between Ronaldo going head-to-head with Lionel Messi of Argentina.
3) Increase the size of the goal. Simple change, affects little about the game, but increases scoring, and the likelihood that the better team will win.
4) See #3
5) Get rid of offsides. Fewer controversial goals in already low scoring games is a good thing. Imagine if the NBA had games where each team scored 2-3 baskets, but referees were also likely to call traveling, three seconds in the lane, or palming the ball. Or, imagine the NBA where players were whistled for a violation if they found a way to sneak behind the defense for an uncontested lay-up. Then imagine that this call can be incredibly difficult to make with all the other things a referee is watching. Imagine further that one of these calls may take away or allow the only point a team will score all game. Suddenly a game of skill may begin to feel more and more like a game of chance.
6) Stop the clock for injuries. This alleviates the need for injury time. Stop the clock when the ball goes out of bounds. This eliminates the stalling tactics teams utilize late in games. For a sport that prides itself on honor and sportsmanship, the way players milk injuries and the clock is unbecoming.
7) See #1. And, create a system that encourages the best young athletes to play soccer, at least until they are teenagers.
These seven factors help explain why American culture and soccer do not mix well. These changes may increase interest in and success for U.S. soccer, but that does not mean they would be well-received by other countries or even ought to be made. Soccer may be the world's most popular sport, but several things will need to change for soccer to (a) become a popular spectator sport in the United States more than once every four years, and (b) for the Americans to have a legitimate chance to win a championship. In fact, American soccer faces the classic chicken or the egg dilemma, because until they win, interest will not grow, but until interest grows, most American youth will be unlikely to turn down opportunities in other sports to focus on soccer.