Action. Violence. Speed. Scoring. Athleticism. More Violence.
These are the common answers you get whenever you get into the debate of what Americans like in their sports. Most often this discussion comes up when a fan of soccer gets into a “You just wait, it’s growing” speech. “It’s the beautiful game. It has rhythm and grace” the soccer fan says. The immediate feedback from the non-believer is always predictable. “Soccer will never catch on here and be as big as baseball or basketball. It’s too slow. There isn’t enough scoring. And ugh all that diving!” And on and on we go.
However the one thing you never hear in these debates is what I believe is the actual answer to the question of “why not soccer?” and the same thing that leads to all of the “what is hockey?” jokes.
It isn’t ours.
It is a concept that seems so obvious and so fitting. We, as Americans, love everything American. There may be no better example (surely not in sports) than every 2 years for an Olympics – no one waves a flag like we do. It is a 2 week celebration of “America, FUCK YEA!” and we all love it (I, for one, am an Olympics addict). When it comes to standing up and backing national domination, we do it the best.
But what no one seems to realize (it seems like that anyway) is that the Olympics and World Cup aren’t the only times we see this enthusiasm is sports. In fact, we see it every day with the sports we watch the most and talk about the most. If your sport is the best, and if the best is American, you’re damn right we’re tuning in.
So here are 2 quick charts both based on a highly sophisticated and proprietary analysis algorithm my own subjective observations. The first plots the 5 pro sports leagues in America based on their continuous in-play action and the amount of scoring plays in a game – or in other words 2 of the 3 most used reasons to explain why a sport like soccer is terrible. The third being violence which I decided not to include since it’s hard to compare to other sports when only 2 (football and hockey) have it whatsoever.
With the Y-axis as continuous in-play action and the X-axis as scoring, you can see a decent representation of the most popular leagues, however football is nowhere near as dominant as its actual gap in popularity. The NFL is an absolute monster, yet if you try to explain its popularity based on the reasons many explain why other sports aren’t popular, it falls apart a bit. Sure you could add violence to the equation, but then you’d be bumping the NHL way up, which we know wouldn’t be a good representation and not to mention you can’t breathe on a guy in basketball without a foul call.
So here is my second chart which is what I believe sums it up.
The first question I ask of a league is whether or not it encompasses the world’s best at the sport. That is easily the first, big draw for American fans. We want the best because we’re the best. As big as football is, just consider how startup leagues continue to struggle and shut down – the most recent being the UFL. You keep hearing from groups who start these leagues that there’s more appetite for football! Yet it misses the key point that we only have an appetite for elite football.
The second question, almost as critical, is how American is it? Is the sport ours? The NFL obviously epitomizes both “the best” and “ours” more than any other sports league. While the NBA, MLB, and NHL are also the world’s best leagues (albeit with a bit more popularity internationally), they aren’t as pure blooded American as the NFL. So if you take the 2 criteria into account (1. Best?, 2. American?) it pretty much lays out the perceived popularity of our current sports landscape (TV ratings, social buzz, national conversations). NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS. No amount of debating violence, scoring, and/or action can give you the same order.
So what’s my point of all of this? Simple. Listen to the soccer fans, because I believe they are right. While still a ways to go, the sport is becoming increasingly American and the quality of said Americans is as good as it’s ever been. As I write this, 70,000 people are getting ready to pack CenturyLink Field in Seattle to watch a regular season MLS game...starring an American and not just an expensive import. If the development of the USMNT continues to produce this type of star power and the Americans can somehow, someway make serious noise in Brazil or Russia (2018), the sport will continue to grow because the quality can begin to make claims.
So please no more of the “too slow” and “not enough” scoring talk. Instead just say that Americans aren’t good enough in soccer for the sport to be “huge” here and you’d be right.
At least until Michael Bradley and company prove us all wrong.