I am almost 60 years old. When I was young, there were no soccer teams in our schools and just the beginnings of professional soccer in the United States. Living for periods of time in Italy and Germany I have learned to enjoy soccer. Watching the enthusiasm for the USWNT makes me reflect on soccer's growth since my childhood, and the paths or problems that remain.
Aristotle tells us to analyze problems by breaking them down into parts. In the case of soccer I think there are two completely separate issues that are often conflated.
1. Recruiting the traditional sports fan, who is an 18-40 year old male.
2. Keeping the interest of the millions of young girls who play soccer and watch the big tournaments, but do not become paying spectators when they grow up.
1. The traditional sports fan.
The four main sports in the United States used to be (according to The Sporting News) football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. How did they get there? In "Baseball in the Garden of Eden" John Thorn says there are three important issues to solve for any sport in becoming a national sport: gambling, statistics, and publicity. Gambling shows that adults take the sport seriously, statistics give people something to talk about. Let's look at reasons why the traditional sports fan is still not really on board with soccer, despite growth in interest.
A non-exclusive list of reasons why the traditional sports fan is not that excited by soccer.
a. Gambling. Who gambles on soccer in the U.S.? Close to half the gambling in the USA on sports is on the Super Bowl alone. Baseball accounts for maybe 10%. Soccer doesn't even make the charts. Why not? I think there are several problems. U.S. soccer is not the best. Americans like to bet on the best, which is the NFL, not the CFL. The players are often foreigners. The margins of victory are often narrow. Games can be decided on the whim of an official's whistle more than perhaps any other sport. (See U.S. Germany semifinal, decided on two penalties in the box.)
b. Statistics. This is what fuels talk shows and the hot stove league. Soccer has plenty of statistics now, though it formerly did not. The problem is that they are basically meaningless. A team can dominate for 90 minutes and lose on a fluke or an own goal. It is true that the if a team dominates the chances are that they will usually win, but stats like passing efficiency are in their infancy.
c. Publicity. U.S. men's soccer lacks the big personalities. In European soccer these are the goalkeepers and strikers, and sometimes the officials. How many players of the USWNT could most people name three weeks ago? Probably Abby Wambach, maybe Hope Solo (you know, the one that beats up kids) and "the one with the white hair." Basketball markets its players. Soccer seems to market fan reactions to goals. That is a losing, and circular, formula.
d. Scoring. Yes, I know if each goal was worth seven points it would seem more like football. The problem is the number of 0-0 games and ties. Americans hate ties. (We hate third place games, too. Who cares about third place?) The difficulty is that allowing ties is what makes the ordinary soccer game appealing to many, because the time of the game (length) is predictable. You could have a short overtime where both teams played without goalies or something, but any tampering with the 1 point - 3 point system would probably cause the game to lose its main TV appeal, namely it's OVER IN TWO HOURS.
e. The U.S. men are not that good. Our best athletes go into basketball and football. We like to win.
f. The live experience of soccer breaks down into two categories: many of the fans are there to sing, drink, be with friends and pay attention every now and then when the ball is near the goal. It's sort of like opera or the dog show in this respect - occasional moments of inspiration, not sustained brilliance. Most Americans have their "get drunk and yell real loud" calendar already full with pro and college football and NASCAR. The other type of fan watches and grades every single touch. In Italy this seemed to be about 1/3 of fans, in Germany about 2/3. If you didn't play the game at a reasonably high level, you won't be this kind of fan.
g. Flopping. It's horrible. It's sissy. It's cheating. It's something Italians are good at. Get rid of it.
So much for the 18-40 year male. Soccer has made some progress with this guy with beer, banners, and tribalism. The top end for this path is limited, though, since football has staked out so much of this ground.
As for part two, how do you get all those millions of little girls to grow up into women willing to pay real money to see soccer?
2. Little girls, zhey grow up in ze most delightful way, says M. Chevalier.
The most popular sports for women to watch in the USA are football and baseball. Football is war. It is easy to understand. You hit the other team, they fall down, you conquer their territory and win. Everyone can understand it. The players are hyper masculine in their padding and are huge and strong even without it. Many women like that.
Baseball players are like normal people, but physically fit, traditionally clean shaven, and in uniform. Their uniforms do not hide their identity. Just as important, people rarely get hurt in baseball. Women like that. Women don't like seeing players hauled off on stretchers or tearing knees out. There is is a reason bear baiting and cock fighting are gone. So what are the problems with soccer for the little girls once they have jobs and credit cards?
a. Most grown women don't really like watching sports anyway. Ok, save your outrage. You know it's true. In a competition there must be a winner and a loser. Many women feel sorry for the losing team and don't like it when winners rub it in, which they normally do. Baseball and football at least have the blessing of tradition. Many of the players in those sports plus basketball are black, which makes the sports cool, as Chris Rock says.
b. The field is too big. It's hard to know where to look. If you don't pay attention there is a good chance you will miss the important moments, since it's not like a bell goes off when the ball gets within striking distance of the goal. (Maybe that's a good idea.) Anyone who has been to a sporting event in the last ten years has seen 70% of the women spending the game staring at their phones, looking up when crowd noise tells them it matters. Doesn't work in soccer.
c. The rules seem simple, but they aren't. They are far too subjective. Fairness is very important to women. When officials make mistakes it can ruin the whole experience. What is a fair tackle? Who can say? I was talking to some female college soccer players recently. They all hated the officiating, which they regarded as incompetent and inconsistent. Maybe they just need more refs.
d. In baseball or football you can watch the players interact. You can study their relationships. I see many women watching the sidelines in football as they players talk, and watching the dugouts or the base coaches in baseball. Soccer players hide under a shell. When NBC does the Olympics men hate to watch because half the broadcast is stories about the athlete's sick grandmother. NBC does that to appeal to women. Soccer needs to sell stories, not goals.
e. Women and many men enjoy talking and socializing at athletic events. Football and baseball pause between plays for discussion. In soccer you either ignore the game completely (irritating your date) or watch it all the time, leaving no time to learn how Susan is doing with the twins now that John left her.
f. Do the games really matter? In pro basketball they don't really, no specific game is all that big a deal. I think that's one reason women don't watch it as much. That's true of baseball, too, but the pastoral non violence of the game makes it fun to watch anyway. Soccer seasons are too long. Well, almost all pro sports seasons are too long, that is another rant.
g. The season makes no sense. When is soccer season? In my state, it's fall for college and spring for high school. In Europe it's fall, winter, and spring. Baseball is summer, a warm night under the stars. Football is autumn. Let's huddle together before winter comes. The soccer season makes no real sense from a seasonal point of view. If you are not a committed fan, a confusing season schedule makes it hard to maintain interest.
I'm sure you can think of other reasons why either the traditional sports fan or the young girl hasn't become an adult fan. Separate the two in your comments.