Why Soccer Will Never Be Popular in the United States

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIFebruary 20, 2009

OK, so never is a pretty long time, but I only have so much room for the title of an article; hence, allow me to qualify it for you.  As long the scoring in soccer (football to non-Americans) remains the same (2.2 total average goals per game), it will not become a major team sport (top three in popularity) in the United States in the 21st or 22nd Century.

People's tastes can change a lot in 200 years in any culture or country; however, they rarely change that quickly when it comes to major pastimes.  Baseball (first match played in the US, 1846), soccer (1869), American football (1869), basketball (1891), and hockey (1893) have all been around for a long time and they are not going anywhere in the near future. 

On the other hand, in the first 25-50 years of the 20th Century, the only three "major" sports that existed in the US were baseball, boxing, and horse racing.  And the last two are slowing dying.  Hence, allow me to back off from the never comment, after all, I had to get your attention somehow.

Admittedly, soccer is the most popular sport in the world, with 175 countries considering "football" to be their national pastime.  However, while this is not totally irrelevant to our discussion (after all, at least you can make the argument that it is a highly marketable sport), soccer's tremendous worldwide popularity has little effect on its popularity in the U.S. 

This could change, of course, if a very large number of individuals immigrate to the US from countries where soccer is very popular.  Given the current state of immigration laws, for purposes of this discussion, I am going to assume that this will not happen in the near future.

Unless you were born yesterday (in which case you have incredible reading skills for a one-day-old), by now you know that soccer is not popular in the US because it does not have enough scoring, action, and/or contact for most Americans' tastes. 

To Americans who like the NFL (arguably the number one league and sport in the country) and the NBA (the 3rd most popular team sport in the US), soccer seems like a chess match, which often results in a stalemate.  Americans like team sports with action that contain the exciting possibility of a comeback.  We do not want to watch a sport where when a team goes up 2-0 in the first half—it feels like an insurmountable lead! 

Baseball does not have a lot of action or contact, however, it has enough scoring to keep its many fans happy.  And comebacks almost always seem possible in a baseball game, which holds their fans' interest.  Football has plenty of scoring and lots of action and contact.  Basketball has lots of scoring and action, but little contact.  Hockey has plenty of scoring and action, but more contact than it should.  Soccer has little action, little scoring, and little contact.  Not a good combination for American sports fans. 

Keep in mind that it does not matter whether you like soccer the way it is—it only matters for purposes of our discussion—whether the typical American sports fan likes it or not the way it currently is.  You might really appreciate the strategy in soccer, however, I will counter with:  Why should I watch a boring "strategy" sport when I can watch an exciting sport with scoring, and lots of action and even more strategy (i.e., American football)? 

And remember, that it does not matter if you find American football or basketball boring.  What matters, for purposes of our discussion, is that the vast majority of American sports fans find these sports exciting.  And while many Americans may find baseball rather boring on TV (at least regular season games), Americans love the ballpark experience. 

(I realize that golf is currently popular in the US and it has almost no action, but for simplicity's sake I am limiting the discussion to team sports.  Besides, Tiger Woods, an American, is at least one third of the reason.)   

I have witnessed the infiltration of Pele and more recently, David Beckham, in an effort to boost the popularity of soccer in the US.  And exciting as an athlete that Pele was, it had no long-term effect on soccer's popularity in the US.  Neither will Beckham or any other non-American. 

Now, if Freddy Adu, an American, becomes the best player in the world AND leads the American men to a World Cup Title, soccer will undoubtedly get a boost in this country.  However, while it might rival hockey's popularity, it will not make it to the big time (top three) in the US until there are more than 2.2 goals per game.  While you might love soccer just the way it is, it really is as simple as that.

Sorry, soccer fans, your sport has a long uphill battle for popularity in the US.  As long as soccer remains very popular worldwide (which seems very likely), FIFA will make no major rule changes.  And without major rules changes there will be no significant increase in scoring, which of course, will prevent soccer from becoming popular in the US.  Unless, of course, Major League Soccer wants to play by different rules than FIFA, which seems very unlikely.

Soccer organizations and their fans are very much like MLB and its fans in regard to tradition and their resistance to change.  Tradition has it place in everything in our society, including sports; but there is always a balancing act between the sacredness of tradition and the improvements that change can make. And soccer needs to make some changes to create more scoring if it really wants to make it in the US.

I am less resistant to change than baseball and soccer fans, so let me make a few suggestions to improve soccer.  First, get rid of the rule that limits substitutions to three per game.  I see no reason not to allow unlimited substitutions, just as in American football and basketball (my two favorite sports to watch).  Fresh bodies will result in faster, better play, and more action.  It will probably increase the scoring a little, but only a little, though, since the defenders will also be fresher. 

Second, have the official time on display for all to see.  Currently, only the referee, who can add "injury time" to the official time, is the only one who knows how much exact time is left.  This is nothing short of moronic.  It takes some of the suspense away from the fans in a close game, and also affects the ability of the players to strategize near the end of the game.

Third, allow the players to use their hands.  OK, I am kidding.  I am just preparing you for my third suggestion.  You ready?  Here goes:  get rid of the unnecessary offside rule.  Soccer/football purists, please hear me out. I have researched the subject and I am convinced more than ever that it is the way to go.     

Originally (1856/1863), the offside rule did not let the attacking player touch the ball "unless there are more than three of the other side before him." 

In the 1870s, after much discussion between clubs, it was changed to only three defenders.  Then in 1925, it was changed to two defenders and an immediate increase is scoring resulted (from 4700 goals to 6373—a 36 percent increase.)  Hmm.  Of course, you would have to limit the offside to, say, two players, who are offside—otherwise a team could pack of a bunch of players in front of the goal keeper. 

I know soccer purists hate this suggestion, because they claim it will ruin the quality of the game.  You should be aware that the purists said the same thing back in 1925 when they changed the rule from three to two defenders; but from what I have read, this turned out not to be true.  The only thing that happened to this sacred game is that more scoring resulted.  Hmmm. 

Hence, I find their objections very unconvincing—especially with my suggestion where I would limit it to two players even on direct or corner kicks.  There would be more excitement, more action, more fast breaks, and most importantly, more scoring.  I played soccer in high school and I tried to watch games in the last 3 World Cups.  Even the Brazilian men were, for the most part, boring.  Some of the games were unbearable, and I love all sports. 

Please, if you want soccer to EVER be popular in the US, get rid of the unnecessary offside rule.  Or make the goals bigger—anything to increase the scoring to make it an exciting sport and not a chess match.  I love chess, but it is not a sport and I do not find it exciting to watch.  And for the typical American sports viewer, a 0-0-soccer game is not exciting to watch and I highly doubt that it ever will be.