So the Superbowl happened yesterday, with all the fanfare, hype, and overpriced advertising space. And Madonna something something and OMIGOSH A MIDDLE FINGER and something something of ALL TIME EVER! SERIOUSLY! Thirty seconds after the game has ended is perspective enough to make all-time statements, don't you know. And I'm glad. Glad it's over... but glad mostly that the good old USA gives such a great deal of damn about The Superbowl, and thereby leaves the FIFA World Cup for the rest of the world to enjoy. And I hope it stays that way! To all my American readers, real or imagined: enjoy your American football. And back up off REAL football (what you call Soccer). Please leave it to the rest of the world, and if you ever feel like taking up pro soccer as a new sports thing, kindly re-watch Michael Jackson's 1993 Superbowl halftime show, and forget whatever you were just thinking.
American Football is a pretty good game, all-told. It's an interesting exercise in cooperation of different role-players, a fantastic combination of power, brute strength, and finesse, and only hockey, and perhaps rugby, excels it in its ability to combine a sustained exhibition of human athletic potential with the real danger of deadly violence. Its regimented player roles and its tradition of marching band music echoes American military culture, its glamor positions (quarterback, running back) allow for fantasies of glory and spectacle, while its hierarchical nature reminds America's underclass that somebody's gotta block for the quarterback, and somebody's gotta polish fingernails for minimum wage in order for America's billionaires to become as rich as they have. It's the quintessential American sport.
But here's what Football isn't: egalitarian. And I'm not just talking about the way the Quarterbacks and Running Backs get all the glory, I'm talking about the way you NEED to be middle-class or better to become good at it. You know why?
'cause somebody's gotta pay for all those pads, before you even get started. And replace them every time you grow.
The only worse sport is ice hockey, where you need to buy all those pads, PLUS skates, PLUS rent ice time at a rink somewhere (unless you live in Minnesota or Saskatchewan, and lakes still actually freeze over where you are).
You can play flag football, two hand touch, or street hockey, yes, but if you want to go anywhere at all in an organized way, somebody's going to have to bite down and swallow that equipment outlay. Because of this American Football will always shut out people below a certain income threshold. Because of this (and climate), Ice Hockey also will never be popular outside of wealthy, northern hemisphere countries.
USA even already has a more egalitarian major sport: basketball, which only requires a ball, and maybe a hoop (which is pretty cheap, and can be found in every playground) and the NBA is the most Youtube-friendly, starry-eyed-dreams-of-big-paychecks sport in the USA, perhaps the world...
So stay away from soccer, would you, America?
American Kids: dream of this:
The rest of the world deserves soccer to be theirs. Deserves to have the USA and its hyper-saturated sports media stay out of it. To enjoy it without you. To shake their heads when you talk about "real football" as if the oval ball version is it. To nod patiently when you talk about how you're trying to "get" soccer.
Why does the world deserve soccer to be theirs, to enjoy it without inviting the USA to the party?
The first reason: The brilliance of soccer/REAL football [soccer from now on; we Canadians call it that, too], and the reason it will always be the world's most popular sport: all you need to play soccer is four objects to be your goalposts, and one thing that's generally round, and small and light enough to move it around with your feet. And that's it. A ball of duct tape or tied together rags will do if you can't afford a FIFA regulation football. And with those things, the poorest kid in the slum of the poorest country can dream of being a world football star. Because ANYBODY can get started in soccer with a minimal outlay, countries that are nowhere near the OECD and the "first world" can be legitimate threats to do some damage in international soccer competitions in a way that they NEVER will in American football or hockey. In turn, these poor kids who made good set their home countries aflame with passion for the sport, and their team, and inspire more kids to bat around a ball in a nearby playground.
Why horn in on that, you big rich meanies?
The second reason: I just don't think a country that has passionate followings for every college sport, NFL, NBA, MLB, Nascar, and NHL, deserves to take a run at soccer as well. Every few years, the sports websites write a few "Here comes soccer" articles, and US Women's soccer is a serious contender in every international tournament, but if the US wins the FIFA World Cup, with so much else on the sports calendar, the reaction of many Americans' will be "Sweet! Is Nascar on?" If South Korea won the FIFA world cup, you'd hear about it from anyone who witnessed it, for twenty, maybe forty years after. Ask a Brit the last year that England won the World Cup of Soccer. Most of them will know. Ask any over 45 what they think about the England/Argentina game in '86, and learn some new curse words. Ask a Korean where they were for the Korea-Italy game in 2002. Ask people from France where they were in 1998, or a Dutchman old enough to remember the 70s what it's like to have lost the final three times now.
Sorry to remind you of this, my English readers.
Because yeah, there are countries where other sports mean more to the people than soccer means to them -- India and Pakistan have cricket, New Zealand and Australia, and probably South Africa, have rugby (I haven't asked any Indians, Pakistani, Kiwis, Aussies or South Africans, but it seems that way from here - please correct me if I'm wrong, and there's another sport you care about more - or if soccer's it there, too), Japan and Cuba and a bunch of other Central American countries probably care more about baseball, sure... but if you look at the number of soccer-mad nations, I think it's fair to say that in the aggregate, soccer means more, to more nations, than any other sport in the world.
And that's why I'm glad it's not also the top sport in the USA.
We've seen that if you throw enough money into sports programs, it's possible to become dominant:
If we compare China's medal totals in the olympics: once China decided to go for a little national prestige by investing in its Olympic team, it went from "Did not participate" to first overall in the 2008 summer games.
Meanwhile, once the Russian government had other things to care about than engaging in pissing contests with the USA, they went from first overall in Lillehammer (last time in a long string of first or second overall finishes, summer AND winter games) to 11th in Vancouver.
If USA became soccer mad, and invested as much in promoting and developing soccer talent as it does in developing talent in other areas, between its huge population base (talent pool) and the amount it invests in sports, the USA would get itself somewhere in the top ten, maybe top five, year after year.
But I'm glad it doesn't. I'm glad top US athletes try to become wide receivers, quarterbacks, running backs, shooting guards and power forwards, and to a lesser degree, pitchers outfielders and shortstops, rather than having all America's world-class athletes wreaking havoc in the world's midfields, backfields and goal lines.
What would it take for Soccer to take over the North American sports horizon?
Well, this is why I think we can rest safe: for the USA sports media to be electrified by soccer, they'd have to see the world's best players, playing awesome games, live on prime-time US TV, but thanks to the mostly European time zones of games involving the world's most competitive teams, and most thrilling players, that's just not going to happen for now. As it is, US soccer fans have to stay up late, or wake up early, or miss work, to catch the world's best soccer: these are things a dedicated fan happily does, but a marginal fan won't. This means there's a pretty low chance that world-class soccer will start catching channel-flippers at times when they're ready and primed to have a cool sports experience. This is why soccer is popular in North America right up to the college level, and then drops off, as North American soccer stars funnel towards the north american sports that have more lucrative professional leagues... or get recruited overseas, where they have a harder time inspiring other kids from their hometown to get into soccer: momentum fails to build.
source - this is what happens to North American soccer stars:
source - this is what happens to North American soccer stars:
If the world's best soccer players started coming to the USA, and playing for US teams, it might catch on: superstar power works in the North American sports market. Look how Wayne Gretzky's move to LA changed things for the popularity of the NHL in the '90s. But right now, the calibre of the US teams, and the kind of economics they deal with, make signing a Messi or Ronaldo, in his prime, to a US Soccer club, an fiscal impossibility. It didn't work with Pele in the 70s, a washed-up David Beckham hasn't, and won't, do it, and if a player like Messi DID take a huge paycheck to sign with a US team, he'd be excoriated even more than Alex Rodruigez was when he took the money and signed for the non-contending Texas Rangers.
Secondly: too many 0-0 or 1-1 draws. The two most popular sports in the USA right now are sports where scores like 21-32, or 93-101 are considered completely normal games. Even the NHL has changed its rules to try and increase scoring, and give fans an outcome for every game, and more 4-3 games instead of 2-1 games, even if it's a shootout win or loss. The rest of the world would cry foul to the high heavens if FIFA suggested changing soccer's rules in order to win over American philistines who don't see the beauty in a 0-0 draw, who don't appreciate a 1-0 win with no shots on goal allowed as a thrilling and utter rout.
Thirdly: the flopping. And honestly, this is why soccer will probably never beat ice hockey on my list of "Sports I enjoy watching."
Look at NFL football and NHL Hockey. North American sports fans, for the most part, respect players who take a solid hip check and keep moving, who shake off a tackle, who play hurt, and who don't pull dramatic waterworks in order to try and get a referee's whistle.
As long as the above funny commercial hits anywhere close to the mark, I'd say the brutal, glorious chaos of rugby has a better chance of becoming a major US sport than soccer. (And for that matter... if there were a battle royale between ten players of each team sport, I'd put my money on Team Rugby to come out on top, after a challenge from a group of hockey players who looked great at first, but got winded after they realized there were no line changes.)
However... the television broadcast rights for World Cup finals keeps spiraling, as the potential audiences reach heady highs -- the next World Cup Finals might reach 40 billion viewers or more (that's by some people watching more than one game), and advertising revenues for the FIFA world cup will likely surpass the ten billion dollars mark in the not-too-far-future. With all that money on the table, and many of the world's richest advertisers and the world's most lucrative sports market still being American based, my guard remains up, despite all the reasons I've listed not to worry... and it always will.