American “exceptionalism” and the beautiful game

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3 Responses

  1. Howard Wasserman says:

    Really great post. I offer some thoughts and responses (too long for a comment) here:

  2. C.S. says:

    I think that you’re not considering a significant factor related to the low scoring . . . fairness. Or, at least, a sense of fairness, if not actual fairness. In games which deliberately make scoring difficult, such as soccer or . . . actually, can’t really think of any others . . . luck becomes a dominant factor controlling individual games. On a corner kick, with 15 or more men in a confined area, you could argue (and I think some have) that any goal scored in that situation is predominantly a product of luck. Of course, there is skill involved, but there is skill involved in the failure to score a goal as well. A significantly inferior team can get “lucky” once, and then fall back into a defensive posture for the remainder of the game. No matter the skill on the other side of the ball, the chances are that they will prevail. They haven’t necessarily been “better” on that particular day so much as they have been luckier. Over time, over the course of the season, the cream still tends to rise, but on a particular day, luck can (and often does) determine the outcome.

    This is not to say that luck, good or bad, doesn’t affect other sports. But when the sport is designed to maximize scoring (like basketball), or gives each team a relatively equal shot at scoring (like baseball or American football), you have more opportunities to wash away the occasional lucky break. The team that is superior on a given day will win. This just isn’t so with soccer.

    Now, I could peer into the American soul and theorize that allowing luck to play such an outsized role just feels wrong to Americans. But I wonder if the question is better posed in the other direction. Given the obvious role of luck, which is more outsized in soccer than virtually any other sport, why is soccer so popular in other countries? In fact, isn’t this a question that might be asked even without acknowledging luck? Yes, football is the most popular American sport, but we play baseball, basketball, hockey, and even soccer in greater numbers and proportions than other countries — even rich countries with sporting traditions — play any sport other than soccer. Do the English play as much cricket as we play soccer? The French play a lot of rugby, and they’ve got a good basketball league, but do those have as much of a foothold as basketball or baseball here in the US? I doubt it, and I think that’s a lot weirder than the US not cottoning to soccer.

  3. Brian S. says:

    A great post! While there are certainly complelling historical explanations for soccer’s relative lack of popularity, I’d argue that there is a simpler reason for its recent lack of penetration into American households: quality of play. Every popular American sport has a domestic league in which the players are the very best in the world. We don’t even care if the players, themselves, are foreign (e.g., hockey). And while the MLS is flirting with being a top-ten league, even Joe America knows that an MLS game doesn’t showcase the sport in its best light. Americans can’t be bothered to use their precious television time on second-best activities. It is telling that NBC spent tons of cash to broadcast premier league games rather than MLS games this year. Scoring, arbitrariness, lack of rules–none of these explanations hold water for the reasons Brishen highlights. I would wager, however, that if premier league, la liga, or bundesliga relocated to the US, soccer tv ratings would compete with the top US sports. In other words, there is nothing intrinsic to soccer that explains the lack of popularity. Perhaps it is exceptionalism or elitism or leisure time pragmatism that does.