Why Soccer Will Never Catch On in America

Sorry, Bill Simmons, but you’re dead wrong. You had a nice column about the World Cup going, until we get to the money shot (heavily snipped for length and digressions):

When Donovan scored that Cup-saving goal against those spineless playing-for-a-tie-when-they-needed-to-win-by-two-goals Algerians, the moment resonated like no other goal in American soccer history. We didn’t have anyone telling us how we should feel, what the implications were, what the moment meant. We knew what it meant. We wanted more games. We wanted our boys to keep playing. Someone scored. We celebrated. We jumped up and down. We ran around the room. We were alive for another game. For once in a fragmented sports world, we all happened to be rooting for the same thing.

The U.S. soccer team could own that “everyone” domain for the simple reason that it’s unattainable for anyone else. We always want our national soccer team to succeed; it would be un-American to feel differently. There’s continuity through the years when certain players (such as Donovan, Howard and 2010 breakout star Michael Bradley, locks to make the 2014 World Cup) stick around for a prolonged time. There’s always a finish line (the Cup every four years), with dozens of exhibitions, smaller tournaments and World Cup qualifying strewn in between. If you want, you can extend your attachment by following American stars on their club squads. Add everything up and it feels like following the Lakers, Red Sox, Niners or whomever.

A cynic might say, “Come on, you could have said the same thing when we beat Colombia in 1994.” No way. You need time with these things. Decades. You need kids like me to grow up with soccer in their lives. You need a few memories to stack up. You need it to happen organically. The theory that soccer would never catch on until we found our own Pelé or launched our own successful pro league was dead wrong. We only needed to be exposed to great soccer for a prolonged period of time. We’re American. We only respond to the best. The cream of the crop. Nothing else is going to fly.

It’s just easier to care about soccer now. Actually, it’s something of a perfect storm — the technology in place, the flaws of our own professional sports, the efficiency of soccer games, our longing for the pre-JumboTron days when people just cheered and that’s what fans did, our best-of-the-best fetish, ESPN’s unwavering commitment to pushing the sport, the urgency of every game — that makes more sense as a whole than it did 10 years ago.

I would never compare Donovan’s goal to Mike Eruzione’s goal, or compare the significance of an early-round World Cup game to the best American sports night ever. But you can’t tell me Donovan’s goal was a fleeting moment or a lark. Each celebration clip that landed on YouTube could have been any American bar, any group of American friends, anywhere. Like John Cougar Mellencamp’s annoying Chevy commercial sprung to life. Only it wasn’t annoying. I thought it was glorious. Those clips choked me up. Those clips gave me goosebumps. Those clips made me think, “I forget this sometimes, but I’m glad I live in the United States of America.”

1) Simmons, you were much more correct earlier in the column, when you said that every single time the World Cup rolls around, we hear that soccer is finally getting ready to take off in the U.S., but it never happens. That’s still true.

2) There’s always a different reason why soccer is supposedly about to become the new football or baseball: The U.S. finally has a competitive team; all the suburban kids that grew up playing soccer will finally comprise the viewing audience; we can finally watch the quality Euro leagues via satellite, etc. None of these scenarios ever actually come to fruition.

3) The World Cup is a fantastic event. I’m not disputing that. I love it, and I look forward to it, and I wish it occurred more frequently. But once every four years is not enough to build something resembling continuous momentum. Americans’ attention spans are too short. We get into the World Cup during the build-up for a few months preceding the event, then forget about it a few months after it’s over. Then soccer disappears into our collective subconscious for another 44 months or so.

4) The reason for that is simple: the MLS. Americans are too prideful and ignorant as a whole to invest fully in an entirely foreign sports league, so as long as our professional soccer league remains a joke, we won’t take a full-time interest in soccer. Yes, sports packages and satellite dishes and the Internet have made it easier to follow the EPL, but it’s still not easy enough for a significant number of Americans to actually go through with it.

5) Take me as a case in point: I’m probably a lot more likely to follow soccer than your typical American. I played soccer growing up, went to New York Cosmos games, and adore the World Cup. I’m not particularly patriotic, and have no problem in theory following a foreign league filled with foreign players. But I still only watch soccer once every four years. I make occasional passing attempts to learn more about the EPL, but never quite muster up the level of commitment it requires to completely learn a new league, new teams, new players, new rules, and everything else. Admittedly, I’m very lazy, but I’m willing to put some effort into my sports fandom, so if I’m unable and/or unwilling to make the leap, so are a lot of other people.

6) I think Simmons vastly overstates the importance of the Algeria game. Yes, it was exciting. But it was no Miracle on Ice in terms of importance and cultural impact. And even after that, did anyone care all that much about the U.S. Olympic hockey team in the ensuing decade? What did they do in 1984? Anyone? American interest in the World Cup will continue to ebb and flow with the Americans’ chances, and the World Cup as an event may continue to grow here in the States. But soccer as an ongoing concern? Not so much.

7) Our own professional sports leagues are wilting in this shitty economy. Only the NFL has shown itself to be bullet-proof. If Major League Baseball and the NBA are starting to show signs of blood loss, that doesn’t bode well for Americans to become invested in an entirely new (to them) sport. To Americans, fandom = spending money. That’s just the way it is. And we aren’t about to start buying TV packages and jerseys and flights to Liverpool when we can’t even bring ourselves to get out to see our local basketball team.

8) I don’t mean to be a downer on the eve of the World Cup final (go Netherlands!), but we really do hear this ridiculous argument in a new form 2.5 times a decade. It’s time to put it to rest once and for all. The proof will be in the pudding: will soccer be a vastly increased presence on our radar screens for the next four years? I say no. But then in four years, we’ll hear about how it’s all happening at “the grassroots level.”



Filed under Sports Has AIDS, The Dilemma

2 responses to “Why Soccer Will Never Catch On in America

  1. Pingback: Mildly Feverish Pitch « Pop Culture Has AIDS

  2. fepreve

    I think soccer will become a major American sport; however, it will take decades and billions of dollars in investment for it to reach the level of basketball or baseball. Critics often use the fact that the sport hasn’t taken off quickly, or that Americans will only watch soccer every four years as an argument as to why the sport will never take off. I disagree. you have to remember that 20 years ago Americans never thought about soccer, not even during the world cup, and now do care about the world cup and more importantly, we qualify for the world cup (there was a forty year period 1950 to 1990 were we never qualified). This is an undeniable growth accomplishment. The MLS is growing in popularity as well. Ratings for the MLS are up over 80 percent since the world cup and new salary cap rules are allowing foreign superstars to come to America (Henry, Castillo, Nfuko etc.) The MLS has now passed the NHL and NBA in average attendance and the number teams is increasing. I was a person who only watched soccer every four years and this last world cup changed things for me, I will be watching the MLS and the number show I am not alone. The objective reality is that the numbers show that both International American soccer and the MLS are slowly growing and unless you can argue that some negative catalyst will stop this growth from continuing, you have to acknowledge that eventually America will fully embrace soccer as much as it does baseball or basketball, albeit after many decades.

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