Americans and Soccer, continued

Two brief responses to Todd's responses to my comments on Americans and soccer. He writes: "Americans don't like soccer because Americans don't like soccer. The sports embraced by a given society/country/culture are largely conventional and traditional."

That's what someone once called "a nice theory, slain by an ugly fact." Within the last 30 years, Asians have gone from being soccer-indifferent to being possibly the most passionate fans on the planet -- FIFA had to disable all incoming traffic from Korea onto its website after Korea was eliminated from the World Cup because it was being inundated by angry fans! And the Thais and Malaysians make the Korena fans look tame. And the same, more or less, has happened in Africa, too.

Second, Todd writes

"it should be skill, not chance that decides games, and this seems to be a universal sentiment. One problem with the World Cup is that the talent levels are so compressed these days that almost every game comes down to a single goal and thus one referee's call (a penalty kick or quetionable red card) can thus prove decisive in a game."

Um, wrong. Two billion people are going to watch the World Cup final; it is a little odd that you talk about the "universal sentiment" here, or the "problem with the World Cup." The final of the World Cup is going to be decided, like all great soccer games, on a combination of incredible skill, team desire, and luck. You don't have to watch, if you don't like it -- fine by me. I think many Americans feel as you do -- that's OK, too. But don't tell me what the universal sentiment is!

I'm outta here -- Brazil-Ghana is starting soon. [If this game were decided on skill alone, 46 people would watch it; the Brazilian team is so skillful they couldn't possibly lose a single game, ever. But in fact, they might lose ... and I will be joined by 500 million folks in front of the TV to see if this is the game in which it happens]

dave h:
Do all the people watching the World Cup think the game is entirely without flaws? It seems unreasonable to dismiss complaints about the game simply because a lot of people still like the game, flaws included. And I think Ghana would be quite disappointed to find out that they could only win their game through sheer luck, perhaps by especially poor officiating in their favor. They'd prefer to think that even though they are less talented, they might outplay the Brazilians this day, and deserve to win.
6.27.2006 11:17am
jsamples (mail):
I once said of soccer to a friend of mine: "Two billion people can't be wrong." He replied: "Yes, they can." At least, he was a Progressive so his reply fit his political philosophy. Libertarians and market-oriented folks have no excuse. Two billion people cannot be wrong.
6.27.2006 11:18am
frankcross (mail):
I think your theory is a very intriguing one. By rational standards, some aspects of soccer seem dubious. There is going to be some stochastic variation (luck) that inevitably occurs in all games. The lower the scoring, I suspect, the greater role that luck will play. This offends Americans, who think that victory should go to the team that plays the best or at least equally well (in a buzzer beater game) and not to a quick turn of fortune. And the officiating of the game, which is quite subjective, can assume determining importance.

But this might appeal to people for whom luck seems paramount in their real life. Moreover, for many people the key to soccer seems to be more a well played beautiful game than actually winning. This could appeal to those who see little hope of great advance in life but find satisfaction in a well lived life. But Americans are about winning.
6.27.2006 11:22am
Steve Smith (mail) (www):
First, the claim that Asians were "soccer indifferent" thirty years ago may well have applied to Japan, but certainly not Korea, who were almost as fanatical about the sport then as they are now, just without a decent team to root for. And I believe the same was true in other Asian (and African) countries as well; what we're seeing now has more to do with globalization and media saturation as anything else. You're far more likely to write nasty e-mails over a game if you've seen the game on TV, something that was not readily available in the Third World thirty years ago.

And if luck, chance and the occasional corrupt ref should decide games rather than skill, why not just toss a coin?
6.27.2006 11:40am
David, just click your little heels together and repeat "Soccer will be popular in the US" and it will magically happen.
6.27.2006 11:46am
Call me blasphemous if you wish, but having lived for long periods of time in the US and in European countries where soccer is the nº 1 sport, my own theory is that the mechanisms that trigger the passion for this sport are pretty much similar to the mechanisms that trigger the passion for baseball. Namely: (1) they’re both cheap to play at an amateur level (soccer: just need a ball and a field; baseball: just need a ball, a stick and a field); collective feelings /sentimental motives can easily be associated to (or manipulated around) a particular team; both are marketing-friendly.
6.27.2006 12:08pm
Hei Lun Chan (mail) (www):
Four billion people can't be wrong.
6.27.2006 12:10pm
Shake-N-Bake (www):
If we have a problem with officiating having a heavy influence on games and that's why Americans don't watch soccer, we should have very few sports left to watch after high profile garbage officiating in the Super Bowl and the NBA Finals this year. And there are numerous famous instances of horrid umpiring in baseball (Jorge Orta/Don Denkinger, the 1997 NLCS Game 6 with the 10 mile wide strike zone, etc) having a huge effect on a game and a series.

Diving, on the other hand, really ticks Americans off.
6.27.2006 12:40pm
John Castiglione (mail):
I've always thought that one of the reasons soccer isn't very popular in the United States is, at least in part, because it isn't a great sport to watch on television.

The most popular sport in America by fans and revenue, football, is widely considered to be best viewed on television. Baseball, while extremely fun in person, is also "best" viewed on TV (try determining balls and strikes from the bleachers in right field). Basketball. . .well, it's tough to see all those March Madness games in person.

In contrast, sports like hockey and soccer (both of which struggle, at best, in America) are best viewed in person. The artistry of both sports can only be fully appreciated by watching the flow of the players across the entire field. Goals in both are more exciting when you watch the game unfold. When you see them on TV, however, goals in soccer and hockey seem to come out of the blue. Maybe part of the reason soccer hasn't yet fully caught on in America is because most Americans haven't have access to viewing high-level competition in person, where they can learn to appreciate and love it.

I think one of the reasons that the World Cup has really caught on this year is that this is the first cup contested in the age of widely available high-def, widescreen televisions, which more accurately capture the "entire field" views of soccer that make appreciating it essential. Every bar in New York City that shows the World Cup is playing it on some sort of widescreen plasma TV. Maybe this little piece of technology is responsible for the increased popularity of soccer this year. (Why this isn't working for hockey is anyone's guess. . .probably because the NHL just flat-out stinks nowadays).
6.27.2006 12:46pm
It is a known fact that College Football is the greatest sport in the history of the World. Therefore, every sport pales in comparison including soccer. So, we should stop watching all other sports on focus on college football because it is less than 80 days away!
6.27.2006 1:02pm
Joshua (www):
Within the last 30 years, Asians have gone from being soccer-indifferent to being possibly the most passionate fans on the planet[...]

With, as I noted in a comment to the previous post, the glaring exceptions of the continent's two dominant nations, India and China (although as I also mentioned, maybe the success of the Chinese women's team will have a coattails effect on the national men's program).
6.27.2006 1:02pm
I love to play soccer. always have. after sitting for 2 hours watching a scorless tie between koln and Stuttgrt in '01, I don't think I'll ever watch another game outside the comfort of my home. We'll see.
I think the biggest problem with soccer (for americans) is that unless you like running, it isn't very much fun to play. Baskeball has much more to do with shooting ability that physical fitness. Two old fat guys can still shoot hoops. Anyone can play catch. Soccer just degenerates.
I also think the commercial values have been underemphasized. With all the other sports, it doesn't make sense for the broadcasters to emphsasise a game that is difficult to advertise in. I think that is in part why hockey is dropping as well.
6.27.2006 1:17pm
Sporto (mail):
I think the differnce is due to general-skilled continous play vs. periodic but specialized intense play. Americans generally prefer the latter, while much of the world prefers the former.

Look at the differnces between rugby and it's direct descendant, American football. Rugby features hard hitting continous play, with lots of action, but few complex patterns. It rewards burly generalists who can keep up with constant action. American football involves discrete plays at super-high intensity and complexity that no one could produce/endure over a whole hour - and it rewards specialists.

The difference between baseball and cricket is roughly the same. Basbeabll is more complex, specialized and intense than cricket - even though there's not much going on most of the time.

Hockey is like soccer - continous relatively uncomplex play action by generalists. And like soccer its a niche spart in the US.

Basktball is a hybrid - continous play, but with complex paterns and set-ups. And the college version, which rewards complex play making is much more popular (going by TV revenues) than the suped-up pro game, which rewards lass skilled play.
6.27.2006 1:21pm
Baseballhead (mail):
Within the last 30 years, Asians have gone from being soccer-indifferent to being possibly the most passionate fans on the planet[...]

Yeah, but we have our sports (baseball, football, basketball), which we've built an entire culture upon, and who does the rest of the world think they are to tell us to chage? Out of Canada's sheer nearness and English-speaking-ness, hockey's managed to establish a ghetto location in the American sporting landscape. Let's be real, though. Americans didn't invent soccer, we don't dominate it, and the popular press don't know enough about to care to cover it as anything other than a second-tier sport.

It's gonna happen eventually. If the mind-numbing sport of left-turn driving can catch fire with the populace, so can soccer. Still, I gotta believe that until a male version of Mia Hamm starts scoring World Cup goals, soccer's going to continue to be a sport that 'they' play.
6.27.2006 1:27pm
Baseballhead (mail):
...and the popular press don't know...

Doesn't know. Hrm.
6.27.2006 1:28pm
KeithK (mail):
Take a deep breath David. Based on his post I'd say that Todd is a soccer fan ("DC United jersey"). He's with ya. The "universal sentiment" he mentions is that games should primarily be decided on skill rather than chance. This seems like a pretty solid statement to me - there are no televised roulette games. The large fan base for World Cup soccer indicates that a lot of people think that the chance/skill balance is fine.
6.27.2006 1:33pm
Michael B (mail):
An acquired taste, but it can be a spectacularly beautiful game to watch. Great stuff, great athleticism, plenty of room for individual excellence as well as stunning team play. In terms of the uneven quality and the part luck can play, sure, but that's true of every sport - as it is of life in general.

Brazil. England has a very marginal chance if they gell and rise to the occasion, but that's not happening.
6.27.2006 1:37pm
Mark Buehner (mail):
Libertarians and market-oriented folks have no excuse. Two billion people cannot be wrong.

Well... from a market point of view I would suggest the bulk of those populations dont exactly have a buffet of sporting options to choose from. If soccer is the only sport your nation competes in at an international level, of course it will be huge. Half a billion Soviet's were reading Pravda, i dont know that that is proof it was a fantastic newspaper.

Whoever said soccer isnt that interesting on television is dead on. Thats' really its only problem aside from not being that interesting to watch live.
6.27.2006 1:42pm
Americans don't like soccer because it is a game for sissy communists.
6.27.2006 2:08pm
Joe7 (mail):
I think your love for Soccer caused you to totally miss Todd's larger point which was that the embrace of any sport is not a rational process. For example, you can trace the popularity of baseball in Japan to the US occupation following WWII. But WHY it became so insanely popular there defies objective analysis.

(In Asia, there seems to be a lose correlation between countries that play cricket and those that embrace soccer. Is it caustive? Who knows?)

In this day and age it really doesn't matter. Between cable and satellite, you can pretty much see any sport you really want to see. If enough people want to see a given sport, the various outlets will even offer pay-per-view packages.
6.27.2006 2:14pm
Londo (mail):
How sure are you that the soccer isn't so internationally popular BECAUSE it's so unpopular in America, and thus, non-American?
6.27.2006 2:23pm
Joe7 (mail):
By the way, I don't believe for a second that the world cup final will have a world wide viewership of 2 billion. The number is probably more about 350 million or so, if that.

(Superbowl fanatics have claimed world wide viewship of 1 billion, but that number has been skewered.)
6.27.2006 2:23pm
It'll be impossible to calculate how many people watch the final; heck if Germany is in it, you'll have 3 - 4 million Germans watching on a handful of screens. They have massive TV's set up ON PONTOONS in the middle of some of the rivers so people can just sit in the park and drink. They do similar things in most soccer-centric countries too, so estimating viewership for a major match is generally futile.
6.27.2006 2:31pm
Jam (mail):
Here in these uS we are suffering an epidemic of ADD. This is why, by and large, games got to have high scores. Never mind that in football a 7-zip score is the equivalent to a single goooooooooooooooooooooooooooool.
6.27.2006 2:37pm
Professor Post's comments are barely worth responding to, but here goes:
(1) Zywicki didn't say that what people like can't change - he just said what they like isn't based on any identifiable reason, such as low scoring. Post's example makes Zywicki's point, it doesn't contradict it. If someone had said 40 years ago that Asians don't like soccer because it is low scoring, they would have been wrong - they didn't like it because culturally, as Zywicki said, "they didn't like it."
(2) The fact that people watch the World Cup doesn't mean that they like the bad parts of it. That's like saying that because so many people watch football here, they must like lousy pass interference calls; or that because people watch baseball here, they like the steroid epidemic. This, one would think, is self-evident.
It seems as if Post didn't realize that (a) Zywicki wasn't disagreeing with anything Post said and (b) seems to be a soccer fan himself.
6.27.2006 2:58pm
Anon1ms (mail):
Let's see, if a game is decided largely by luck, the wining team would be the luckiest. Unless you believe that luck follows a particular team (in which case it may be the residue of skill and hard work), the more luck plays a factor, the more the winning teams will be chosen in a random manner.

And yet that is not the case in soccer. Since 1930, the WC has held 17 championship games, and thus 34 teams playing for the cup. During that period, 20 of those 34 slots have been held by just four national teams -- Brazil (7), Italy &Germany (5) and Argentina (3). In fact, only eleven nations have made it to the championship game in WC history. Hardly sounds like luck is a major factor.

And the way the 2006 WC is progressing, I would think that the teams playing in the championship match will have been there before.

Personally, I hope soccer never becomes a major spectator sport in the USA -- who needs the greedy owners and the soccer equivalents of Daryll Strawberry, Lawrence Phillips or Allen Iverson?
6.27.2006 3:00pm
Steve in CA (mail):
No, the reason Americans don't like soccer is because you can't gamble on it. Damn near every game is decided by one goal, or tied, so how do you set a point spread? I guess you could always just put the over-under at 2.5.
6.27.2006 3:04pm
Joe7: Professional baseball was popular in Japan in the 1930's prior to WWII.
6.27.2006 3:07pm
Steve in CA (mail):
The other reason is, in the words of Chuck Klosterman, soccer is for losers. It's the one game that 6-year-olds can play and not run the risk of screwing up in front of everyone and crying. Only the goalie is in danger of that. Everyone else can run around and chase the ball, and if you miss a shot -- whatever. Nobody makes those.
6.27.2006 3:08pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Americans don't like soccer because it is a game for sissy communists.

Looks like someone’s been reading Jonathan Chait:

Rather than stoking nationalistic resentment against our Canadian neighbors, we should be joining with them to defend our common North American football culture against the rot of international soccer. The World Cup has given rise to yet another surge of pro-soccer propaganda. Like the Communists and the Third World despots of the 1970s, soccer partisans claim to represent the wave of the future and see the United States as the decadent, wheezing past. If this line sounds familiar, it's because we've been hearing it for more than 25 years. Growing up in the '70s, all of us kids played soccer. My brother and I wolfed down bowls of Kix, a sphere-shaped cereal that marketed itself as the breakfast of soccer players. But when we got old enough, everybody started playing football, and by high school soccer was largely relegated to shaggy athletic misfits. Kix, meanwhile, has abandoned its soccer theme. All this demonstrates the great flaw in the sport-of-the-future claim. In most of the United States, soccer is a sport for younger children--who develop foot-eye coordination before hand-eye coordination--who then progress on to other sports. Assuming the sport of the next generation is soccer is akin to assuming the drink of the next generation is apple juice.

Also like the Communists, soccer's fellow travelers routinely smear their opponents as rabid right-wingers. In his pro-soccer screed in this space last week, Franklin Foer called soccer critics "Buchananite." What the soccer elites don't grasp is that Americans, not unreasonably, associate soccer with weakness. In football, the kicker is the smallest, wimpiest player on the field--so presumptively unable to defend himself that there is a special penalty--"roughing the kicker"--to prohibit the other players from harming him. The kicker is like the nearsighted, asthmatic cousin your parents forced you to include in the game: Necessity compels his participation, but he is treated more gingerly than everybody else and is mildly scorned for it. When Americans see soccer, they see a game consisting entirely of kickers. Yes, soccer hatred has a certain socially retrograde element. (My high school football coach would not even deign to utter the word "soccer"--he called it "communist homosexual activity.") But the simple truth is that no football-playing nation has ever lost a war to a soccer-playing nation. Perhaps this is why Foer and his soccer-loving comrades persist in trying to import their system to American shores. He gleefully predicts that soccer will bring about "not the Americanization of the rest of the world, but the reverse." While his football- and freedom-loving countrymen see "Americanization" as the great hope for the world, Foer uses the word as an epithet. Call Franklin Foer, and tell him to stop his negative attacks on the United States of America.

6.27.2006 3:20pm
Shangui (mail):
With, as I noted in a comment to the previous post, the glaring exceptions of the continent's two dominant nations, India and China

Except that China is obsessed with soccer. Yes, the men's team didn't make it to the WC but the discussion here is about the popularity of the sport among FANS, not about participation (lots of US kids play soccer). 10,000 Chinese students rioted at their university last week because the school hadn't yet extended the hours of available power for the exam period and thus they couldn't watch late night WC games. I've lived in China during past WCs and trust me, the level of enthusiasm is greater than overall American enthusiasm for the Superbowl.
6.27.2006 3:33pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Americans don't like soccer because it is a game for sissy communists.
Yeah. It's liked by the same people who use the metric system. 'Nuff said.
6.27.2006 4:03pm
James Kabala (mail):
Baseballhead has it right. How many sports can a person follow passionately at one time? Americans invented three great team sports (well, technically they invented none of them, since baseball and football developed out of English games and basketball was invented in the U.S. by a Canadian, but they are all American-bred at heart). Plus, football and basketball are divided into college and pro ranks; hockey has its niche; there are individual sports like tennis, golf, and (for the few who still care) boxing; there just isn't much room for another sport to take hold of people passionately. We might as well ask why the British, who also invented three great team sports (soccer, cricket, and rugby), don't care about baseball or American football.
6.27.2006 4:17pm
James Kabala (mail):
To show how out of touch I am, I neglected to mention auto racing in my comment above, although it was specifically mentioned by Baseballhead whom I cited.
6.27.2006 4:19pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
Any sport where a score of 3-0 can described as a blowout, is too dull to matter.
6.27.2006 6:04pm
Jam (mail):
Why Lacrosse has not become a bigger sport?

It is a sport invented by "Native Americans," it has lots of rough physical contact, it is a team endeavor, involves a ball, requires lots of running and endurance.
6.27.2006 6:08pm
How can anyone possibly care about any sport other than Ultimate Fighting? I must say, it is terribly brutal but extremely watchable.

If you disagree, we shall meet in the octagon!
6.27.2006 6:33pm
queso (mail):

Personally, I hope soccer never becomes a major spectator sport in the USA -- who needs the greedy owners and the soccer equivalents of Daryll Strawberry, Lawrence Phillips or Allen Iverson?

Let me introduce you to Malcom Glazer and Roman Abramovich, David Beckham, Roberto Carlos, and more...
6.27.2006 6:54pm
I think the "randomness" aspect of soccer has been way overblown. Early-round World Cup games may make it appear that the outcome is random or too subject to the whims of a capricious referee, but when you get down to it, the better team almost always wins in soccer. As pointed out above, the best three or four teams have won almost all of the World Cups.

In domestic leagues, the dominance of the best teams is even greater -- the twelve-or-so years of the English Premier League have seen only four winners, and Blackburn was a one-off. In 2003-04, Arsenal went undefeated for the entire league season. (If anything, soccer can be too predictable in this respect, like baseball.) If soccer really were that random, then the best teams wouldn't do nearly as well.
6.27.2006 6:56pm
Soccer is like golf. A great game to play, a terrible game to watch.
6.27.2006 7:30pm
DonBoy (mail) (www):
No, the reason Americans don't like soccer is because you can't gamble on it. Damn near every game is decided by one goal, or tied, so how do you set a point spread? I guess you could always just put the over-under at 2.5.

In the UK, gambling on soccer is huge. Win, loss and draw are 3 separate outcomes and can be bet like that at various odds, which is how baseball is mostly bet in the USA; since it's low-scoring, you can bet on the exact final score, because there are relatively few reasonable outcomes; and when I lived there, decades ago, they had the football pools, where the idea was to pick, from the several dozen matches on a given Saturday, ten or so that would be a draw. And there is indeed over/under betting, at least on Tradesports. See here for more.
6.27.2006 7:35pm
dw (mail):
It's all the same to me whether soccer becomes popular in the US or not, but there is one feature of European league play that would make American professional sports more exciting. That is the feature that the top league is not closed in membership, but rather each year the bottom 3 or so teams drop down to the next-lower league, and the best 3 or so teams from that league rise to take their places.

I believe that such an innovation is especially needed in the case of Baseball, where a association of "club" owners enjoys a Congressional charter and, with that charter, effective competition is excluded.

As long as we're reforming, the creation of European-style clubs, with teams at every level of play from amateur to top professionals, would create the opportunity to remove intercollegiate athletes from their present status as subjects of what can only be called affirmative action. (And a form of affirmative action with terrible yields in terms of graduation and carreer placement at that).
6.27.2006 8:40pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
Soccer will never make it in the US if the networks have to go 90 minutes without a single commercial.
6.28.2006 7:54am
Aric (www):
I'm a casual sports fan in the US, watching the occasional (American) football and baseball game with friends. A couple of years ago, I visited some friends in Europe during the European Cup finals, and watched a soccer game with them. The one thing that really stood out for me was how watching the game was not a *social* event in the same way that getting together for Monday Night Football is here. Because of the continuous action, and complete lack of breaks, there was very little conversation during the game.

In comparison, while watching football in the US, you have constant breaks to discuss the game, possible strategies, how your kids are doing in school, and so on. While you're watching a soccer game, you can't really do anything *but* watch the game.
6.28.2006 10:13am
Mark M (www):
To the many commenters who have asked why American soccer fans are so annoyingly passionate about converting mainstream America to the cult of soccer, I'd offer my own response: because I want to win.

Soccer is about the only sport that every country really plays. The World Cup is a truly unique event, drawing the best athletes, best resources, and most fan interest in nearly every nation on earth. Winning the Cup is the most prestigious achievement in sports. I look around at the quality of athletes the U.S. produces in all other sports, at the amazing facilities, at the monstrous sponsorship deals, and I think "if only we cared this much about soccer!" I'm not insecure (in this, anyway) or a "sissy communist", I just want to win.

(Oh, and I want to watch soccer on Sportcenter too.)
6.28.2006 3:47pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
Can you imagine if Dr.J, Michael Jordon, Larry Bird, Chipper Jones, Andy Roddick, Tiger Woods etc etc had concentrated on Soccer?
6.28.2006 5:42pm
Grey (mail):
Oh, grow up America.
6.29.2006 12:55am
ALI (mail):
Let me introduce myself, I'm a 14 yr old hispanic girl living in Dallas. And I would like to congratulate you all for having different oppinions, God Bless America!

I like baseball, I like basketball, I Love soccer. I like Mexico (my mom is Mxn), I like El Salvador (My dad is Salvadorian), I Love America.

USA winning World Cup someday... That WILL be an awesome day for many Americans like myself! Talk about the Ultimate Achievement in Sports History.

It could be National Ultimate Sports Achievement Day.
USA Day!!!

6.29.2006 3:16pm