Steve Gilliard points to the latest in the saga of Malcom Glazer’s attempts to buy Manchester United. Attempts nothing – he’s already got control of the club and everyone is scared to death about what he might do, though I think some astute folks posting comments got it right saying MU dug their own grave by going public in the first place. But in reading the comment section of Steve’s post and the usual ‘I hate soccer, football all the way, etc.’, it got me motivated to write about something that’s been nagging at me for a while.
When people talk about why soccer has such a dismal following in the United States, you always hear how its the ‘lack of scoring’ and ‘its boring’. For a time I thought that made sense. But how do you explain the popularity of baseball, or golf for that matter? I know this will earn me scorn, but baseball is BORING. My god – pitch, throw back, pitch swing, miss, throw back, pitch, HIT, fly ball. But people love it. Same thing for golf – they spend 70% of the time walking, 25% of the time eyeing the shot, and 5% actually doing something. I’m not belittling the game or players – its an impossible game and the tension that builds from the time the club hits the ball to when it stops on the grass can be interesting. I don’t play golf because I’d wrap my clubs around the nearest tree within an hour. But its still not something many people would say is ‘exciting’ … on TV. So why do people flock to watch them live and on TV?
There is no denying that going to a ballgame or watching a golf tournament in person chasing your chosen group around the course is fun. So people go, and go again. Teams setup in various towns and the locals support the team out of pride and loyalty. I live in North Carolina and we ridiculed the Whalers when they moved to Raleigh and became the Hurricanes. Smack in the middle of tobacco road where the Tar Heels and Blue Devils play. That’s stiff competition – but they attracted fans and had the NHL not imploded, the fan base likely would have grown. People can’t appreciate what they don’t know. Ask someone down south a few years ago if they liked hockey and you’d get a blank stare like ‘huh?’ Now, while not wildly popular, people down here KNOW about hockey and over time some people who grew up here (vs folks who moved here from hockey towns) have grown to like it as full fledged fans. So I really don’t buy the ‘its boring’ argument or the lack of scoring arguement. Soccer is exciting if you watch it and learn it. I always thought golf was boring until I went to see it in person – and I had a lot of fun (but still can’t bring myself to watch it on TV ) It just seems the usual excuses given by our press don’t make sense.
So why does soccer, an exciting sport with non stop action, have such a dismal history in the US? Why can’t it attract fans and thrive here? Especially given how wildly popular youth soccer is. I’ve been to youth games of all sorts and the tension and excitement level of the parents and spectators at soccer games is noticably higher than in other youth sports. They are the most intense and loudest, it seems, because the game hardly ever stops. Its non stop action. So why doesn’t this translate into fans at the higher levels?
Maybe because people don’t KNOW the real game. Except when the US hosted and participated in the World Cup, the only time you saw soccer on TV was on the evening news when some English hooligans rampaged and caused problems. The US press corp would talk down their noses about the ruffians and that was that. Funny how they never seemed to react the same way when a US city went up in flames after their team won the championship (Detroit, etc). Most stories in the US press are ‘Why Soccer Won’t Be Popular‘, etc.
But TV in the US has never really SHOWN soccer. The World Cup sparked an interest that was undeniable and you could watch a few games on TV. But the pro leagues that followed may have jumped the gun (and some like the WUSA woman’s league, made bad financial choices). But the MLS is expanding now and their matches are regularly on an ESPN channel. People think they are insane, but I don’t. I think its a sign of the times. Why? Because Americans are stumbling across soccer more and more each day. Years ago, there weren’t enough TV channels to show anything that came along. But digital cable and satellite have changed that. As a DISH subscriber, I’ve been happily surprised to see how much soccer has shown up in my listing. Between FOX Sports Net, The FOX Soccer Channel, GOLtv, and others, you can pretty much watch a soccer match anytime, and usually its live. And the commentary is in English, even for league matches from Latin America and elsewhere. Sure, you say, those are there for the immigrant population who want to watch it. Perhaps. But to me, this comment in Steve’s comment section says it all:
I’m 62, and love the NFL and NBA and always hated soccer until FSC. Now I watch the Premier League every day while I use my treadmill, follow the teams on the internet and own Chelsea and Arsenal jersies.
It took me some time to get used to the pace of the game. Americans love "scoring" and the relative difficulty of scoring means little as long as there’s plenty of it. A 6-3 NFL game is considered terrible in this country.
I knew I had become a real soccer fan when I watched the entire match between Chelsea and Arsenal. It ended in a 0-0 draw and was exciting as hell from start to finish.
Its hard to argue with that. Even sites like SoccerNet, now part of ESPN, seem to have a bigger and bigger section devoted to the US. They even have content on NCAA and High School Soccer.
So the pundits can all go on an on about how soccer will never be as popular as the US pro sports. And they probably are right. But it IS gaining in a quiet revolution. One being waged in den’s across America. People are finding out that the stuff on FSC is very exciting, even if the score is tied 0-0. So while it may never reach the heights of the NFL, I can see a time when the MLS or some other professional soccer enterprise starts to gain a footing in cities across America. After all – my kids ask me all the time to tune in to Premiership matches. If they grow up watching it – and I know there are others like them – how can it not become a ‘norm’ when they grow up?
UPDATE: Interesting – the Man U story made CNN’s website front page for a time. And CNN Money has an interesting article with some surprising stats on the popularity of Manchester United in the US. Very interesting.