Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
WC: If You Show It, Will They Watch?
2006-06-03 00:44
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I am psyched for the World Cup. Super psyched. Since the last time they had one of these, I've become a huge soccer fan, thanks to the combined might of Fox Soccer Channel and the Winning Eleven video game franchise. I know the names of the good players. I understand how offsides works. (In theory, at least. Like a major league strike zone, officiating practice seems to vary, especially when Juventus is playing.) I sort of get the formations, although for the most part it still looks like they're just running around to me. I do know that when someone says 4-4-2 or 4-3-1-2 that it goes back to front, backs, midfielders, and strikers in that order. But how many of my countrymen here in the fifth-ranked soccer-playing nation in the world feel the same way?

The other night, I was at a bar wearing my Milan Baros Czech Republic jersey and a complete stranger walked up to me and we discussed Wayne Rooney's foot injury for like twenty minutes. This isn't a completely unheard-of occurrence -- last year shortly after Liverpool's European Champions League triumph I ran into a young man in a Michael Owen jersey at Wrigley Field and we whiled away many a happy half-inning trying to remember all the words to "You'll Never Walk Alone" -- but in this case my fellow soccer fan was a genuine old-fashioned unaccented white guy, sturdy Middle American stock. Will this be the tournament that finally wins over the United States to soccer's case? In my unscientific anecdotal experience, it seems as if anticipation for this World Cup is at an all-time high stateside. And it's not because of Team USA's chances for advancement, or lack thereof. The Americans are crammed into Group E, probably the second-toughest four-team pool in the draw, and on the off chance that they can sneak past the Czechs into the knockout stage, they'll be on a collision course to get creamed by Brazil in the round of sixteen. No, I think people are just willing to give soccer a chance again. Good for people!

A lot of the credit for this unusually pro-footie atmosphere has to go to the ESPN family of networks, which is making every effort to leverage its considerable visibility into numerous extra eyes for the 52 Cup games which it will broadcast. If you watch sports on TV at all, you've probably already seen some of the many cool commercials ESPN has produced. The article I'm here linking on CBS SportsLine has some interesting things to say about ESPN's strategy for breaking soccer ratings records and why the American public might be uniquely receptive to the beautiful game at this particular point in posthistory. In a way the network is taking an Olympic approach to soccer. They've given up trying to convince Americans that the game itself is at all interesting and are concentrating on the public spectacle and sociological impact of the tourney. The "experts" say that only something like five percent of the American audience will be enthusiastic soccer fans like me and my buddy from the bar the other night. I'd just as soon that soccer not become something we in the United States only pay attention to at quadrennial intervals like curling, the steeplechase, and the Nordic Combined, but then again, better Americans pay heed to soccer once every four years than not at all.

Another even more interesting aspect to this World Cup is the current political climate. I'm sure no one's really lining up to buy the Iranians drinks (not that they could accept them), but I heard on ESPNews the other day that the American team is the only one travelling through Germany in a bus unmarked with any flags or other national symbols. People are kind of down on the United States these days, you see. I don't know what this says about our national psychology, but for some reason the fact that we all know the rest of the world is kind of sick of us makes us more likely to throw them a bone and pay attention to their silly soccer tournament. I don't know if it's a fair argument for American superiority, but I do have to say that it's much easier to find their game on our televisions than it is to find any of ours on theirs. (Not that it's on topic, but this seems as good a place as any to link to John Hollinger's story about trying to get Canadians to watch basketball. It's item #3 and it's hysterical.)

I just finished an internship and I'm quite deliberately taking a few weeks off before I start applying for a new job so I can gorge myself on soccer. C'mon, Wayne, suck it up. You can't tell me you're less of a man than Raja Bell.

2006-06-03 08:13:13
1.   Bob Timmermann
I think we'll be helped out by having matches on at a respectable hour.

Instead of losing sleep, we'll just be slacking off at work.

I didn't become a fan until 1982 when I was in high school and the World Cup matches from Spain and I saw most matches live, although in Spanish. So not only did I get to watch, I learned a lot more from that than I did in my Spanish classes.

2006-06-03 13:54:56
2.   Sandus
I too am addicted to Winning Eleven. I bought my Zidane national team (FFF) jersey in Paris during the 1998 World Cup.

I'm the guy who stayed up until 4:30 every morning watching the 2002 matches live on Telemundo (I don't speak Spanish).

Will they watch? I hope so. Most of the country's experience with soccer comes at the youth level or, for those with mild interest, MLS (which I liken to the Korean baseball leagues in terms of relative talent and play). But if they watch--and watch all the games, not just the US side--then they'll come around.

There's not a person alive who isn't impressed by a Ronaldinho (or Roberto Carlos or Beckham, etc.) highlight package. So why is it so hard to get people to like the game?

Incidentally, hockey has this same problem (though to a lesser extent in this country). Apparently if people aren't scoring all the time, the game must be boring...

2006-06-03 15:18:21
3.   Bob Timmermann
Hockey has that nice threat of violence to keep some people interested.
2006-06-03 21:10:38
4.   Underbruin
2 - I too enjoy watching the Spanish-language announcers. Since I can usually get a pretty good idea of what's going on from just watching (been a fan since the '94 Cup in the States), I don't really mind not understanding what's being said, and nowhere in the world do you get more enthusiastic proclamations of "GOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL". It's great.

I think a big part of the reason why Americans don't get into soccer isn't just the lower scoring, I think a lot of it has to do with the field itself - it's humongous compared to most other sports (football fields, too, are very large, but the start of every play has almost all 22 players jammed into a tiny portion of that space).

If you think about it, the 3 'big sports' in the States have a significant portion of their action contained in relatively small spaces - in baseball it's the pitcher-batter duel, in basketball you're looking primarily at one half-court, and in football as I noted the plays begin their focus in a tiny portion of the available space. In soccer, the players are so far spread out and I think that's something American audiences don't particularly like (the closest would be baseball, and I'm pretty sure baseball's been declining in viewership for a while now unless I'm mistaken).

2006-06-03 22:23:32
5.   Dan Lucero
I suppose, since you're looking for reasons why people don't embrace soccer, that I, an avowed soccer hater, would chime in.

The reason I loathe soccer is because the game just doesn't happen fast enough. I'll agree with the above sentiment that soccer highlight videos, with star players making ridiculous moves with the ball, are riveting to watch (maybe an And1 Mixtape Soccer tour might be the thing to broaden soccer's audience in the US), but... it's a 90 minute game, and there are maybe 5 or 6 legitimate scoring chances in each. That's WAYYYYYY too much dead time spent kicking the ball around the middle of the field, making seemingly little progress.

It doesn't help that the United States isn't any good at it - even this year's World Cup team, the supposed 'best US team ever', isn't being projected to get out of pool play. What a joke! Until this country's best athletes are trading in basketballs and baseballs for soccer balls, the US will never be a soccer superpower, and therefore there won't be much of a reason to care about the sport state-side. I realize that sounds awfully snobbish, and I don't mean to imply that that's the way I think, but I'm convinced that that's the general view of soccer in the US.

Now, as a sociological and world event, I find the World Cup fascinating, the same way that I appreciate the Olympics. I root for a country like England or Germany to win the thing every year so that the citizens who devote their entire lives to the sport don't kill themselves in agony. It just means more to them.

Oh, and one other thing - the fake injuries are a real turn-off for the game, too. Seriously, what's up with that?

2006-06-04 09:46:26
6.   Ken Arneson
I don't buy the argument that soccer has too much dead time for Americans to appreciate. What percentage of the three hours in a baseball game or a football game is the ball actually in play? Americans are perfectly capable of appreciating a sport with lots of dead time.

I think the real reason soccer isn't popular here is that it isn't popular here. That's a circular argument, but popularity is a circular argument. Sports are social events. You become interested in something because everyone else around you is interested in something.

Network effects are difficult to deliberately make happen. It's a chicken-and-egg problem: once you achieve popularity, it becomes increasingly easy to get even more popular, but how do you achieve that popularity in the first place without being popular already? Malcolm Gladwell touches on that in The Tipping Point, but really, it's a big mystery.

2006-06-04 12:00:25
7.   Underbruin
5 - "It doesn't help that the United States isn't any good at it - even this year's World Cup team, the supposed 'best US team ever', isn't being projected to get out of pool play. What a joke!"

That's an unfair statement. The United States is currently ranked #5 in the world FIFA rankings. Granted, those rankings aren't taken too seriously because the formula used is somewhat nonsensical, but the team is very good. The States got screwed because of the way the Cup is seeded. The USA team has beaten Mexico, what, 7 of the last 9 meetings between the two teams? They advanced further in last year's cup, and have had much more success in the last 4 years of play since 2002's Cup.

However, Mexico received a higher seeding slot and is in one of the easiest groups in the tournament while America got what is in my opinion the toughest group of the tournament (I know, Group C is considered by many, including some guy named Timmermann, tougher, but I think that's because a lot of the world still doesn't give the US team too much credit).

If the USA was in Mexico's current group and Mexico in the USA's slot, not only would they be expected to advance, they would be in good shape to go to at least the Quarterfinals. It's like the NL West a few years back - the Dodgers won over 90 games but finished 3rd, out of the playoffs. They were still a very good team, just stuck in a division with two teams that were better.

I'll give you that the fake injuries are absurd, but that's mostly a European thing (France/Italy, hello?)

2006-06-04 13:16:39
8.   cjrollo
In my opinion, there is some validation to that statement. Historically, the United States soccer team has not been as good as other national teams. This has been one reason why Americans has been hesitant to follow World Cup Soccer.

Americans, as a whole, enjoy being dominant at what they do. They enjoy being the powerhouse in sports.

Look at United States basketball, and the "Dream Teams" of the past. The United States were absolutely dominant in the late 80s and the 90s, and people flocked to their local sports bars to watch. Lately, the American "Dream Teams" have been anything but. The marquee players haven't gone, and the US consequently has struggled. They've lost their powerhouse status due to other teams playing as teams, showing good fundamentals (something that the Americans are not accustomed to seeing, btw). What happened? Ratings went down because Americans expected failure, and we hate failure in sports.

WBC could be another example of this. Besides the horrible concept and bad timing, some great players failed to show up and the US struggled again. The result? Poor ratings again.

Soccer is coming around. The women's victory in 2003 has sparked a small fire in the American sporting world. Will it be enough to ignite a flame in the American's hearts for men's soccer? Probably not. Will a continued advancement in American men's soccer this year be enough for the 2006 World Cup to be considered an American success? Probably not at first, but it may turn more heads with each win. By 2010, 2014 and beyond, more people will get interested. American soccer may continue to get better, and if that's the case, more Americans will watch. Americans love their powerhouses, and if American soccer becomes one, the bandwagoners will follow.

2006-06-04 14:22:36
9.   Ruben F Pineda
I think thats a great point about people in the US love being dominant. And thats too bad, cause a USA dream team bashing of the Oylimpics is not nearly as fun as a miracle on ice david slaying goliath story.

Oh yeah, and as we speak, Winning Eleven is on my TV screen. During baseball season. Amazing.


2006-06-04 21:41:02
10.   Dan Lucero
8 - "Soccer is coming around. The women's victory in 2003 has sparked a small fire in the American sporting world."

Uh, I must have missed the heat eminating from that inferno.

If the argument about soccer's popularity in the US being contingent on the US becoming a soccer superpower, then we are going to wait a LONG, LONG time before soccer is truly popular here. It goes back to the point I made earlier - our best athletes aren't soccer players. They're in the NBA, or NFL, or MLB. Try and think about all the best American athletes - the truly freakish guys out there. I can probably name at least 100 athletes in America who are better athletes then our best soccer player (the skinny white guy, or the skinny black guy? which one's better?).

Now, if we could get the Michael Vicks, Dwyane Wades, and Carl Crawfords of the country to hit the 'pitch' (not those exact guys - just using prototypes of three of the most exceptional athletes in pro sports), then maybe we'd have something in soccer. But that's realistically never going to happen, because kids in the US don't grow up with the game like they do with basketball, football, and baseball.

2006-06-04 22:32:54
11.   Mark T.R. Donohue
10 - "Kids in the US don't grow up with the game like they do with basketball, football, and baseball."

Well, that's not true. TONS of American kids play soccer. I did, and I'm about as naturally athletic as Jon Heder. Sure, there are no soccer idols in the US, so the very best athletes gravitate to the sports where they can make fat stacks of loot, but this is a pretty big country. The challenge for the US soccer program is to keep more of the millions of kids playing soccer in elementary school playing on through high school and college. I believe there are some American soccer academies (much in the style of Dominican baseball academies) dedicated to nurturing embryonic US soccer talent.

But will we care when we win? Sure, the women's World Cup was a great story that captured a lot of eyes...for about a minute. Nobody noticed when the WUSA, the US women's professional league founded in its wake, folded like a tent.

You know, I just don't know why Americans don't like soccer. I don't know why they like "CSI," either.

2006-06-04 22:33:02
12.   Sandus
Name 100 better athletes than DaMarcus Beasley.
2006-06-04 23:45:02
13.   Dan Lucero

Every NBA swingman, MLB outfielder, and NFL wide reciever/running back/cornerback of
American descent.

That ought to come out over 100, right?

2006-06-04 23:47:28
14.   Dan Lucero
OK, maybe exclude Matt Stairs and Jeromy Burnitz. But you get the idea - there are a lot more components to being an athlete than being able to run hard for 90 minutes and having quick feet. Otherwise, Justin Gatlin and Dathan Ritzenhein would be considered America's greatest athletes.
2006-06-05 00:07:00
15.   Sandus
Soccer isn't just about endurance and quick feet. It involves speed, jumping, dexterity, and a lot more toughness than you think.

I think it takes a lot more skill to be a soccer player than to be a cornerback. How does being a cornerback differ all that much from playing defense in soccer, with the except of knocking down a ball every 4-5 passes and sometimes catching it?

Nobody will ever convince me that an NFL player, who sprints for 10 seconds and then relaxes for 40, is a better athlete than a world soccer player.

The fact that you think every soccer player is a skinny guy who runs a lot just shows that you don't know enough about the game to argue.

2006-06-05 02:50:08
16.   Mark T.R. Donohue
I think part of soccer's appeal to me is that the players, give or take a Peter Crouch here and there, look like regular guys -- albeit regular guys in ridiculously good condition with calves like tree trunks. There ought to be enough talented Americans who aren't hugely tall enough to excel at basketball, massive enough to be pro football players, or without the particular combination of skills needed to stand out at throwing or hitting a baseball.

Certainly countries that are better than us at soccer have gifted athletes playing other sports besides, whether hockey, cricket, or (increasingly) basketball. The trouble in the United States isn't that we don't have enough talent to go around. It's just that the level of competition in our pro soccer league and its development system isn't intense enough to breed more than the rare great player. Plus a certain disrespect for American soccer prevents all but the most obviously gifted from hooking on with European clubs.

The better the U.S. does in the World Cup, the closer we get to solving both of these problems.

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