Sunday, June 20, 2010
“The only reason soccer isn’t popular in America is...”
Because stadium officials kick out all the hot women? Noooo, not quite. I usually warn soccer haters at this point to find something else to do, but not this time. So grab some coffee as we could be here for a little while. Yes, the oil spill in the Gulf is more important right now, but I need a break from it, and futbol, footie or soccer is it.
The World Cup is that time every four years when non-fans remind fans how much their sport sucks, or at the very least, why they themselves hate it. The bottom line is that the sport just ain’t there yet in the U.S., and seems destined to remain marginalized for years to come.
That’s me the fan saying that after watching the sport for a long time. That’s also me after seeing the gains made on a grassroots level as both high school player and youth coach. While non-fans love yelling “Soccer sucks,” I keep getting caught up in the underlying reasons for why they feel this way.
Rather than turn this into a “Top 10 Reasons to Love Soccer” post however, I thought instead I’d focus on addressing the negative perceptions surrounding the game that are the real problem in terms of its American adoption.
Matt’s tweet up top voices the frustrations many have with the game, and the snippet that follows was something I saw on YouTube. Except, I really don’t think there’s an only though when it comes to explaining the current state of the American game.
I’m not saying those two are aren’t fans of the game, they simply voiced a common refrain I’ve seen a lot. That frustration could just as easily have come from any hardcore fans, and often does. What I’m saying is that in the bigger picture, anyone fervently anti-soccer usually clings to misconceptions about the game that unknowingly underscore many of the same aspects of the sports they do like.
Perception in effect becomes reality with an axiom that goes something like this: I hate soccer because (X) happens, therefore the game will never be popular here.
Not that I care about converting anyone—you’ll no more convince me to like curling—but at least I’m open to understanding the passion fans have for that, um, sport.* But if I were to sell the sport? My elevator pitch to non-fans would simply be that they might find more in common with the sport than they realize, like the time-honored tradition of hating the refs who screw fans, the unique post-goal celebrations, or the purity of a game free of instant replay and timeouts.
What follows uses examples from other sports as one way to describe things to non-fans, so if you already *get* it, nod quietly. Other times I mention things that fans get but which non-fans don’t. Regardless of where you see yourself, where I’m coming out now in general though is that there are three dynamics at work affecting both the hardcore fan and non-fan alike.
1) Knowing the game.
Wherein I address the classic arguments of non-fans. I’m not here to edumacate anyone on all the rules because there ain’t enough time. (Go here for that.)*
“It’s boring.” Said the golf fan. Close-ups in TV replays though show how physical the game is, and how much finesse is involved. Go see a Major League Soccer game live or better yet, a local university game (most still allow you to get real close to the field for free or nominal fee.) You’ll develop a far better feel for it and see what TV really leaves out, seriously. And you’ll save a lot of money.
“Soccer players are pussies.” Said way too many times by everyone. Although I suspect this has more to do with the diving issue by some players than anything. From a performance standpoint though, it doesn’t hold up. You can compare what average soccer players have to deal with to what a defensive back in the NFL goes through at full speed—while covering a wide receiver. The difference is that in soccer, players are actually allowed more contact to push and shove.
Like hoops and hockey, there’s also an ironman aspect to the game, in that, one second you’re on the attack, the next, you’re playing D. That requires insane amounts of conditioning. The full length of a pitch (field) is 100-130 yards long and 50-100 yards wide. (Slightly tighter for international matches.) Sprint this distance repeatedly while fighting off a defender or two, stopping on a dime, then crossing a ball to a teammate. Then repeat.
“Not enough scoring.” Said the hockey and baseball fans. Look, 3-2 isn’t just a final in soccer either. Don’t scores in these sports mean more? Consider the anticipation as teams work forward, looking for the right opening, only to be denied. It’s not a shots on goal thing either, although eventually, if you take 100 shots, the math says some of them are getting past the goalie.
(Not that I’m here to fix the game, but if this was just a scoring thing that was the only problem, the first thing I would do away with would be the offside rule. You’d likely see scores in double figures and far more shots on goal taken.)
The reason the low-scores in hockey are tolerated anyway is the fights. Plus, those bitches are on skates! *Everyone* looks fast... on ice.
“Too many dives.” You mean like Paul Gasol, who never flops to sell an offensive charge? Or the touch fouls Kobe always pleads for? You don’t think there’s holding on every single play in the NFL? At the risk of opening a can of worms on the subject of refs, in any sport, a foul is what the ref calls that day, and soccer is far from being alone in this regard.
Even though I don’t buy into the idea that you get beat by the referees, the number of refs in soccer per match is a big problem in terms of what they can see on the field at any one time. There’s one ref on the field, two assistant refs on the sideline (the linesman on each side), and a fourth handling miscellaneous duties acting as an extra pair of eyes. A fifth backs up the fourth, and even two additional refs are being looked at for future matches.)
Until then, the current system is not enough though, leading to frustration for fans. Imagine the NFL only had one ref on the field—a field 25% smaller than a soccer pitch—with just the down marker guy on either side to spot when a ball goes out. This leads to poor vantage points exploited by players committing fouls on the ref’s blind side. Trust. A Brazilian coaching friend showed me some of the finer points on making a ball hit with the hand look like a header, from the right angle of course. Hand of God is real, I believe now!
While instant replay reveals those missed infractions though, FIFA, the governing body of soccer around the world, has voted down any use of it for fear of ruining the game. The use of which is also a debate now raging on in the U.S. to varying degrees with every sport.
“It’s a bunch of ants running around.” That’s only because TV has to cover the game better. Hockey has just as many wide shots, but because of the scale of a soccer pitch, wide shots make everything appear smaller. Unlike the majority of the live action, replays are shown in close-up, and it’s there you see a lot more going on in great detail. Yes, even the dives.
In hockey, the size of the rink compresses the action into a smaller visual space. Or take baseball. Arguably, there’s less action, but the camera is almost always in close-up mode on a pitcher, batter or fielder. Take your pick; you just always seem to feel close to the play though.
The way all sports used to be covered way back was mostly single camera or two locked down, and then only with a long or wide shot. While today’s audience might not need that to be relevant for them to appreciate soccer, again, the sport has historically been covered the same way which unfortunately reinforces stereotypes. This speaks to the habits we develop as fans, but more on that later.
2) How the U.S. plays the game as a nation.
How the U.S. Soccer Men’s and Women’s National Teams play the game in international competition is separate from the approach needed to build the game on a grassroots level here. The non-soccer fan though almost always uses the performance of the national team to justify why they hate the game itself. (To go back to a curling *hypothetical* here, that would be like me hating the sport if Canada had never won an Olympic medal in it.)
We are average at best. By now, the U.S. has already played two out of their first three matches in the first round. When you watch them play, it’s clear they haven’t come together cohesively. I’m being kind when I say they are frustratingly inconsistent, playing inspired ball sometimes and at others, no better than a high school team.
A lot of this has to do with how fragmented the schedules of individual players are as well as the numerous shifts in lineups. When they aren’t playing in MLS here, they play in various leagues overseas with different clubs. While that can make better individual players, it sucks for developing team unity.
(This would hurt the bank accounts of both the MLS and those players in clubs overseas, but I believe the best thing for the sport here would be to take our top players out of MLS and have them play together in the same line-up internationally non-stop for a few years, instead of the musical chair approach we seem to love.)
When the U.S. faltered a few years ago in the Olympics with the second coming of the Dream Team, their mistake was thinking they could just use any combination of superstars and the chemistry would just be there. I don’t care what sport it is, three weeks is not enough for any team to come together.
As for style of play, we don’t play the game creatively the way other countries do. Not. Even. Close. We’re very rigid and formulaic, often failing to attack in numbers or pressure teams nearly enough. Our offensive style has always lacked the fluidity seen in the rest of the world. When you watch Brazil or Italy, you see the equivalent of an alley-oop or no-look pass on almost every other play with players coming in from different angles. I love this country, no doubt, but when it comes to soccer...
Brazil is Miles Davis and we are Huey Lewis & The News.
At the risk of undermining my point about there being no connection between international play and the local level, this becomes key because I start to ask: Is how we play the game as kids hindering how we ultimately play the game on the international stage?
To that point, I discussed this once with coach Brazil and he had an interesting perspective. His feeling was that the U.S. focuses too much on young players learning specific moves too early in their development, when in Brazil, the kids are encouraged to spend a few years simply playing the game, free from any pressure to learn fancy moves. Only later do they start to incorporate advanced techniques into their training.
I sense this pressure with youth sports in general, having see many players experience burnout because the fun had been coached out of the game for them. At some point, sports in school really does stop being about fun, but maybe putting off the inevitable *training* until a little later may help keep that burnout in check.
As for formations, all sports have them–we just don’t do anything imaginative with ours.
Think the NFL and the offensive coordinator running the same boring plays all the time. Our style of play depends on set plays like corner and free kicks too much for scoring opportunities. Back to the NFL: Imagine your game plan to get points relied mostly on field goals, and you get a sense of the problem.
3) Cultural issues.
Aka, a few observations on why it hasn’t become woven into the fabric of American culture the way other sports have. If you want, you can also call them societal issues too.
TV. I don’t mean how networks actually cover the game, but in the bigger sense how TV is aligned with sports in general. The major sports outside of soccer seemed to have *gotten there* first in terms of who would grab the lion’s share of TV coverage—and they did it as established sports leagues.
You don’t launch any sport without first considering TV options.
It took soccer a long time to organize on a professional level in the U.S., and when it finally did, the other sports had already been up and running for decades. Even now, it’s still trying to fight for its share of a mainstream TV schedule, because there’s only so much of it to go around. Yes, there are now more ways to get your soccer fix. That’s not the point.
All the major sports came into their own on TV before cable and the Fox Soccer Nets of the world came into the picture. All you had then as a viewer was what the networks let you see, and football, basketball or baseball was it. (I remember seeing far more tennis on TV than soccer.) Hockey alone barely got any respect in its TV infancy. Given that, there was simply no way the network heads were going to give a marginal sport like soccer the time of day.
They want the tried and true to be able to sell to advertisers, and soccer wasn’t it.
This is important, because if we’re talking about the generational aspects of how our love for something is fostered so that it grows culturally, then generations of Americans were conditioned into viewing habits focused on certain sports while not being exposed to others.
The clip above, while probably not the best spoof I’ve seen on the sport out there, does highlight the “ants marching” factor in terms of how TV covers things. You see how so many different sports leagues already emulate this model of flashy graphics, quick-edits and kid-friendly merchandise. That doesn’t guarantee success though.
True fans will take close-up action over flashy graphics, but I really believe non-fans need something more. Addressing the *Ant* problem is a start.
It’s a hand-eye thing. Basically, the reason for this post was another comment I saw that suggested Americans don’t like the sport because we can’t use our hands. More I thought about it, I really couldn’t poke holes in that theory. Much as I said initially that there isn’t one reason for soccer’s problems, I’d now go with this one if I had to. Taking it one step further, I’d say it has to do with sports we love all requiring a certain hand-eye coordination to participate in while soccer is, well, foot-eye, something that isn’t nearly as easy to master.
No other sport has the inherent dynamic of requiring precision footwork while sprinting and trying to control a ball with the feet—and without looking.
Is it any reason then that people wouldn’t want to adopt a sport so hard to learn? (Oh yeah, golf. I forgot.) My other unproven scientific theory in this regard? The America’s focus on industrial growth during the mid to late 19th/early 20th century meant people identified more easily with sports that involved their hands, namely football, baseball, basketball and golf.
In other words, I don’t have to be great at baseball or basketball to be able to play it, because at least I have control over the ball with my hands.
Pride. When you grow up following a certain team in a certain sport, it informs your loyalties and feelings about the country. Don’t you feel a certain pride in knowing our best can beat anyone’s best in baseball or hoops or whatever sport? When it comes to soccer, we don’t have that confidence yet as a country, even though new generations coming to the sport believe we belong.
Hardcore fans in any sport tend to shout how they’re team is WORLD CHAMPION—RAH! Certainly that’s how we sell any team that wins a championship. But soccer is that one sport where you actually play against... the world.
Why would you not want a chance to prove your country’s as good as any other?
Family. How kids experience the game and are exposed to it by their parents is very important. Dads in this country need to pick up a soccer ball and play with their kids the way their dads used to play catch with them. Then, the sport will have arrived on a grassroots level. Kids in other countries are spending time with the ball before they can walk. How?
By being immersed in an overall culture that includes family, friends and TV.
Relative to this, there’s something I’ve noticed that comes into play. At the risk of offending Soccer Mom Nation, I’ve never seen them explain the nuances of the sport to their son or daughter while at a game. What I’ve seen at all levels (youth up to pros) are moms more intent on socializing with friends and catching up on the week’s calendar of events instead of watching the action on the field.
That’s not a veiled agenda I have against soccer moms, but against the mindset of sport as just another activity to sign a kid up for. At a baseball game, (minors or majors), watch the number of dads who point out the game to their kids, educating them yes, but also providing a curiosity for them as well.
Can the current generation of soccer players be that group educating their kids? They need to be.
Too many choices. This generation now playing the game has way too many entertainment choices in terms of sports, video games or the net. A mom who has to rush their kids from one sport to the next across town, arguably doing a thankless job, only feeds the problem. Instilling a love for something in someone has to go beyond viewing it as just a chore. In describing the English game, a coach from the U.K. once told me how kids play soccer there because they mostly have no other options. A pitch is where they make it, whenever they can, and they play every day.
Advertising and promotion. The only approach I see seems to be selling the game to hardcore fans while forgetting the rest. Nike has done some amazingly gorgeous work in this regard. At least in advertising anyway. Given everything I see as the problem with the game itself, I’m not sure this approach addresses those core issues anymore.
Advertising surrounding the game has sold the sport through international eyes to American audiences and its various demos of differing national origins.
I don’t know how you do that though and also promote the idea of *America* at the root level.
For its part, MLS reinforces the situation by seeking out international talent under the guise that it only helps the American game. They also sell the game the way all leagues do: get famous names and throw money their way. They do this by recruiting once-great players from international ranks looking to finish up careers for an audience that doesn’t know better.
Yes, any sport needs superstars and characters. But history is full of start-up leagues trying to compete with existing ones by signing talent that either doesn’t pan out, or the league even folds. (People cringed when David Beckham was signed, but Pele wrote the book on athletes carrying a league by themselves with the North American Soccer League.)
There are other things I can point to in explaining the state of soccer, but after all this, I’m not sure it can overcome everything it has stacked against it to be anything more than a marginal sport.
Not when compared to football, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, NASCAR, bowling...
*Okay, well, there is one thing I want non-fans to get right: it’s offside, not, offsides. (Meaning a player “off” their side.) It’s also one of the most maddening rules of the game for fans because much of it is left open to interpretation, yet it determines the outcomes of a LOT of games.