American “exceptionalism” and the beautiful game

Regardless of what happens in today’s U.S.-Germany match, we can expect more heated discussion of whether soccer will ever really catch on here.

Granted, that may already be changing. Sunday’s U.S.-Portugal match netted over 25 million viewers, well above the average for the last NBA finals or World Series. More and more of each new generation of American kids are brought up in the game, a trend likely to continue as football’s concussion crisis pushes parents to opt-out of that sport. And as my colleague David Post notes in a wonderful analysis over at Volokh, the growth of interest in the beautiful game has been phenomenal over the past two decades.

Yet, as Post observes, “we will not engage in a sustained bout of national soul-searching and self-doubt if our team does poorly.” Italy, France, England, Argentina, Brazil…not so much. Post is undoubtedly correct here. But why? There are some stock explanations, none of which quite hold water for me.

First is the lack of scoring in soccer. Yes, one can often watch an entire match and not see a single goal, or see only one goal. Some say this makes soccer boring.

But does such a preference make Americans unique? Other globally popular sports, including cricket, and basketball, and rugby, involve quite a bit of scoring. Americans also seem perfectly capable of appreciating—even loving—sports that don’t involve high scoring. We love baseball and ice hockey, both of which can involve relatively low scores, though of course 0-0 is very rare in either. We love NASCAR, in which mechanically identical cars drive in circles and rarely even pass one another; yes, NASCAR involves plenty of strategy, and crashes, but much of the appeal is in its nuances–like soccer. And Americans also watch…fishing. Need I say more?

Second, and slightly more illuminating, are theories about soccer and American legal culture. The classic here is William Pizzi’s wonderful “Soccer, Football and Trial Systems,” which compares American football’s rules and the American rules of criminal procedure. As Pizzi observes, “our trial system reflects many of the cultural values encoded in the rules and traditions of professional football: the worship of proceduralism, the attempt to rationalize every aspect of the decision-making process, the distrust of spontaneous action, the heavy preference for managerial control over participants, and, above all, the daunting complexity of the rules that such a system requires.”

This is compelling, since the NFL’s never-ending dialectic of violence and regulation does feel, somehow, quite American. The NFL has even instituted a multi-stage appellate process within games to ensure that referees get things right. I personally can’t stand how this fractures the pace of games, but I may be weird.

Yet this explanation, too, isn’t totally satisfying. Formula 1, another massively popular global sport that hasn’t quite caught on in the U.S., has pretty complicated rules around engine and car construction. Instant replay is catching on in other global sports, including tennis and even soccer.

Furthermore, even if true, both the scoring-preference and the rules-preference theses fail to explain why Americans want lots of rules and/or high scoring. Does a desire for high scoring reflect macho culture? Or short attention spans? Surely those aren’t distinctly American traits. I don’t even know where to begin in comparing nations with regard to their desire for rules. Yes, the U.S. is a heavily regulated society, but we have a love/hate relationship with regulation, and other soccer powerhouses are pretty rule-y—see, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

David Post is definitely onto something, though, with his argument that “soccer has wa-a- a-y too much failure in it, and, generally speaking, Americans don’t like failure, and don’t like to dwell upon it.” Ditto his argument that Americans just can’t quite stomach soccer’s fundamental moral arbitrariness. We do like winning, and we do like fairness.

And yet exceptions to both trends are not hard to find. I grew up a Red Sox fan in the 1980s, and can fully attest that we wallowed in the team’s failure, defined ourselves by it. I bet Sox fans born in the 2000s will still know exactly what Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner did. Plus, moral arbitrariness and a tragic sensibility are woven into some of America’s most enduring art and literature. See, the blues; the Southern Gothic; the Sopranos; Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Of course, that tragic outlook may co-exist with our general preference for moral clarity–and perhaps current U.S. soccer fandom among the native-born, which still has a countercultural hue, taps into that very cultural vein.

To cut to the chase: cultural beliefs and attitudes don’t arise in a vacuum. They often are related to structural factors, including legal regimes, which shape our institutions, behaviors, and preferences. I can think of at least three sorts of structural factors to help explain why soccer never quite caught on here.

First: geography is destiny. With oceans on either side, and a vastly larger population and set of natural resources than either of its NAFTA neighbors, the U.S. has long felt insulated from the rest of the world. Combine that with our imperial power during the long American century, and “foreign” ideas often don’t get as much traction here. Geography may also help explain why the U.S. seems to “prefer” games that it can cast as home-grown, even when they are not—football evolved out of rugby; baseball out of cricket. And of course our courts aren’t crazy about utilizing international law.

This also helps explain the popularity of international soccer in the rest of the world: most nations are smaller, and histories longer, so borders have a different valence in Europe, and Latin America, and Africa. Good old-fashioned American exceptionalism and isolationism could explain much of our aversion to soccer. But rather than viewing that preference as inherent in our national character, we can understand it as in part an effect of geopolitics.

Second: contingency and path-dependency. The non-emergence of soccer in the U.S. may also have to do with historical contingencies that prevented it from really taking root. Interestingly, soccer was actually quite popular in the 1920s and 1930s, perhaps second only to baseball in terms of fans. But it then declined in part due to a battle between two different federations over which was the “true” federation. Meanwhile, American football was on the ascent, particularly the college game. At the same time that soccer waned in popularity, football became increasingly popular.

That explanation sounds a bit ex post as well, but there is an interesting structural factor that might lurk here: the land grant universities. Football first took root at the old Ivy League schools, but quickly expanded south and west. So at the same time that soccer lacked a professional federation, football—especially college football—had a ready institutional base in our universities, themselves an outgrowth of particular Congressional decisions.

Of course this invites the question of why universities gravitated toward football rather than soccer in the first place?

Well, an urban/rural split may have done some work, since soccer was more popular in immigrant-dense cities. That could have been an especially important factor in the 1920s and 1930s, given the era’s nativism. Interestingly, this may flip a conventional narrative about football’s emergence in the U.S., the idea that football reflected the values of our emerging industrial society, in comparison to baseball’s more laid-back (read: agrarian) pace and approach.

Yet another factor might be that, by the 1930s, the U.S. was a rising global power—as Duncan Kennedy has argued, we had become, by then, a net exporter of ideas rather than an importer. Why replicate Europe, with all its misery and war, when we have a homegrown game that could instill virtues of hard work, cooperation, perseverance? This was an era when our “national identity” was being built and/or revised, and football seems to have played a role in that process.

There is a final contingency worth mentioning: for a variety of political-economic and legal reasons, European nations have national television systems that traditionally showed league and international games. In England, the BBC started doing so in the early 1980s. They’ve since been eclipsed by private (generally for-pay) broadcasters, but the national broadcasters’ coverage surely helped the sport’s popularity, and the sense of national identity attached to teams.

When TV really took off, the U.S. already didn’t have soccer. But if we did, would it have mattered? Unless PBS was going to broadcast soccer—not likely—it would have needed to find a home on a private broadcast network. Private broadcasters survive on commercial revenue, and soccer just doesn’t allow a whole lot of time for advertisements. Whether that same explanation can carry back to the 1920s and 1930s, when football had a different structure and radio would have been the dominant broadcaster, is another question. But it is unsurprising that no television network or entrepreneur succeeded in establishing a soccer league once the appeal of televised football was clear.

Surely there is much more to the story than this armchair history. But I do think that whatever constellation of historical factors led to football’s growth can explain more than simple appeals to (current) U.S. consumer preferences. And once football was well established, path-dependency kicked in: our best athletes went into football, or basketball, or hockey, and professional soccer leagues struggled to gain market share.

That leads to the third structural factor: lack of supply. Sometimes demand is a function of supply, and in the U.S., the quality of in-person and televised soccer is pretty dismal. So Americans might “not like” soccer in part because they hardly ever see soccer, let alone good soccer.

The bad (?) news for American soccer fans is that I don’t expect this will change anytime soon. Then again, as I noted above, perhaps those fans—like Red Sox fans of old—relish being the underdog. To play out that logic further, perhaps soccer will eventually catch on, but only if and when the U.S. is eclipsed as a global superpower, at which point the tragic side of our national character will become more pronounced.

The good (?) news for those with a more tragic outlook? Our national team will probably be fairly weak for a while yet.

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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.