City Journal Winter 2016

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Steven Malanga
Grassroots Soccer Mania « Back to Story

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We had a family friend back in the 1970's who was either a player or a coach for the original San Jose Earthquakes. He was German, Derek something or other.

Similar stories were told back then about the rise of soccer, and the early North American Soccer League averaged up to 13,000 ticket buyers at a time when the national population was 1/3 less than it is today.

My sister played youth soccer back in the 1970's. As I recall, there were plenty of participants, few of whom went on to become soccer fanatics.

Not saying soccer can't succeed in certain cities, such as Seattle. I'm willing to bet there's a strong correlation between disk golf and soccer popularity. Seriously doubt it will happen in most locales.
Marcus Lindroos July 04, 2014 at 6:39 AM
Peter from Oz July 03, 2014 at 10:30 PM

> It's interesting that the three most
> popular team sports in the world, soccer,
> rugby union and football (soccer) are all
> British inventions.

Er, what is the difference between "soccer" and "football (soccer)"?

I guess it's subjective, but I think the rugby codes and cricket are more like baseball or ice hockey. I.e. these sports are enormously popular in isolated pockets, but I think basketball is bigger overall.
It's interesting that the three most popular team sports in the world, soccer, rugby union and football (soccer) are all British inventions. Could that be why there are a hardcore of Americans who look down on these sports?
Nitpick: The NFL was founded in 1920.
Anthony Clifton July 02, 2014 at 9:35 AM
Essentially, the argument of this article is that we should pay attention to how many little kids play soccer rather than the TV ratings that adults create.

I don't see how that makes any sense. There are significant reasons why soccer is popular for kids. It's inexpensive to have games, the basic rules are simple and it's relatively safe. Parents see it as a way for kids to be exposed to team sports and get some exercise. That doesn't mean that either the kids or the parents are dreaming of what could be in professional soccer. I doubt that more than 5% of any of them could name one professional soccer player other than Pele, Beckham or Howard.

On the other hand, kids playing football in the US get serious about it at an early age. I've seen the difference first-hand. Kids soccer games are a glorified picnic. Kids and parents are way more intense about even Pop Warner football. I've seen parents who crew together and practice on their own time so that their kids have better passing rapport with each other. I've seen kids play in multiple football leagues in the same season.

Nothing against people who like soccer. There are all kinds of sports that niches of people like. But, it seems like proponents of soccer have started to adopt Obama White House strategies of propaganda. If there's something they want to have happen, they just talk about it as if it's reality, hoping that it catches on.

In reality, there is no evidence that interest in soccer is growing beyond a relatively small niche.
watch as the ratings for the world cup go into the tank because the US won't be playing any more.

And then think that the top number for viewers, for the game against Germany, was far less than an average run of the mill Sunday night football game.

And couple this with how many years we have been told that soccer will take off.

Sorry, soccer is a once in 4 year event, or an Olympic event, not a natural occurance.
Huge screen HD TV's and much much better camera work and production are also making the sport far more palatable to watch for those who have no clue of the games nuances (which is not unique to soccer).
Marcus Lindroos July 02, 2014 at 7:05 AM
Jillian July 01, 2014 at 3:51 AM

> The more we become like the Third World,
> the more popular their Third World sport
> becomes.

"Jillian's" snide little comment notwithstanding, soccer is actually the most popular team sport in most of the richest countries as well.
E.g. soccer is the most popular team sport in seven out of ten countries on the world's highest GDP per capita list. The only exceptions are Australia, the US and Canada.
Marcus Lindroos July 02, 2014 at 6:50 AM
A few things --

1) I thing it needs to be stated that Major League Soccer faces competition also from established FOREIGN professional soccer leagues. E.g. the extremely rich European clubs have a global following, and they usually sell out their exhibition games in North America as well. MLS struggles to keep promising American players although this seems to be changing somewhat now (the most accomplished US field players -- Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey -- recently signed with Toronto and Seattle, respectively). Nonetheless, I think it's true to say that being a soccer fan does not necessarily mean you care for MLS...

2) Average attendance figures are misleading since NBA and NHL teams play twice as many home games while charging far higher ticket prices as well.

3) Except pro baseball, most major league sports teams only emerged in the 1960s or later anyway. So I don't quite buy the "tradition" argument ... it's never been an important factor outside the Northeast.
Humorous little sport for US hipsters and their dear sweet crybaby children.

Boring as all hell. That's the rub.
Nemo_of_Erehwon July 02, 2014 at 6:18 AM
...and then the US lost, and nobody cared about soccer any more.
When does US football season start
What happened to AYSO (the American Youth Soccer Organization) which began in Torrance, CA in 1964 and which has now grown to a nationwide organization with over 1,500 regions with anywhere from 8-10 to over 100 teams of 12-15 players each?
Ric Williams
I keep saying that it's going to take another generation or so before soccer gets permanently attached to the average American's sports psyche. But, as Malanga says, it's growing fast. I have a large public park near my home and I see soccer being played by children constantly. May their tribe increase!
Two great advantages to soccer compared to the three major American sports. One, it is not as coach or manager mediated. The plays are not all diagrammed beforehand. The athletes have to play and think. Second, there are no time outs and no artificial TV breaks. One can plan for the game, watch it in a set amount of time and move on to other things.American sports are killing themselves with commercial time outs and coaches over-coaching.
I've lived in the UK and a couple of other countries where soccer (er,"football") was the dominant sport. I didn't really like it but I tried to keep up because I wanted to understand the locals and because as a life long sports fan I needed something. Once every four years I would take a fleeting interest in the World Cup. But then my son got interested in watching UK Premiership this past winter and early spring (partly due to playing a very well-done soccer computer game) and because I want to be a part of his world I started sitting down on a Saturday AM with him and while at first pretended to enjoy it I started to like it (partly because it was a way for he and I to do something together) and we finished out the Premiership season and the FA Cup in a state of moderate enthusiasm. It will never replace our brand of football for me (or him) but the World Cup has been fun (however, I have deep suspicions about some of the outcomes) even though many of the UK announcers annoy the hell out of me. An unexpected pleasure occurred this past late spring when we watch Mexican Liga on El Rey TV - an American cable company - that broadcast in English but with a Mexican-style announcer Ramses Sandoval. His announcing made the game really exciting and interesting and I would watch that over "Duck Dynasty" anytime!
Why bash any sport at all? I am pretty much a bandwagon fan of soccer,,have been watching the World Cup. For me, it will never have the level of excitement of NFL or rugby., but to each his own.
And then maybe the world can settle its differences on the soccer field instead of the battlefield......
People who go over-the-top with knocking soccer have some axe to grind with the world and country at large. Face it, a lot of people like soccer. A lot of people also play soccer. People who you like, people who you may dislike love watching the World Cup. The haters primarily fit a certain stereotype starting with being over the age of 45 and being a step behind just about everything.
C'mon... soccer is growing because it's CHEAP and anyone can get lost on a soccer field and seem like they're participating. It's a great babysitter for lazy parents
Thinking that because a growing number of American kids participate in soccer means that it will inevitably become a major spectator sport is a fallacy. More kids swim & run than play team sports and swimming & track & field are only watched by Americans during the Olympics.
"More broadly, it misunderstands how cultural trends emerge and reshape society."

Exactly, cultural trends. The more we become like the Third World, the more popular their Third World sport becomes.
Technology has changed television coverage of football/soccer matches for the better. The overhead cameras let the audience see how plays develop. Where this is applied for replays, it fills in time that can be lost on celebrations or retrieving balls.

Big matches are a much better viewing event.

Same time, I am old. I also have working knees and hips and unbroken other parts that lead me to Praise God that I did not play American football. I was in Florida where football/soccer was an alternative which I went for full speed.

In fact I'd think my balance is better now for the experience. Same for learning leg exercises and figuring out early that it's better to be lighter if you want mobility. Bulking up for American football is the last thing you'd want to replicate for old age.

As I've gotten older, I've gotten lighter. Without soccer, I'm not sure that would have come naturally. As to watching the games, World Cup is the highlight with the best athletes in the world. MLS has a good product. And you rarely get dull blow-outs like last year's super dull Super Bowl.
People who think baseball is exciting, but soccer is "boring" should take a stopwatch some time and measure how much time in a baseball actually has something going on. Added to that is the tendency of the media to focus on the pitcher's face instead of backing up the camera a bit so that we can see, during the long "rest" periods between pitches, where the base runners are, how the fielders are positioned, etc. I personally don't care whether Scherzer shaved or not. I want to know if the guy behind him is going to steal or if the fielders are expecting a bunt.
Soccer coverage typically has excellent camera work, always moving in and out at the right pace and showing good plays from several angles afterwords. And at the stadium, I don't need to understand hand signals or watch the scoreboard for pitch speed or rely on the radio to know what kind of pitch was thrown - key elements of baseball. Almost everything that is important for understanding the action in a soccer game is immediately visible. I like both sports, but baseball fans are in glass houses when they call soccer "boring."
I always get a laugh when hearing Americans - who love baseball, where 70% of the action is invisible from the stands - call soccer "boring". Soccer's main problem is that the ref is way too important. There is hardly a game where that doesn't dominate post-game discussion and where you don't have at least one side angry at the ref. There are always one or two controversial calls that decide, or could have decided, the game. That can and does happen sometimes in other sports, but I don't have the impression that it is nearly as often in American football, baseball or basketball.

It could also be called a weakness that the scoring is only a crude measure of who really played better. Goals are so rare that while the better usually wins, the better team loses more often than in, say, basketball. But I think that is, in the end, actually part of the charm. The Faroe Islands will never beat Germany, but any of the 32 teams in the World Cup could beat any of the other teams on a good (or lucky) day.

A side effect of the low scores is the prevelance of tie games which so often lead to the hideous decisions based on penalty kicks. That is all very suspenseful, but it isn't soccer. It's like deciding a tied football game by a series of field goals or deciding a stalemated chess game by playing checkers. It just isn't right. The US loss to Japan in the women's World Cup a few years ago was a particularly grotesque example.
Thanks for an excellent piece.

As a regular visitor to the States over recent decades, I have had many opportunities to notice the weird reality shift between how much the people love what the world calls football, and how much the old men who run the national media insist on ridiculing, ignoring and belittling it – as if the grassroots popularity of a non-American sport threatens their very being.
Soccer has one major virtue: it is a very democratic sport for elementary school aged players. Special attributes of height, weight, and hand-eye coordination are not important.

The big problem with soccer is truly the difficulty of making a goal against a skilled opponent. It is skewed against the offense. This is especially true of professional teams. The World Cup teams seem to have lessened this problem a bit: they have made some fantastic goals, probably because these national teams are the cream of the pros.

Soccer is just like hockey, just a little slower.

Basketball is a great game for all seasons, but it is skewed against the defense and short people need not apply.

Baseball can also be a bit boring. However, the game is very precisely balanced between offense and defense, and many plays are things of real beauty.

American football deserves to die.
Fun to play. Not so much fun to watch.
Patrick MacKinnon June 30, 2014 at 6:13 PM
Boring? It's basketball on a larger surface. Just make the basket as big as a washtub and get a goalie.
I will say one thing for both sports though. I have yet to see an overweight player in either sport unlike US football.They really are great exercise for kids.
I can understand someone not getting it. That's unfortunate, but if you don't, you don't. I don't get rock music, for example.

But the notion that it's boring is, quite simply, nonsense. Anyone who watched the Germany/Algeria match, and who has a pulse, will simply laugh at that statement.
I tried, I really did, choosing USA/Germany to see if I could get through it. I just don't get it.
It's still boring.