Reader Daniel Boyington wrote an interesting email, discussing soccer and the current World Cup fervor. I thought I would share it, and he asked for my thoughts. I gave him some, and I’ll share even more with you. Here are Daniel’s questions:
“WHY NOT SOCCER? I’ve always been just a USA World Cup and Olympic soccer-watching fan. Now I’m sure the success of the USA team so far in Brazil has something to do with this, but I find myself asking this question a lot more lately. Why not soccer? I am like the average American sports fan and mainly only watch football, basketball, and sometimes baseball unless it is a major event or team USA is represented. Yet with every game I watch of this years World Cup, I keep asking myself, ‘Why not soccer?’ I am going to try and play devil’s advocate to every excuse we non-soccer fans have of not wanting to like the sport.
“NOT ENOUGH SCORING. The last time I checked, pitching a no-hitter in baseball is praised and worthy of ESPN breaking in to show it happen live. Also, isn’t the SEC hailed as the best in college football because of the big-boy defense they play that shuts other teams down? Yet in soccer, if no one scores, we say it’s too slow. If each soccer goal was worth seven points, a lot of games would resemble a pro football score. So maybe it’s not the lack of scoring that turns us away. So why not soccer?
“FLOPPING. The art of flailing your body through the air to draw attention to yourself which silently screams ‘HEY! HE FOULED ME!’ Yes, soccer has some of the best floppers in the world and it makes me chuckle every time I see it. This can’t be the reason we don’t watch it through, right? I mean if that were the case, has anyone watched an NBA game lately? I would guess that about at least 70 percent of the time that Russell Westbrook drives the lane into traffic he goes flailing in the air and begging for a foul call. This happens constantly all over the league and I have even seen a viral video of the ‘best flop ever’ that was done by a middle school basketball player. Now, players even shooting 3-pointers are flailing their arms to try and get a foul calls. So for those that don’t watch soccer for flopping, is the NBA becoming more of a turn off to you? So why not soccer?
“DONT USE THEIR HANDS. As Jim Traber says, ‘God gave us these awesome things that can do wonderful things called hands.” So he doesn’t like a sport that doesn’t use them. I could tell you a few games to watch from this World Cup where hands were most definitely used, but especially the USA game vs Portugal when USA goalie Tim Howard made one hell of a save falling backwards using his hand to tip the ball up and out of bounds. It was remarkable to see. If you ever watch some of these professional players dribble down the pitch, you will see that they can do some things with a ball using their feet than most people couldn’t do using their hands. They have such control over the ball it’s amazing. So again I say, why not soccer?
“GAMES END IN TIES. Yes, no one likes a tie, unless a tie sends you to the next round in the World Cup. Which in knockout games and championship games they do not have ties. They have the most exciting overtime there is in all of sports. The shootouts. Ties happened in football all the time in college and sometimes in the NFL until the late ’90s when college football adapted their silly form of overtime. Sometimes in baseball you wish they would end in a tie when they are playing the equivalent of two games straight because a tie can’t be broken. So why not soccer?
“All I know is that the ex-NFL players are suing the NFL because they didn’t know that repeated hits to the head would most likely cause a long term effect. Am I the only one that think that’s as ignorant as the woman who sued McDonalds for her coffee being too hot? Why aren’t ex-boxers not suing the boxing commission for the same thing? Now current NFL players complain about the new safety rules set forth by the NFL which are measures taken so they don’t get sued in the future. In my opinion, professional football is heading down the path of turning into flag football.
“As for the NBA, ever since Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined forces with Shaq and Kobe in LA in an attempt to try and get a ring before they retired (which didn’t work), it seems like a player’s loyalty to a team has taken a backseat to money and a championship. The landscape of NBA teams change as much as conference alignments in college athletics. It seems like the San Antonio Spurs are the last of a dying breed. A team keeping three great players over a long period of time is rare these days. If a player becomes an all-star and cares more about winning now instead of building a franchise or wants to be ‘the man’ in the locker room and on the payroll, then if you are in a small market the chances of that player leaving are high. As a fan, if you are going to buy an all-star’s jersey, your best bet is buying the actual All-Star game jersey because if you buy their team jersey, chances of them wearing a different team jersey within five years are pretty good.
“Major League Baseball has become a game of the past and involves more standing around than a trip to Disney World. No baseball fan can call soccer a slow sport. Seriously, I honestly don’t blame players for taking supplements trying to get bigger so they can hit more home runs. Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds’s home run chases were the only times I really followed baseball. Now I only watch during the World Series, like many.
“I for one am tired of seeing these ridiculous contracts given to athletes which comes from the pockets of fans and a city who the average athlete could care less about except just enough to maintain an image. Maybe it’s time we turn our support to another sport so that the major sports salaries will come down which will in turn bring the ego of the professional athlete all-star down. So why not soccer? Why not support your local farm league soccer club and the professional team it is aligned with so that we can start attracting the best soccer athletes from around the world and so that the USA becomes known as a soccer powerhouse on a yearly basis?”
Interesting questions, all. So I will respond.
1. Why not soccer, in general? The primary reason is that the soccer fervor is completely tied up in nationalism and the flag. Soccer in America is like swimming and gymnastics and figure skating. We care once every four years and get all patriotic. But in the other three years, when no Olympics or World Cup is being staged, we don’t care. We don’t follow Man U. vs. Real Madrid. We don’t follow the World Swimming Championships. We have no idea who was the 2013 women’s gymnastics all-around champion. We need the flag and the anthem the pageantry to get our juices flowing.
2. Not enough scoring: I think that’s largely a bogus claim. Soccer games are mostly exciting enough. If I have a reason to watch, I’ll watch. But I need a reason. Same way I won’t watch Virginia Tech-Pitt play basketball game in January. Who cares? The World Cup makes me care, for political and geographic and sociological reasons (I pull for the African and Central American nations). But without the nationalism, the games don’t matter to me, not because the sport itself is uninteresting, I just don’t care who wins.
3. Flopping. Guilty as charged, on the NBA. But there’s a big difference. If Russell Westbrook draws a shaky foul call, it’s usually a two-point whistle in a game with more than 200 points scored. If some Bolivian fools the refs into a foul call, it could result in a goal in which 1-0 might be the result. So flopping is an NBA annoyance. Flopping is a soccer scandal.
4. No hands. I’ve actually never heard this argument. I think it’s sort of cool to watch soccer players do tricks with their feet.
5. Ties. I’m one of the few people on Earth who don’t mind ties. I think ties would be great in football and I don’t mind them in soccer. The problem with ties in both sports is that when you get to playoffs, you have to have a decent way to break the tie. And while football’s overtimes are problematic, soccer’s eventual tie-breaker is absurd. In the NFL, the coin toss can play too big of a factor. In college, the offense has far too much of an advantage, starting at the 25-yard line. But in soccer, if it goes to a shootout, the game has become bastardized. It would be like ending an NBA game with a foul-shooting contest. Ending a baseball game with a Home Run Derby. Ending the Masters with a putt-off. Shootouts in soccer are not soccer.
As for the prediction that the NFL is headed for flag football status, when pro football loses once out of steam, somebody let me know. I’ve seen no evidence.
Baseball is slow? That’s not news.
As for the stuff about no loyalty, I don’t buy it. Major League Baseball and the NFL have had their greatest parity since the free agency eras began. And while the best parity in NBA history occurred in the ’70s, there was no parity in the ’60s, ’80s and ’90s. Free agency has created more opportunity for other franchises. And as Bill James has pointed out for 30 years, free agency has created the opportunity for loyalty. When you can’t leave a franchise, there is no such thing as loyalty.
So Daniel raises some interesting points. But the NFL, the NBA and baseball have built whatever fan followings they have with legitimate interest. Soccer’s passion in America is wrapped up in the flag. Until it becomes unwrapped, soccer will not be a wide-interest spectator sport.