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Soccer, and Hell Freezing Over

2010 April 29
by Skip Sauer

A couple of weeks ago, my undergraduate seminar engaged in a discussion of Michael Allen Gillespie’s excellent essay “Players and Spectators:  Sports and Ethical Training in the American University”.  As we discussed the issue of how ethical norms develop, the question arose of how spectators in different countries latch on to one form of football or another — rugby in New Zealand, soccer in Spain, our football here in the states.  Joining us for the day was Emeritus Professor Bobby McCormick, who took a strong stand that soccer in the states was doomed to irrelevance.  “Hell would freeze over”, he said, before soccer became anything more than a fringe spectator sport in the U.S.  He could not be moved on the issue, neither by me nor a group of articulate students, including a member of Clemson’s soccer team.*

Like my students, I think Bobby is wrong.  I’ve made the argument before, and still believe that the power of the media, combined with youth participation in the sport, will ultimately cause soccer to become widely followed in the U.S.  There will be a tipping point, and so my antennae are tuned to signs that we may be approaching it.  The first of a number of current indicators comes from right under Bobby’s nose.  In the last two weeks his very own son has sat through two televised Arsenal matches, on my couch with several of his friends!  This is new.**

The second comes from ESPN, the media sports behemoth widely believed to hype its own product just a bit on Sports Center.  Last night’s top ten plays went against the hype grain, including two video clips from Inter Milan’s 1-0 victory over Barcelona in the  Champions League Semifinal (the telecast was on Fox, not ESPN).  The two were relatively meaningless plays at that: a save by the Inter goalkeeper in the first half, an ordinary and futile goal by Barcelona late in the second.

Third, promoters in the U.S. are now either crazy or prescient enough to arrange a pre-season version of the “Old Firm Derby” between Celtic and Rangers at Fenway Park in Boston.  The Boston Globe ran a story yesterday that referenced crowd trouble at Rangers games, apparently with unintentional blame bestowed on Rangers for the 1971 Ibrox disaster, and a bit of ill-advised favoritism towards Celtic.  The “furious response” from Rangers fans was enough for the Globe to delete the article from its website, and post an apology from the author.  (For the curious, here’s google’s cache of the original story.  Some quotes from it can be found in this article about the reaction.)

Finally, I can’t mention the media and last night’s semifinal without having a go at the media maestro extraordinaire, Inter coach Jose Mourinho.  Noone marshalls the media for his own purposes like Mourinho.  Crazy and fury are words that come to mind, but don’t quite capture his wild yet surely calculated celebration after knocking out Barcelona.  Mourinho has a habit of taunting his opponents with soulless chutzpah before the match, and gloating like a demon after beating them with dour, defensive football.  But yesterday’s celebration was a sight to beholdAmy Lawrence writes that “Mourinho scampered across the sacred turf of Camp Nou, then struck a pose, a gesture of rampant defiance, aimed at the pocket of Inter fans up in the gods.” That’s about right, except that the show’s true target was the 80,000 plus Barcelona fans in attendance, and the millions watching on TV.  Mourinho is a win-at-all-costs manager, and I fully recognize his brilliance in winning big games.  But this returns me to Gillespie’s essay on ethics and spectator sport.  That I despise Mourinho’s antics and appreciate Gillespie’s view on ethics are one and the same.

*Revealed preference suggests that Professor McCormick takes strong stands for the purpose of stimulating vigorous discussion.

**I’d be interested to know what’s going on in sports bars these days.  The transition from isolated fans into numerous small clusters will presage the tipping point.

11 Responses
  1. April 29, 2010

    Skip,

    Pub culture of watching the English Premier league games has been going on for a while now. Globe Pub and Small Bar in Chicago are two that have a regular crowd for the games. The Highburry in Milwaukee gets good crowds for these games as well. I’ve also been to a place in Toronto to watch the European games before the Chicago Fire match I was about to attend. These places are usually run by Soccer fans and aren’t traditional sports bars. It will be interesting to see if these places continue to grow since there are soccer games on every weekend of the year.

    ESPN is pushing soccer on their highlights due to their coverage of the World Cup and their increasing coverage of La Liga, the Bundesliga (both of these on ESPN Desportes and ESPN 2) and the EPL (just on ESPN 2 I think). Not to mention their ESPN 3 internet streaming rights for just about every big league in the world. I’m pretty sure the have financial motivation to pimp these leagues.

  2. April 29, 2010

    Interesting article, Skip.

    Looking at the US from an outside, European perspective, it seems like an American thing that people only accept sports leagues that are the best in the world in their respective discipline. For soccer, that will not be the case within at least the next 20 years. In the US, entertainment is the prime objective for watching a match. If you know there’s some better entertainment available somewhere else, why should you go? You don’t watch a mediocre movie, do you?

    In “soccer countries” (sorry for not finding a better term) it’s about the excitement the sport brings. Nobody in England, Spain, Germany, Italy, etc. would accept a season that is designed the way it is in the MLB (allow me to do some advertising: My take on the baseball season is at http://businessgametime.com/2010/04/05/how-to-strike-out-boredom/ )
    A lot of the positive things you mention – e.g. watching soccer on the couch with some friends – are as deeply integrated into the culture in “soccer countries” as having a hot dog while watching baseball is in the US. A culture change won’t come over night and money can’t buy it. Seems like a lot of patience will be required…

  3. April 29, 2010

    “Hell would freeze over”, he said, before soccer became anything more than a fringe spectator sport in the U.S.

    How is he defining what a fringe sport is? Compared to the NFL, the NBA and especially the NHL could be considered fringe sports. The combined ratings for the five NBA Finals games last year, which involved the very popular Lakers, is lower than the rating for the last Super Bowl. NBA and NHL Playoff games (as well as regular season MLB games) were nothing more than a sideshow last week compared to the NFL Draft.

    MLS on ESPN2 last year averaged similar viewership numbers as the NHL on Versus did through last October. Granted, more people have ESPN2 than Versus, but the bottom line is that the number of eyeballs are similar. Then again, the WNBA wasn’t far off the numbers of the MLS and NHL. I guess the NHL and MLS would have to be considered fringe sports if one considers the WNBA a fringe sport since they are in the same ratings ballpark (Source: http://sportsmediawatch.blogspot.com/2009/10/mls-viewership-up-15-on-espn2.html)

    Soccer may not get much coverage on the traditional American sports television networks (ESPN, ABC, FOX, CBS, and NBC), but Spanish language broadcast channels (Telemundo, Univision, and TeleFutura) show a lot of soccer every week. These Spanish channels command a significant share of the television in some key markets. For example, Univision was the highest rated television network in LA, Dallas, San Francisco, and Houston during the hours of the USA-Mexico World Cup Qualifying game last year (Source: http://sportsmediawatch.blogspot.com/2009/02/usamexico-on-univision-outdraws-uncduke.html). Many Americans may ignore the Spanish language channels, but they are increasingly becoming major players in the American television industry. Soccer is the backbone for many of these networks. Whether the Spanish language channel watchers will ever embrace the MLS or not is a different question, but an intriguing one.

  4. Robert Macdonald permalink
    April 29, 2010

    We see the same debate in Australia Skip. Based upon local experiences, that tipping point will certainly come; it may well have arrived in 2006 when Australia qualified for the FIFA World Cup for the first time in decades.

    But whether that makes MLS (or in the Australian case, the A-League) something that is so valuable as to generate the same level of media coverage and revenue as the local codes is a different question again – I doubt we’ll know the answer to that in our lifetimes – but I actually doubt it. It seems to me that the US major league sports (or in Australia, Australian football and rugby league) are deeply ingrained as part of the national culture.

    Out of interest, what sort of crowds go to US collegiate soccer games? That level might identify your tipping point.

  5. April 30, 2010

    I hear Simon Davies’ Fulham goal in the Europa tie over Hamburg SV made Sports Center Top 10 this morning!!

  6. Dan permalink
    April 30, 2010

    Skip, the youth participation argument has been going on since I was in grade school in the sixties. In St. Louis every grade school athlete played CYC soccer and the same thing happened when my kids were in grade school. It is cheap and easy to put a soccer team on the field compared to baseball and football plus parents think players are not likely to get hurt.

    Then Pele came to the U.S. and then the U.S. hosted the World Cup. And still I have trouble watching an MLS game while I will gladly watch the Bayern/Man U match or the Barca/Inter games or any of the games from the EPL or Spanish leagues. I remember watching German soccer on our PBS station as a kid and kept waiting for anything resembling the excitement to occur here. When the best soccer players from around the world go the European leagues, watching MLS is like watching Italian baseball teams play each other.

    And the plays ESPN highlighted were important because if that Messi shot had gone in Barca would be playing Bayern for the ECL. The real crime is that Inter got a win even though they acted like it was a penalty to cross mid-field. But that’s what happens when you are up 3-1 after the first leg.

    I hope soccer could reach the popularity in the states as it is in the rest of the world but I wouldn’t put my money behind it. There is no way for essentially minor league teams to compete with the NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA for dollars and attention.

  7. April 30, 2010

    Points one and two were addressed in a podcast by mass market author Chuck Klosterman who believed that if the NBA and NFL have strikes then ESPN will step in with soccer coverage. It was interesting to hear.
    I don’t think youth participation in soccer will boost the sport into the big four because soccer at the high school level, where most sporting bonds are created through participation, doesn’t produce the same number of participants as football and about the same of basketball and baseball.
    What we’re likely seeing with soccer is the stratification of media much like late night television. In the past we only had the two major network offerings of Leno and Letterman but now with more media options people can find whatever comedy niche they seek. The same is for enjoying sporting events.

  8. Greg Pinelli permalink
    May 1, 2010

    Like it or not Bobby McCormick was spot on. The soccer culture in the United States is a mile wide and an inch deep. I’m in the SanFrancisco Bay Area and have coached elite level youth soccer teams (boys) for over 10 years. There are easily over 70,000 youth players in this greater area…and a few years ago the Earthquakes moved to Texas because they could only draw 8,000-9,000 on a good night when the weather was perfect. And they were defending MLS Champs!
    The argument that soccer will become America’s sport has come and gone. We’ll have middling National teams that are capable of the occasional success…and college soccer is very enjoyable. But it’s a niche sport. Exhibitions sellout in the Bay Area when a Mexican team comes to play…JC Guadalajara..Club America..Tigres..etc..
    Youth participation won’t boost the sport because its already peaked..and the overwhelming number of kids stop playing and paying attention at 14. My advice..learn to enjoy it for what it is…and make sure you don’t miss the Champions League on ESPN is you really enjoy seeing it played at the highest level.

  9. May 3, 2010

    I was interested in the Michael Allan Gillespie essay for which you provided a link but all my attempts to read it fail due to “file is damaged”. Are other people having the same problem?

  10. May 3, 2010

    Thanks to all who have commented so far.

    Do note that nowhere in my post did I claim that MLS was going to become a big 4 sport, or that soccer would become “America’s sport”. Indeed, couch is generally empty during MLS games. Indeed, the evidence from my couch is consistent with the point made that American fas want to see the best talent on offer.

    As for Gillespie’s paper, I just went to dukepress.com and successfully loaded it. Perhaps they are restricting access to .edu or .gov domains?

  11. May 6, 2010

    Thanks for the article Skip. The main point here is what is a ‘fringe’ sport. the US sporting landscape is so muddled that it is amazing any sports are significantly popular than others, especially with the length of the MLB season.

    As one of the previous commentators above mentioned, there is a large number of soccer players who leave the game at 12-14 years old and give up on it.

    For me, it’s a simple question. Are soccer players truly fans? I did an article on it a few weeks back and it gained quite a few insightful responses. The consensus was that in the US, a soccer player does not have to be a fan, whereas in other countries (i.e. Spain, England) people are already fans and players at the same time.

    So while there may be millions of soccer players in U-bittie leagues throughout the US, how many of those kids know anything about the game outside of their practices?

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