Does Soccer Have a Chance to Ever Become a Major Sport in North America?

After spending some time in England last summer and planning to return this summer, I have spent much more time than I ever imagined watching soccer, both live and on television, during the past year. I still do not find it all that gripping, which probably stems from my lack of knowledge and understanding of the game.

The most fun I have had watching soccer has been in pubs that do not encourage drunken teenagers (see this) and at small stadia in lesser leagues. The hooting, yelling, singing, chanting, and the atmosphere was lots of fun, but the downright deadly stupors of some of the younger crowd at some pubs during the World Cup last summer were very off-putting.

If I am remotely representative of the potential North American audience, does soccer have any chance of ever becoming a major sport in North America? Will it ever be as big, by some measure, as MLB or the NFL? [notice I omit the NHL because soccer probably does have a chance of surpassing hockey by some standards; in terms of participation, it already has.].

  1. One big plus for soccer is that its games typically last less than two hours, which is great for the television market. This scheduling (with a half-hour studio show between each game) allows us (in Canada, anyway) to watch three UK Premiership soccer matches every Saturday in 7 hours, about the time it takes to see two NFL games. Instead of the NFL double-headers, we could easily have soccer/football triple-headers on weekends and double-headers on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. Also, even if soccer/football games begin to take more time (see below), as has happened with both MLB and the NFL, they are unlikely to become much longer than 2 1/4 or 2 1/2 hours, which would still permit the weekend triple-headers with no difficulty [I know, I know: the NFL has Sunday triple-headers now, but they take for-friggin’-ever].
  2. At the same time, to make the product more attractive to potential sponsors, soccer will almost surely start guaranteeing that there will be 10-second or 15-second breaks when the ball goes out of bounds or especially when a team is granted a corner kick or free kick near the goal; mark my words, this will happen in FIFA even if soccer never takes off in North America. Purists will hate this, but purists also hated all the commercial time-outs that have become so prevalent in the NFL and have added to the time baseball games last. Adding time-outs for commercials is, after all, a minor alteration in the game, and doing so would not unduly lengthen the games, so this is a change I can imagine would be comparatively easy.
  3. Many zillions and tons of kids grow up playing soccer/football in North America these days. So there is some interest in the game at the young participatory level. But that interest does not necessarily translate into yuppie, high-income spectator interest [reductio ad absurdum?: kids like lots of things that do not translate into significant adult markets].
  4. Soccer/football will have to be more exciting for North American spectators to capture the young adult, high-income, and corporate-account market segment. Some possibilities might include:
    • loud music during every break. MLB seems to think this is a good idea, but I hate it; as one MLB executive once told me, “Doc, your demographic isn’t the one we’re targeting…”
    • Scantily clad cheerleaders?
    • More body contact; this change in the NBA over the past fifty years seems to have played a role in the growth of interest in the NBA. At the same time, though, it hasn’t helped the NHL, which seems to be trying to reduce the amount of contact to some extent. Maybe the marginal revenue product of body contact in team sports is diminishing as the number of contact increases, becoming negative at some point. [note: Brian Goff thinks there is already too much body contact in soccer.]
    • Scoring. I’m sure I’m revealing my ethnocentric loutish ignorance, but soccer/football is boring when so few goals are scored. What a drag! We watch for a couple of hours, and maybe there’s a goal scored. And perhaps it’s the result of skill, but some/much of the time, it seems to be the result of randomness (in play, in officiating, in wind currents, in hair length [Peter Crouch’s big goal last summer in the World Cup], etc.]. But nobody can agree on what to do to increase the scoring.

Brian Goff made some fascinating suggestions here (be sure to see the string of comments, too). Also, see this by Skip Sauer. And here is something Tyler Cowen wrote on the topic several years ago.

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Author: John Palmer

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Soccer, television