For years, “soccer is finally catching on!” has been on the lips of Americans across the nation.
I won't be the first to bring up this debate, and I won't be the last. But with the media attention that soccer has brought up in the past few weeks, it felt imperative to cover this issue in sports.
I don't claim to know everything, but I do claim to support a good debate. As the talks grow in sheer numbers, the casual sports fan is left to wonder why soccer hasn't become a main stream sport in America. Was the heart break that I felt when Hope Solo missed her final blocking attempt not real? Was the rush of happiness that I felt when Abby Wambach scored the game-tying goal against Brazil not genuine?
There's nothing wrong with the game itself, so what's missing? These aren't the end all, be all's of the debate, but they're certainly conversation points worth mentioning next time you enter a conversation about the popularity of soccer in our country.
Nike has had trouble selling soccer to the average American.
Think about the diminishing attention span of the nation that we live in. On the screen that you’re reading this article on, there are probably six other windows open—perhaps another Bleacher Report story, your Facebook profile page, your e-mail account, your iTunes is probably playing music, and a Microsoft Word file from a few hours ago. In America, the youth mind is always active, shifting channels and never quite giving anything its full attention.
Soccer, while gorgeous when observed correctly, doesn’t work that way. The art of the game requires full devotion, and if you lose your place, you miss the entire adrenaline rush that comes with the build up of the drive. The way that the nature of the flow of the game works, the energy of the game comes from the jukes and passes and missed shots and opportunities and the emotion and the full reward comes from the release of all of that energy within the excitement of the goal.
In most of our other daily activities and interests, the measurement of success comes from the final payout; (i.e. the capitalist satisfaction of an exchange in which you were more favorable). That’s why it’s the home run that is valued the most in baseball, and that’s why frequent basketball scoring is such a fan favorite. In the popular American sports, the attitude is to "just do it". Don't think about it. Don't deliberate. Don't wait. Just score the goal.
The headline on ESPN.com at halftime of today’s championship game, “USA-Japan scoreless at the half” is not a headline. Most Americans do not like to watch a game that is scoreless.
We have too many other videos that we can watch on YouTube. "How can I pay attention to an entire game when I can text update my Twitter from my iPhone?"
Much of the revenue that drives the success of an athlete in the predominantly popular American sports comes from the marketability of the players. With such marketability comes a spike in the promoted capital from money made from jersey sales, commercial success for the league and sponsorships. You can’t have a billboard for Gatorade with a soccer player if people don’t know (or even care) who the soccer player is in our country.
Right now, there are enough other marketable athletes from the thriving professional sports that we can promote them without the aid of another sport’s prime athletes. In the NBA, there are probably over 10 (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Amare Stoudemire, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose) more recognizable names on a housewide scale than a single soccer player is nationally. The American names that we’ve produced in these sports already have far outweighed the commercial success of the few and far between Landon Donovan’s.
You could even argue that much of the attention that David Beckham received in America (covers on People magazine, numerous run-ins on TMZ and conversations of lots of mothers) came from the fact that he married a Spice Girl.
If people aren’t talking about these athletes, they aren’t buying the jerseys and merchandise. If people aren’t buying the jerseys, sponsors have little interest in investing in the athletes. If the sponsors aren’t investing in the athletes (the way Jordan did with Nike), the sports becomes less likely to catch on the televisions, and in turn, the culture. Until an American athlete can come in like Michael Jordan and revolutionize the sport for our country, soccer will have trouble taking off in this country.
Much of what keeps baseball so successful today is the storied history of numerous franchises. Baseball has been called America’s Past Time because so many father and sons grew up watching their teams together. Generations of Cubs fans have suffered without ever seeing a championship victory. I’m a Mets fan because my father is a Mets fan. He’s a Mets fan because his father is a Mets fan.
It sounds silly, but it’s true. It’s like an entire culture. Red Sox fans and Yankees fans have hated each other for over a century.
Soccer, by no fault of its own, had not had the same luck in our country. What has made the soccer games that have been successful as successful as they’ve been have largely been because of the national rivalries at hand. Such nationalism has driven fans out of the gutters during World Cup appearances, such as the one this afternoon, because of the headline of “USA vs. Japan." Maybe there isn’t the same history of bars drinking their heart outs after finishing last in the division in Cleveland, but there is certainly one that involves World War II. "We can try to beat Japan in something? Where do I sign?"
Much like what made the “Miracle” hockey game so incredible was what was representatively at stake politically for the Olympics victory. If an American has the chance to be the dominant force, they’ll jump at it. If an American can watch the Los Angeles Galaxy vs. the Portland Timbers, they’ll probably choose to play their Wii because there’s nothing at stake by missing the game. This does not mean that it's soccer's fault; it's just that there has not been the same domestic impact yet.
In this afternoon’s game, I tuned into the ESPN for the game at 11:40 am. I watched the National Anthem ceremony, sat on my bed with a bag of chips for the first half, walked out of the room and made myself a sandwich during half time, ate the sandwich, came in and tuned back in during the second half. In which part of that did I mention any exposure to a corporation? The only advertisement in that paragraph was one for a gym membership (seriously, though).
Basketball has timeouts short enough for commercial breaks every couple of minutes. Old Spice can debut their new clever commercial something like 15 times before the first half is even over. The Super Bowl generates more commercially driven ad revenue than any other program in television history; people spend entire conversations devoted to what the best commercial was, and the internet aftershock wave is impressively heavy as well. When does State Farm have time to advertise if the viewer has the option to avoid the entire thing altogether? This has less to do with the actual sport of soccer and more to do with the way that sports has been marketed in our country: with commercials.
That doesn’t even account for the fact that most international games occur at a time that is hard to market for our time zones. "I shouldn’t be eating lunch! I should be watching this game at night!" Soccer's big games are the World Cup, and instead of a seasonal conclusion, it only occurs every four years. Big time marketing once every four years is not satisfying for an advertiser.
In a recent podcast with Bill Simmons, Seth Meyers discussed the “TiVo Effect” and marveled about the fact that people say that commercials are the most annoying part of watching television. “Of course it is!” he argues, “that’s like saying paying for my food at the super market is the worst part! That’s the way that the show is monetarily able to support you watching for free!”
One of the only ways that a sponsor is able to get crafty during a soccer game is by advertising on the field or even on the jerseys, and that would still not generate as much revenue as a single commercial would. While not my opinion, this is a financial truth in terms of why the game hasn't had main stream commercial success in America.
From an institutional standpoint, the American is generally a creature of habit. My grandpa has had the same Diet Coke with no ice as his same beverage of choice for as long as I’ve been alive. Every night, my father falls asleep to the same MLB Network Channel recording of the evening’s Mets loss. We want things (except for our cars, and even then not all of them) our way; we want it to bleed American reds, whites and blues. "Soccer smells foreign—could you imagine if we called it fútbol like other nations do?We wouldn’t able to deal with the unfamiliarity!"
Americans thrive on their exceptionalism. We need to have the best SAT scores. We need to have the most successful doctors. The ESPN broadcast announces had “funny accents” to many uncultured Americans. Are Americans ready to admit that the most popular sport in the world can be shared with them? At one point in extra time, those ESPN broadcasters sold the sport by saying that they had a feed from the White House that showed the President and Michelle Obama, as well as the kids, glued to the game. “I believe Sasha and Malia play soccer!” announced the male broadcaster.
The thing about these games is that I still feel like I’m trying to be convinced. I don’t feel like I’m fully there on board as a full soccer fan yet. In the next coming years, I can predict myself following English Premiere League games a little bit closer. I can see myself going crazy during the World Cup. But I can’t see myself following the poor product of MLS, and I can’t see myself fully decked out in gear at a game yet. It’ll take time, and I don’t know if many of us with ever get there.
What I do know, however, is that when Abby Wambach scored the goal to put the USA in the lead during Extra Time this afternoon, I got goosebumps. When her winning goal beat Brazil last week, there were tears in my eyes. I know how good soccer can feel when it’s played right, and I know how incredible the “USA!” chant can sound on the international television broadcast. Maybe it’s taken long, and maybe it’ll never get there. Until then, the idea of seeing soccer catch on now makes my heart warm. From a cultural standpoint, I’d love to be ready.