What Is It About Soccer?
September 4, 2008 7:51 AM   Subscribe

Please help me understand the immense popularity of soccer (football, futbol) worldwide. And ...

... why it still continues to languish in the United States. Like basketball, it seems like a constantly moving, fast-paced game that the American sports enthusiast should enjoy. The rest of the world has certainly figured that out. What is it about soccer that the world knows and Americans don't?
posted by netbros to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Soccer tends to be very low-scoring, doesn't it? That might explain it.

Also, it's insufficiently violent (says the hockey fan).
posted by orrnyereg at 7:59 AM on September 4, 2008

There are a bajillion theories on this and a bajillion pundits, bloggers, hotheads, overly fascistic american nationalists and commie haters have weighed in on it with their pet theories. I have doubts that your answer is going to be found here after all of that.
posted by spicynuts at 7:59 AM on September 4, 2008

The basics of its popularity:

* It's one of the cheapest games to play in the world. Get a ball, some grass, and some poles or trees at either end, and you've got a game. Most other sports require at least a little bit more capital or a more specific locale.

* It's an easy game to get started in, on a skill level. The physical barrier to entry is low. All you need to be able to do to get started is kick a round ball.

As for why it doesn't fly in the United States? Who knows? It probably has a lot more to do with circumstance than anything else.
posted by Citrus at 8:07 AM on September 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

I believe that the immense popularity of soccer worldwide can be attributed to:
a) low/no cost entry. You can play soccer with a ball of twine in barefeet, shooting between two rocks (compared to basketball, requiring a ball that must bounce...)
b) Simple rules (what the hell is up with basketball?)
c) fast paced.

As for not violent enough, you're not watching the right games. Hockey kids get to wear pads. Real athletes play soccer or rugby. (...and I was way too poor for hockey.)

I think Americans don't like the low-scoring aspects, but mostly more than anything else I think it's that, by and large, we've never been good at it as a country. We have a difficult time competing in the world leagues of soccer, and as such we just don't care for it. Sort of a never ending cycle. We're not good at supporting things where we don't win.

I also think that one thing Americans do too much is break things down to tiny components. We don't let kids just go play soccer, we have to show them how to run and where to put our feet and have camps and whatever, same with lots of sports. In most of the world, you just play to play, there's no ripping out the fun to the nth degree.

posted by TomMelee at 8:10 AM on September 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: ... we've never been good at it as a country.

The American women have won the World Cup and Olympic Gold.
posted by netbros at 8:20 AM on September 4, 2008

You should read this column for some useful insight.

It would also be my opinion that playing soccer is way more popular in the US, for the reasons mentioned above.

This article on wikipedia explains how historically soccer and American football were the same game, and how the rules evolved, which culturally explains a lot.

Also, certainly here in England, football clubs are a community resource - the first team plays in the competitions, they have youth development and youth teams, and provide football classes and other services for the local community. I think this community focus helps increase the popularity. Admittedly I don't know if there is a similar setup in American sports.
posted by timmow at 8:23 AM on September 4, 2008

The low scoring seems to be the most common excuse people give me as to why they don't like soccer. That and the impression that it's slow and the games are way too long. Interestingly, these parallel the reasons they give for not watching baseball.

And, sadly, I do think there's a touch of xenophobia involved, as well. It's a furrin sport full of furriners. (see also: F1)

Americans like their sports fast, high-scoring, and home-grown.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:23 AM on September 4, 2008

I made a concerted effort to follow football simply because I was alienated from so much conversation amongst my peers.
I started playing in my early twenties and only recently stopped 15 years later when my knee exploded. I loved it. A great team game.

I can travel anywhere in the world and it's almost a given that it's the one thing i will have in common to talk about with the person I am with.

Of course, the only place where this hasn't exactly run true is in the states.

Also, 45 minute halves without a commercial break? I am sure that sends station heads into cold sweats.
posted by Frasermoo at 8:27 AM on September 4, 2008

Wait, you have to have a reason not to like something?

I've never cared much for watching soccer because I've not enjoyed any of the times that I have watched it. My guess as to why that is: because it's not anywhere near as fast-paced as its fans think it is. Add "low-scoring" to that and you have a recipe for bored-to-death toomuchpete.

Also? I wouldn't be surprised if part of the problem was that, growing up, there just weren't any soccer teams to cheer for. In the end, sports are always more fun to watch when you identify with one of the teams.
posted by toomuchpete at 8:27 AM on September 4, 2008

following on from toomuchpete... be aware that just because it is the most popular game on earth it doesn't mean that every game is good to watch.

I have season tickets for Toronto FC and i can tell you it's some of the worst football I have ever put myself through. but when the good times happen, they're worth the wait.
posted by Frasermoo at 8:36 AM on September 4, 2008

Long Answer: Read Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism

Short Answer: Blame Frank Deford
posted by Otis at 8:36 AM on September 4, 2008

The American women have won the World Cup and Olympic Gold.

Women's sports really don't matter in America in terms of high level popularity. Figure skating and gymnastics get a bit of coverage, but nothing like a major professional sports league.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:37 AM on September 4, 2008

It has all the obvious positive features : little equipment, flexible location, simple rules, fast paced, little danger, no body type bias, etc., but also soccer/football also involves more team members than games where you pass by throwing.

Let us consider Basket Ball and Ultimate Frisbee by comparison. Both are fast paced games where you pass by throwing, and quite safe. Basket Ball is more popular since balls are more traditional, but Ultimate Frisbee is unequivocally a "better sport" because you don't need special goals and has no body type bias.

Now one might imagine that Ultimate Frisbee could eventually rival football if frisbees were more common. I don't find this likely because frisbee requires passing by throwing. If you have inexperienced players, they will always throw the basket ball or frisbee to the bast player. In football, inexperienced players often don't have the same choice of target, simply because they are running with the ball, so they must pass to less good players occasionally. A priori, very fast players could run the whole field in football, but this is prevented by the offsides rule. So football pays a small price in rule complexity but gains more involvement of the whole team at inexperienced levels.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:48 AM on September 4, 2008

The U.S. will probably take to soccer, Canada is starting to. When I was a kid everyone in Canada played baseball and hockey. These days its soccer and hockey (gridiron football is more popular too).... if MLS brings in two Canadian expansion teams I think it will be big as a spectator sport too. I can't say why I think soccer will become more popular, but I think it has something to do with the way baseball, football and hockey at the pro level have alienated their working/middle class fans and all you have to do is watch player introductions to know that soccer sells itself to the next generation of fans like no other sport.

I picked up love for soccer overseas, it was something fun I could do with people who I couldn't even otherwise talk to. I watch it on tv because while its such an easy game to play, to do it at the elite level is really something special.
posted by Deep Dish at 8:53 AM on September 4, 2008

The American Men's Soccer team has had some success. They've been in the World Cup to the extent that would have many other countries dancing in the streets. As an expat Brit in the US, I'd say it is a popular game to play here at the youth level and even among adults. I think that many professional and college teams haven't got the same local community feel or passion attached to them that they do elsewhere though. Logistics and costs make scaling up to the kinds of competitions (e.g. FA Cup) and rivalries (that other countries have) more difficult. One of the best parts of watching games is the crowd in other countries. That culture doesn't seem to exist in the same way here in my experience (although I'd love to be proven wrong).

Agree with everyone about low barrier to entry and other explanations.
posted by idb at 8:59 AM on September 4, 2008

People who say football/soccer is too slow paced haven't realized the beer drinking potential of the game.

Coming from a football country, I'd also like to add that it is also completely cultural. People love it because it's always been around and it is unrivaled in popularity by any other game. Also, you can change you name, your gender, your spouse, your job, your nose, but once you've commited to a team you never, EVER change.
posted by neblina_matinal at 9:11 AM on September 4, 2008

I think different people above are answering two different questions - why don't americans like to play soccer and why don't they like to watch it with the fanaticism as at home.

Anyway, my experience is that Yanks and Canucks both male and female are very happy to join social leagues and weekend kickabouts. We have always had some natives on any social teams and co-ed teams I've joined over this side of the pond.

As far as watching, I honestly think the quality of the MLS game and its coverage is crap. I grew up in a football-mad environment (Ireland) but my husband didn't. He is bored out of his mind by Toronto FC games, whether attending or on TV, but will very happily watch Premiership or European football. There's aso a tendency, I've noticed, for n.american fans of the foreign game to be considered snobs and elitists and so forth, rather than red-blooded baseball fans. Which may be offputting for many.
posted by jamesonandwater at 9:24 AM on September 4, 2008

I think there's also an element of social and economic class to it. Sports certainly carry those kinds of implications for their host countries, e.g. cricket is very much a middle- and upper-class game in the UK, but less so in places like India and the West Indies. Football/soccer is very much a working class game almost everywhere it's played, which is probably related to the cost of entry mentioned above.

Its introduction to the US inverted this for some reason. The people most likely to play football (aside from recent immigrants) are people with more money or in more affluent areas who play club sports like tennis or golf and whose counterparts would probably be more interested in cricket in the UK. It conveys a certain air of sophistication because it's from overseas and doesn't have the scrappy associations of other regular sports in America. But those aren't the people who do most of the sports-watching, jersey-buying and playing for a living. I don't know why the association got set up this way, but it did, and it's hard to break people's identification with their sports once they're set. When I lived in the UK as a high-schooler in the 80s, the same sort of inversion had happened to basketball in some quarters for some reason.
posted by el_lupino at 9:29 AM on September 4, 2008

And ... why it still continues to languish in the United States.

Recognize that it only languishes in the U.S. in terms of adult participation and its role as a spectator sport.

When it come to childhood participation, soccer easily competes with baseball, football and basketball, numbers-wise. Adult participation is indeed minimal, and my guess would be because the cardio-vascular demands make recreational sports like slo-pitch softball more enticing to American adults, as well as sporting culture itself.

As a spectator sport, it indeed languishes behind the "big four" and NASCAR, but this has more to do with television culture than the sport alone (soccer doesn't lend itself easily to commercial breaks, for one thing, whereas American football is tailor-made for it).

Another interesting question is ... why don't American adults play more American football? American football is something you play in high school and then almost never play again in an organized fashion.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:30 AM on September 4, 2008

this is the quote i always like to pull out during questions like these, from National Geo:
Why do we fall in love with soccer? What happens? At some deep level the reason soccer snags us is that good soccer is beautiful, and it's difficult, and the two are related. A team kicking the ball to each other, passing into empty space that is suddenly filled by a player who wasn't there two seconds ago and who is running at full pelt and who without looking or breaking stride knocks the ball back to a third player who he surely can't have seen, who, also at full pelt and without breaking stride, then passes the ball, at say 60 miles an hour, to land on the head of a fourth player who has run 75 yards to get there and who, again all in stride, jumps and heads the ball with, once you realize how hard this is, unbelievable power and accuracy toward a corner of the goal just exactly where the goalkeeper, executing some complex physics entirely without conscious thought and through muscle-memory, has expected it to be, so that all this grace and speed and muscle and athleticism and attention to detail and power and precision will never appear on a score sheet and will be forgotten by everybody a day later—this is the strange fragility, the evanescence of soccer. It's hard to describe and it is even harder to do, but it does have a deep beauty, a beauty hard to talk about and that everyone watching a game discovers for themselves, a secret thing, and this is the reason why soccer, which has so much ugliness around it and attached to it, still sinks so deeply into us: Because it is, it can be, so beautiful.
posted by acid freaking on the kitty at 9:34 AM on September 4, 2008 [8 favorites]

Check out the following books:

The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt
How Soccer Explains the World by David Goldblatt.
posted by Kattullus at 9:37 AM on September 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

No historical base. It's just never caught on here, so we lack the stadiums that would allow drinking, the fan culture, etc. I can't think of a sport that has a rabid following everywhere.

Wikipedia claims that: The modern game was codified in England following the formation of The Football Association, whose 1863 Laws of the Game created the foundations for the way the sport is played today.

So, arguably, the game became more codified at a time when English (and European) influence was waning in the US and we were coming into our own with other sports. I'd speculate that it spread to Europe and the British Empire first, which (with imperialist interests) would cover the majority of South America/Africa and had a fair amount of influence in the East (think about the British and Hong Kong).

So it's a sport that became a public spectacle around the same time baseball (1838) and basketball (1891) became organized sports in the US. Both of those are much more popular here than elsewhere, right?
posted by mikeh at 9:40 AM on September 4, 2008

I have two theories about why soccer hasn't caught on, one of which I will then disprove.

1. Americans have a sports attention span that is conditioned for 2 minute bursts of focus. Baseball, football, basketball - they all have frequent stoppages of play when your attention can drift. Soccer has 45 minutes of more or less non-stop action, and the average American sports fan can't handle that. This is not a value judgment, but an observation.

2. Now, the one I'll disprove. Soccer is a low scoring sport, and Americans like high scores. The "Americans like high scores" argument, in my experience, primarily comes from fans of American football (of which I am not one).

The way I always refute that when I'm talking with my non-soccer-liking friends is by asking the following question: Why are American football scores so high? The answer is because it was arbitrarily decided, way back when, that a touchdown - a single scoring event - is worth either 6 or 7 points. That's all. There's no reason that a touchdown is worth that many points, it just is. So, an NFL game that finishes 21-14 is no different score-wise than a 3-2 soccer game, yet nobody complains about the NFL game.
posted by pdb at 11:21 AM on September 4, 2008

This may sound biased coming from a die-hard Baseball fan, but I think Baseball fills the niche that Soccer would occupy here. Soccer is more subtle than American Football and Basketball, which beat Soccer in terms of scoring and violence. Soccer has rare scoring, moments of immense tension separated by periods of apparent stagnation (but not if you're really paying attention) and the entire game can turn on a few seconds of skill. That's the Baseball experience. Personally, I think Baseball is just much, MUCH better than Soccer. The fact that Baseball doesn't have a clock is reason enough to pronounce it a superior sport to just about anything. And, often, the best baseball games are very low scoring affairs. I think therefore that the people who don't like this kind of thing follow Basketball or Football, and the people who do like it choose to follow Baseball INSTEAD of Soccer.

As for Soccer itself, I spent a lot of time in Europe during the 96 UEFA cup, and I watched a LOT of games. And I have to tell you. That sport is just broken. If over half your games come down to overtime shootouts after a 0-0 regulation period, something is wrong and has to be adjusted.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 11:29 AM on September 4, 2008

No historical base.

Actually, the Markovits/Hellerman book cited above goes into some detail about the cultural and demographic factors that contributed to the rise of American football, baseball and basketball at the expense of soccer during the period when what they call the American "sports space" was filling up in the first half of the 20th century.

For one, IIRC, in the late 1800s, most colleges were playing a game more similar to soccer than to modern-day American football, but one of those engaged in the latter was Harvard, and when time came to codify the rules of "football," Harvard's influence prevailed. They also point to the strong desire of new immigrants to "Americanize" themselves by adopting their new country's pastimes. And a poorly organized, poorly funded professional league in the '20s and '30s, just when American football was beginning to boom, was a death blow to the sport at the highest level here.

In the post-war years, soccer gained a reputation as a "foreign" pastime, something suspect—like the metric system in many ways. Things started to change in the '70s, with Pele and the Cosmos reintroducing the sport to the American consciousness. In addition, Title IX, the ruling that mandated equality in funding for men's and women's sports, led to an explosion of soccer programs (both male and female) at the youth, high school and collegiate levels. That boom began to pay off in the '90s, as the U.S. women's team became a power and the men finally began to get competitive with the world's powers. And the media is slowly coming around. There are three dedicated soccer cable channels in the U.S. now—Fox Soccer, GolTV and Setanta Sports. ABC/ESPN carried the entire World Cup live for the first time in 2006 and even carried the entire Euro 2008 tournament as well.

Nowadays, I find a real age divide between the soccer-haters and those who either appreciate the sport or at least accept it. Most Americans over the age of 45 did not grow up with the sport; never played it and never watched it. Most under that age played as a kid, or had siblings or friends who played. It's not alien to us, the way it was to our parents. As you might guess, I could go on and on.

Here's a fun Sports Illustrated article that tries to delve into the issues.
posted by stargell at 11:45 AM on September 4, 2008

The fact that Baseball doesn't have a clock is reason enough to pronounce it a superior sport to just about anything.

Funny, Doc Suarez. I used to be a huge baseball fan, but I can barely watch it these days. Talk about slooooowww. One of the great appeals of soccer is that, whether the game's great or dismal, it's over in an hour and 45 minutes. With no commercial interruptions. Can't stand all the stops and starts in NFL or NBA broadcasts, either.

I was at Game 5 of the Yankees-Mariners series a few years ago, when the Yanks came back to win the series. 60,000 maniac fans were screaming the whole time, and all I could do was look at my watch. Three hours in, and it was the bottom of the sixth. I told my buddy, "You know, a soccer game would have been over for an hour." He wasn't amused.
posted by stargell at 12:12 PM on September 4, 2008

I should point out that I tend to watch baseball games time-shifted after work, which means I get through them myself in under two hours (I ffwd pitch to pitch).

But what I like about the lack of a clock is that the game has to play itself out on its own terms, not what amounts to an arbitrary time constraint. It tells me it's just a better overall design for a sport.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 12:35 PM on September 4, 2008

I'd extend pdb's attention-span theory, and say that the difference between soccer and American sports is about medium-term drama.

In American football, a drive may take several minutes. Generally, a team will slowly battle its way down the field, and at every yard the likelihood of scoring increases. At a smaller scale, the four-down system creates a minute-by-minute drama.

In baseball, similarly, success builds on itself. A team with men on base with no outs is poised to score. Again at the smaller scale, each batter has a little mini-drama as the strikes and balls accumulate.

In any high-scoring game, there's a constant flux to the game as the lead changes hands.

In all of these, there is extended drama. Tension can rise and fall over a period of minutes.

In soccer, on the other hand, a play usually lasts about 30 seconds start-to-finish, the most promising play almost always fizzles into nothingness, and scoring often comes out of nowhere and is over in an instant.

This isn't necessarily bad, but it is very different, and I think it's one reason that soccer hasn't caught on so much as a spectator sport in the US.
posted by bjrubble at 9:19 AM on September 5, 2008

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