Friday, June 13, 2014

The Real, Mundane Reasons Why America Isn't Soccer Obsessed

Note: This is an edited version of something I wrote on my old blog that I find to be relevant with World Cup fever upon us.

As an American soccer fan, and a sports follower generally, I've heard this question posed in various permutations every four years: "Why don't Americans like soccer?" Those who ask it often assume that there's some kind of profound truth about America's relationship with the rest of the world revealed in its answer (and ignore the sport's growing popularity.)  I think it's time that we finally stopped asking this tiresome question, because the reasons for the relative lack of soccer fever in the States are actually quite mundane.

Let us start with the obvious yet oft forgotten truth that matters of taste are mostly subjective in nature. There is nothing about soccer that makes it an objectively more or less interesting sport than American football. It's all really a matter of sporting culture and one's expectations built from experience. There is very little soccer culture in the United States, and that which exists is either confined to immigrant groups, hipsterish guys with scarves, or associated with ten year old suburbanites. When the average American sports fan sees the World Cup on TV, it looks foreign, different, difficult to understand, and perhaps, yes, boring. Players dive and simulate injuries, half of the attacks are called offsides, the sounds of horns and chants fill the air, and many games end without any scoring whatsoever. When immersed into soccer culture abroad, though, the vast majority of American sports fans that I know have come home with a love or at least an interest in fubol.

If you think about it, worldwide sports fans raised on soccer would likely have similar feelings when confronted with an NFL game. During its three hour duration, the ball is in play for maybe twenty minutes. A large number of plays are entirely inconsequential: incomplete passes, two yard runs up the middle, false starts, etc. Commercials constantly interrupt the run of play. The number of penalties is steep and the nature of their application perplexingly random. At times it looks so brutal as to be a blood sport. If you haven't been raised, like I was, in a town that showed up every autumn Friday to watch the high school team play, and lived in a state where college football acted as the great social and cultural glue and bordered on religion, American football just might not seem all that exciting.

Despite these differences, there are those around the world who have warmed to American football, and there is a growing number of Americans (including yours truly) who are nuts for soccer. (I should add that I am still a total devotee to baseball.) It's just that when certain sports cultures have established themselves, they tend to dominate. No one seems to comment on the fact that other populous countries aren't even playing in the World Cup: China, Indonesia, India, etc. In many (but not all) of these nations, soccer is less important than other sports. Think of South Asia in particular, where cricket is the dominant team sport.

Furthermore, the popularity of soccer in America will continue to grow, even if it will never eclipse any of the big four team sports of football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. With the advent of satellite TV and expanded cable, Americans can now watch top-level club soccer from around the world. (The MLS, no matter how hard it tries, will never be a showcase for world talent, and thus can never challenge the NBA, NFL, and NHL.) With rising fears (entirely legitimate in nature, I might add) over concussions and other football injuries, more parents will be steering their kids toward soccer. America may never be soccer-mad, but I will bet that the World Cup's popularity will continue to increase. After all, Americans don't normally pay much attention to downhill skiing and competitive swimming, but tune in massively for the Olympics. Like the Olympics, the World Cup is a great escape valve for nationalism.

So I hope we can lay to rest all of the fatuous talk about America's supposedly exceptional rejection of soccer. It really has become quite tiresome. Soccer does not represent some kind of socialist plot, as at least one idiot conservative commentator will say every World Cup year. In fact, it does not represent any kind of "American exceptionalism" whatsoever, unless these same people want to talk of "Indian exceptionalism" as well. If you like soccer, keep enjoying the World Cup, but don't get indignant if your friends and neighbors don't care for it. If you don't like soccer, that's fine, just don't turn your dislike of the sport into some kind of metaphor for American culture or world relations. Most of all, for folks on both sides of the soccer line, please avoid the arrogant belief that your subjective taste in athletics is based on some kind of objectively discernable superiority. It isn't.


Steve said...

If baseball, football, basketball, and soccer were all introduced into American culture today, there's nothing intrinsically "American" about the first three that would make them more popular than soccer

As is often the case, the explanations are history and path dependency.

It's not exactly a page turner, but this book is pretty good about these questions, and pretty interestingly, about the contingency of why American football vs. European football.

An Idiot said...

The Atlantic recently published a piece about the history of the different uses of Football and Soccer between England and America. It's a post WWII phenomenon.

I like your conclusion here. I never really thought about the reason completely and would have settled for an explanation for the lackluster love of soccer as an American rebuff of global culture.

As for the concussions, while you may be right about parents steering their children into soccer to avoid long-term injury, I heard an NPR interview about children's sports that said the likelihood of concussion is almost just as high as in football due to headbutting the soccer ball repeatedly.