We Americans love our sports. Huge chunks of the country tune in for the Super Bowl, even though the vast majority of us couldn’t give a shit about either team, and even though the vast majority of us have no desire to see a halftime show with Bruno Mars. We even watch baseball and golf on TV, as if they were summertime yule logs — only way more boring.
So why, unlike virtually every other country on the planet, hasn’t the US picked up soccer? Here are some theories.
1. The “corporations won’t let us” theory
When you ask Americans why they won’t watch soccer, the answer is usually that they find the sport boring. “Why would I watch a game where the score can be 0 – 0 at the end?” This would be a fair point if America’s national sport wasn’t baseball. Baseball is excruciating to watch. It’s literally just a bunch of men running in circles for four hours, only for 95% of that time, they aren’t running in circles. The reason soccer ends after 90 or so minutes is because soccer fans have things to do and can’t hang out in the stadium for five extra innings. It’s because they know when to say, “Ah, fuck it, let’s just finish the game and go out drinking.”
Also, the “boredom” excuse is pretty subjective. In soccer-loving countries like the UK and Argentina, I’ve had people tell me they find American football boring. Usually, this is more because they don’t fully understand the rules and strategy, so they can’t identify an incredible play when they see it. The same is true of uninitiated American fans with soccer. It’s not a matter of the game being “boring” — it’s a matter of understanding the game.
What do you need to understand a sport? Time with it. How do you get time with it? It gets on TV.
This is the most interesting theory I’ve heard: American television networks would rather put baseball and American football on TV because those two sports have constant, frequent breaks during which they can show commercials. Soccer, on the other hand, requires 45 minutes of uninterrupted television. You could see five commercial breaks during an American football game in that period of time.
Sure, you can put ads on the fringes of a soccer pitch, but there’s no guarantee fans are going to notice them. You can’t avoid seeing a Geico ad during an American football game. And soccer, unlike in Europe and South America, wasn’t big in the US before the advent of TV, so networks have no real incentive to air much soccer. Why do that when you can make way more money on baseball?
2. The “Americans don’t have the attention span” theory
This one I think is kinda bullshit, but let’s consider it for a second. Americans are, it must be admitted, an easily distracted crowd. They like to know when they need to pay attention, and American sports accommodate them in that way: “Hey guys, the Cowboys are in the red zone! Come back to the TV!” or “Hey guys, Pujols is on third base!” or “Hey guys, this is basketball! Someone’s going to score every 30 seconds for the entire game!”
Soccer, on the other hand, is much slower in the way of scoring. Goals are a much less frequent occurrence and come after a slow, anxiety-ridden build up. There are plenty of near misses. There are plenty of “awwws” running through the crowd. This isn’t how we’re used to our sports working. It’s too easy to miss what’ll possibly be the only goal of the game. We don’t deal with frustration well here in America, and the frustration of possibly looking away for 10 seconds and missing the highlight of a 90-minute game is too much.
Again, I think this is a matter of misunderstanding the game more than anything else. What’s striking when you get to know soccer is not the scoring, necessarily, but the skill of the players — how deftly they handle the ball, how seamlessly it moves between them, how precisely they can hit a teammate from down the field. There’s more of a fluid team element to it that I think Americans, given their love for other major team sports like football and hockey, could totally get into with a better understanding and more spectating experience.
3. The “soccer players are prima donnas” theory
Soccer players have a tendency to do two things Americans aren’t big fans of:
1) They take dives.
2) They wear hair products during the game.
The first of these is fair. Soccer players do tend to milk their injuries or straight-up pretend they have injuries, which chafes against American ideas about fair play. But as a friend pointed out, “They foul all the time in basketball, but it’s only worth two points, usually. That’s, like, two percent of the total points that’ll be scored during the game. You can afford to look like the bigger man in that case. In soccer, in the right circumstance, a foul can mean a goal, which is anywhere from 20% to 100% of the points scored in the game. See how many basketball players start milking their fouls when that’s the case.
And I can’t defend the hair. Americans are weird about their machismo. We’d just have to get used to that.
4. The “America has other sports” theory
“Eh, I’ve just got too many sports on my plate already,” said no one ever. Sports aren’t like Game of Thrones. You don’t ever need to “catch up” by watching every game that’s been played. They all stand by themselves.
But Americans do have a number of other major sports they watch pretty constantly: football, baseball, basketball, hockey. These can fill up a year if you like all of them. But most people don’t, and a lot of people would be more than happy to have another sport to distract them from real-world worries.
I think soccer is on the rise in America. I think more people I know are watching Premier League games and the World Cup than ever before. But I’m an American, delusionally optimistic to the last.