06 July 2010

Why Americans Like to Play Soccer, But Don’t Watch It

Because the World Cup games have been going on for a few weeks, I’ve heard a lot of derogatory things said about soccer in “water cooler” conversations at work and on the radio. I’ve heard soccer called boring and stupid, devoid of strategy, inferior to other sports, and I have even heard it called a game for the ignorant and poor (this last by a conservative talk radio host who infuriates me with his knee-jerk hostility to illegal immigrants). A recent article in the Wall Street Journal pointed to some evidence that the game is downright unfair, with the low-scoring outcomes governed more by poor officiating and the “Hand of God” than by the great skill of athletes.

I am certainly not going to step into that debate. I personally do not care to watch soccer; I think it is fun to play and boring to watch. However, the sports that a person likes--if he likes sports at all--is a very personal thing. I wouldn’t criticize a fan for liking any sport, not even golf. My love of baseball and hockey, for instance, runs very deep and has roots in childhood memories. And of course, it is a well-known and uncontroversial fact that all sports, with the possible exception of baseball, would be better if they were hockey.[Note 1.]

I would not have found the topic to be blog-worthy at all if I had not heard one fascinating comment on my favorite sports radio show. A group was discussing possible reasons why kids play soccer when they are young but do not go on to be fans of the sport when they grow up. For twenty or thirty years, the game has been ubiquitous in extracurricular sports programs for elementary school kids--it gave rise to the “soccer mom” and the mini-van--but this fact has not been translated to revenue in televised sports. Despite several attempts to popularize it, Americans simply don’t care for soccer compared to football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. Lots of reasons for this were suggested; for instance, perhaps parents push their kids into soccer because it seems safer than alternatives like football and hockey, but the kids themselves prefer those other sports when they get older. Among the several ideas put forth, one stood out starkly. A commentator (I believe it was former NFL linebacker Steve DeOssie, but my apologies to the actual speaker if I got it wrong) offered this: Maybe Americans don’t like soccer because it is so low scoring--and Americans admire, above all things, productivity.

This is a stunningly philosophical comment, particularly coming from a bunch of guys jawing away about sports. Whether it is substantially true about soccer or not is not even terribly important. What I love is the recognition that achievement is linked to productivity--and in sports, what you produce in order to win is points, runs, and goals. It is an amazingly sharp observation that Mr. DeOssie is making here: Americans like high-scoring games because Americans like to produce.

I don’t want to push the idea too far--it’s just sport, after all. Obviously, scoring is only one facet of most sports; good defenses often win championships in football and hockey, and true students of baseball recognize that pitching, not hitting, is what wins, especially in the playoffs. Also, occasionally baseball and hockey games can be low-scoring affairs. But it is hardly surprising that American audiences would be indifferent to a 0 - 0 stalemate between Portugal and Brazil, no matter how important that game is to those teams.

I am aware that I am forcing a comparison here, but there is something fitting about the goal-starved futility of an international soccer match; the dreary, perpetual impotence of midfield play reflects the gray, welfare-state mentality that is lauded by the rest of the world. In my ignorance of soccer’s finer points, I am tempted to draw a parallel between the game and the continents that love it: on the one hand, the fruitless repetition of passes and turnovers--athletes, numbered and anonymous, exhausting themselves to move a ball back and forth, up and down, with no ultimate gain; on the other, the endless labor of interchangeable drones, toiling in socialist and egalitarian states, meekly accepting instructions and their allotted wages. This comparison is no doubt unfair to the game precisely because it is so true of the worlds’ governments.

image from EA Sports Forums

Americans may have become quite European on the surface, but deep down, the passive lack of productivity in the typical soccer match grinds the American soul. Americans want goals. We want to see our heroes score. Above I wrote that pitching wins in baseball, and it does--but when the highlights are shown, which clips make the news? It is generally the home runs and the clutch hits that inspire: Youkilis putting one over the Green Monster or Jeter stroking a walkoff single. We want to see Crosby and Ovechkin find the back of the net after burning a defenseman with magical stick-handling. We want Ray Allen to knock down the three-pointer, and we recall in awe those times Michael soared through the air before a dunk, as if he were flying. We even put up with the antics and laziness of Manny Ramirez . . . as long as he knocks in runs.

Whether or not he understood the full depth of his point, Mr. DeOssie has touched upon something important in recognizing that Americans value productivity. The next time I see Tom Brady or Peyton Manning march downfield to put up six points, I will not only admire their skill and poise as I always do, but will remember how very, very American they really are.


1. Even though I pretty much agree with the universal superiority of hockey, I am obviously kidding about this being an objective fact. And I apologize to golf fans for my gratuitous slap at their sport!


Dawn said...

Well, for me, soccer beats auto racing. ;)

Roberto Brian Sarrionandia said...

I think there is something epistemologically wrong here.

The number of points in a game is drawn at a certain conceptual level, because any objective can be broken into smaller and smaller sub-objectives.

If it is the actual number that that clashes with the virtue of productivity, then we could just find a sport which puts its official measure of victory on a higher conceptual level still, and say it would be unpalatable to Americans.

A game of soccer might involve one or 0 goals, but that involves multiple sub-tasks (controlling the game, defending, strategy, etc.)

Similarly, an entrepreneur can't be said to be unproductive because he only produced one or two businesses. The important question is, what was involved in producing these businesses? If it involved making billions of dollars, then he was more productive than a man who made 200 businesses. It seems that similarly, it would be outright irrational to suggest that because the officially recognised measure of a sport results in smaller comparison-figures (scores), that its players are not productive.

When we talk of a stalemate, we don't really mean that nobody is doing anything, we mean there are two enormous productive energies contesting.

Of course, I don't think for a minute you were saying that, but I believe you were saying that it may nonetheless resonate on some level with the virtue of productivity. I disagree with this too, would it not imply that if we took one goal to represent 100 points, the game would become more palatable to a productive populace? This doesn't seem to be much of a compliment to that populace (That they are unable to recognise how wider concepts are integrated from smaller ones).

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Roberto. I agree with your points.

In the article, I did try to emphasize that I was stretching to make a connection that is forced and artificial. I'm not interested in criticizing soccer for being low-scoring or for any other reason. Mostly, I am fascinated that a bunch of sports radio guys would put their finger on the fact that Americans like productivity. I am accustomed to Objectivists using such terms, but I don't often hear ex-NFL linebackers speak that way!

Anonymous said...

My dislike of soccer is not so much with the game itself. If in the NFL touchdowns only got 1 point and field-goals only a half of a point, I don't think the final tallies would be that different than soccer.

My dislike of soccer has to do with two points:

1) The Left (in America and internationally) is trying to shove the game down the throats of Americans in an attempt to undermine American exceptionalism. I get the impression that many Leftists are using soccer to say "see Europe has soccer, socialism, hate speech laws, and environmentalism and we should too." Its as if they don't want America to stand out and be distinct with its own sports. The Left's goal is one-world global socialism. Soccer fits that model.

2) Soccer seems to me to foster Nationalism. Soccer hooliganism is well documented and it includes racist and nationalist sentiments. In America, people may root for local teams but the sports are not in any way Nationalist. So, say I am from Uruguay and my country is a socialist cesspool but I love my soccer team because why? Well, I am from Uruguay.

I am actually proud that Americans have rejected soccer. I hope they continue.


Stephen Bourque said...

Dawn, I would have to think for a while to choose between soccer or auto racing! I am definitely more suited for long conversations about baseball! :)

I think both soccer and racing share the same characteristic: being much more fun to do than to watch.

HaynesBE said...

I think that Americans do like productivity. They want results---positive results--which is perhaps in part why we have been so slow to accept socialized medicine. Appointments and results come much slower in government-run health care. We want our access and treatment now---so we can get on to other things. Europeans (and perhaps Canadians) are more willing to accept waiting periods, less choice, less immediate results.
Just thinking.
Interesting post. Thanks.

V. Igra said...

Similarly, an entrepreneur can't be said to be unproductive because he only produced one or two businesses. The important question is, what was involved in producing these businesses? If it involved making billions of dollars, then he was more productive than a man who made 200 businesses. It seems that similarly, it would be outright irrational to suggest that because the officially recognised measure of a sport results in smaller comparison-figures (scores), that its players are not productive.

C. August said...

I've been thinking about this for the past couple of days, and while I think you may be onto something interesting re: the productivity argument, I think there may be other more prominent factors at play.

1) There are already 3 main team sports that take up most of the sports fan's year -- football, basketball, and baseball -- and one minor sport that sweeps up the leftovers from the others: hockey.

2) It's widely recognized that US pro soccer is sub-par compared to the English and European leagues. Why watch sub-par sports? And why watch euro leagues, when the time difference alone makes it a pain in the neck?

3) The game is sloowwww. All other major team sports popular in the US are much quicker. Granted, there is a lot of down time in football, but once the ball is snapped it's like an explosion. What about baseball, though?

4) Baseball is also slow, but its popularity may be explained by the fact that it is an American game by invention and (mostly) by practice. Apple pie, baseball, and Nascar. Soccer is an international sport. We didn't invent it, and while we're willing to play it as kids, we simply don't want to have our sports-watching loyalties internationalized.

All of the 3 main popular sports are American inventions. The 4th and more minor sport, hockey, is identified as the Canadian national pastime, but since we're so close culturally and geographically, there is some spillover into the states. Soccer, on the other hand, is European. We don't watch rugby here -- we have football -- nor cricket -- we have baseball -- but because we haven't invented the Americanized soccer equivalent, soccer has gained a bit of popularity. But only a bit.

I guess I'm saying that there may be something to Madmax's argument, though I don't think soccer is a leftist conspiracy. Soccer, as an international sport, does foster nationalism. Rugby and cricket do the same. We have nothing like that here because all the sports we watch are self-contained within the US (plus some spillover to Canada). We simply have no outlet for nationalistic hooliganism because none of our favorite teams, players, or sports play on the international stage. We don’t need such a stage. The American stage is much loftier and more important, and we have no need to aspire to anything higher. (I see the Olympics as a special case here, and same goes for the World Cup. To speak about regular sports fans, we should speak about yearly leagues.)

Now to the game of soccer itself. You described it as a game of perpetual impotence, bogged down in a midfield where nothing happens. (I know you were stretching the analogy for effect) While play can be slow in the midfield, the strategy of soccer compared to hockey is remarkably similar. It's just the size of the field playing surfaces that marks the main difference between them. And hockey and soccer are equally low scoring. However, I must also acknowledge that the quickness of hockey is a major selling point, and the violence and toughness of the players is too. Seeing phantom whiffs cause a soccer player to roll on the ground in fake-agony is infuriating. (Note that basketball is taking on this quality and suffers greatly for it.)

In the end, even though I played it for years (at least 10 years) growing up, and considered it my favorite of the sports I played, I don’t watch soccer now. The World Cup is interesting, but it easily satisfies my thirst for the game. In fact, I don’t watch sports much at all until games get to the playoffs, except for football where I follow everything that happens in the league and will watch any game that’s on at any time. So the fact that I don’t watch soccer says little or nothing about the game itself.

Thanks for an interesting post! It was fun to examine it this way. And I agree with you about hearing DeOssie say that about productivity. Funny how an incongruity like that can make you look at something in an entirely new light.

Holden F. Gear said...

I have from time to time voiced an opinion why soccer does not appeal to Americans and, although I did not previously think of it this way, it is in general agreement with SB's main theme about productivity. Americans want their sports heroes to demonstrate dexterity, cleverness, and practiced execution WITH THEIR HANDS. To set a rule that a player cannot use his hands is un-American for many of the reasons discussed in SB's article.

In defense of NASCAR against some of the commentaries, I'll contend that next to skillful hands, Americans have a visceral attraction to precisely machined metal parts that turn really fast and make ear-splitting noise.

Interesting topic!

Anonymous said...

First I will say that I actually enjoyed reading this blog, even though my heart lays with the game of soccer. It is nice to hear one's opinion without useless name calling and degradation. So for that, I applaud you.
I will however respectfully disagree. I have seen comments many times that mirror what you said and quoted in your blog: that soccer is boring, Americans hate it, and it's too low-scoring. I can even agree with the low scoring part. However, it is different growing up with a game and seeing your father play the game, or playing it with your brothers and sisters in the yard. Forgive me for saying this, but soccer has its great spots and its weak spots like any other sport. For instance, some might say that baseball is boring because you have to sit and wait for someone to get a hit, and this might be infuriating to the average baseball fan because they know the finer points of the game, and now how challenging it is and how amazing it is to hit a home run, or pitch a no hitter.
The same goes for soccer. While it may be boring to some, to those who feel it in their hearts and have it in their blood, they know how difficult it is to pass that ball 120yds down a field and through 11 players to score. It is the challenge that is the passion. I can understand how much of America feels, but regardless of what many think, the sport is growing here in America. And I noticed one person who posted a comment here said we are trying to "shove it down peoples throats"...in no way is this true. Just like with any passion in life, whatever that may be, one must feel free to try to explain to others just how much joy that activity brings in YOUR life.
As a lifelong soccer fan, I can honestly say that whatever sport you play is fine with me as long as it brings you joy. Football(soccer) is my joy, and will always be so.
I enjoyed your blog.

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the good comments, Anonymous!

Anonymous said...

As Americans, we seem to prefer discrete time sports to continuous time sports. Baseball is made up of 9 innings and 3 outs per side. Football has a clock, but it is broken up by discrete plays. Basketball is less discrete, than football and baseball, but it has a large number of discrete possessions, with one team attacking one net, followed by the other team attacking the other net. Hockey, which is less popular than the 3 above is much more continous in nature, although icing, offsides, and penalties tend to break up the game a bit more than soccer. Soccer is much more on the continous time spectrum, with very little stopage. Minor penalties are quickly dealt with by a free kick. Red/yellow cards, injuries, and goals stop the action, but those are much less frequent than penalties in hockey. Like basketball, there is much ebb and flow in the game in the midfield that you don't see in other sports.