Why Americans Don’t Play Soccer, and Everyone Else Does: Part I

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Richard Hershberger

Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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  1. Avatar Francis
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    “The fall is more suited to a game with lots of constant movement, making cool fall weather bracing rather than frigid. … Football, in its innumerable variants, is the classic fall sport”

    American football has lots of constant movement? for whom?Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Francis
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      The guy selling beer in the stands.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Francis
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      In its earlier versions. Think along the lines of a no-huddle offense.

      The heart of the argument in this series is about path dependencies. With modern climate controlled roofed stadiums, there is no longer any reason for the various sports to follow their traditional seasons beyond path dependency.Report

      • Avatar Autolukos in reply to Richard Hershberger
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        Even more than huddling, unlimited substitution paved the way for today’s plodding pace of play.Report

      • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Richard Hershberger
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        Also, prior to WWII, American football still had vestiges of the extreme aversion to substitution that it inherited from Association football, and “ironman” was the norm, as opposed to being a script hook for a movie that gets stars out of their comfort zones, like Kathy Ireland trying to kick field goals, or Scott Bakula trying to act.

        So think of it as a no-huddle offense, in which the same 11 guys then turn around and try to defend against a no-huddle offense.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to El Muneco
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          Yes! This is why I view American Football as a glorified form of entertainment and not a sport.

          {{The metric is a sliding scale with the NFL straddling the limiting case.}}Report

        • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to El Muneco
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          It wasn’t so much an aversion to substitution as a default assumption. All team sports started out with no substitutions, or only for injuries. Baseball didn’t allow substitutions except for injuries until the late 1880s. Before then, when a player was injured the substitute would go into the club house and change into his uniform.Report

  2. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    Does most of the world play cricket? Perhaps by population because of India but are there are any non-former British colonies that enjoy the sport? As far as I can tell, cricket is big in India, Pakistan, Australia, Caribbean Countries, New Zealand, the UK and Singapore and not much anywhere else. I don’t even think the Canadians play it with zeal.

    Baseball is a big sport in the United States, Canada, Japan, and much of Central America.

    I suspect European football (aka Soccer) will become more popular as more moms say no to football because of the head injury issue. Youth soccer is already bigger than youth football in large sections of the United States (the Midwest and Texas) seems to be the exception.

    Why do you think Basketball did better as a sport abroad than American Football and Baseball? Is it that Basketball is a relatively cheap sport and a very urban sport?Report

    • Avatar Autolukos in reply to Saul Degraw
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      I think this is correct about cricket: it’s played in a similar number of countries as the other second-tier Commonwealth sport, rugby, but cricket caught on in India and rugby didn’t, giving cricket a much larger share of world population.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Saul Degraw
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      You are stepping on Part V, and Part VI if I go there. You are right about cricket. It is strictly a former British Empire thing, and only certain parts of the Empire. There is virtually no overlap between cricket and baseball. The more interesting observation is that there is, outside of Britain itself, there is only limited overlap between cricket and soccer. But this is for Part V.

      As for the future of football, the head injury issue is the potential foot in the door for soccer. But this isn’t a certain thing. I think that American football will cease to be something that white middle class kids play, but it is less clear how this will affect it as a spectator sport, since non-white lower class kids will still have a strong incentive to step up and take a spin of the wheel. This is Part VI.

      Basketball is an interesting question. I don’t know a great deal about the history of international basketball, so I am just spitballing this, but my guess is that it stepped into a vacant “winter team sport” niche.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Richard Hershberger
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        Basketball is the winter sport for countries without an actual winter. 😉

        I think that basketball and soccer both grew big because they require little in the way of equipment, so are great sports for developing nations.Report

        • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to LeeEsq
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          Basketball is the winter sport for countries without an actual winter. 😉

          This actually has a lot of truth to it. It generally sucks to be outside in the winter because, well, it is friggin’ cold. But if you have snow or hard ice, then you can go skiing or skating or build a snow fort for a snowball fight. These activities are fun enough to more than make up for the friggin’ cold part. The problem is that there is a huge middle space where you can’t count on the snow or hard ice, at least not reliably, but where it is amply cold to be unpleasant. Therefore, basketball, which turned out to be popular enough in some places to move back outdoors.Report

          • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Richard Hershberger
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            I think the lack of equipment angle is a good one.

            Football started as a working-class sport in England. Cricket was a middle class to posh sport. Football requires a ball, two nets, shorts, a shirt, and some kind of gear for the shoe. Cricket requires a bat and other equipment and really fancy uniforms.

            Baseball requires bats, balls, helmets and uniforms.

            Basketball requires one or two nets, a court, and a ball. You can do shirts v. skins. If you go around NYC, you will always see people playing b-ball on small public courts. Finding room for baseball diamonds and football fields is tougher.Report

            • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Saul Degraw
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              Football started as a working-class sport in England. Cricket was a middle class to posh sport.

              Neither of these statements is quite correct. I’ll be covering the rise of English football clubs in parts 2 and 4. The working class was part of this, but it was the gentry that drove early organized football. Early cricket cut across class lines, in those regions where it was popular. It rose to prominence as an organized sport in the early 18th century when the high nobility adopted it as a medium for high stakes gambling. They played the game, but for the really high stakes matches generally had the good sense to hire the best professionals, regardless of class. Clubs such as the Marylebone CC came a few decades later, essentially as a way for the merely wealthy to get in on the action by pooling their gambling funds.Report

    • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Saul Degraw
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      Simplified answer: they play cricket where the merchant sailors were British (West Indies, subcontinent, ANZAC) and baseball where they were American (Latin America, Japan, Korea).

      As for basketball, I think it thrives because it’s only indirectly competing – baseball and cricket both take similar amounts of space and equipment, as do the football codes relative to each other (exception: American/Canadian, but you can still play touch/flag with no pads). While basketball is cheap, indoor, and you can play in all weathers – it’s really competing against indoor ice sports rather than any of the outdoor sports.Report

  3. Avatar Michael Cain
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    Define “don’t play”. The Denver metro area is simply rotten with soccer complexes, all heavily used. My suburb built theirs on a flood plain that couldn’t be otherwise developed: eight full-size pitches, and 20+ smaller ones for younger kids (all the way down to a couple of tiny ones for the three- and four-year olds). Dick’s Sporting Goods Park has a main pitch with 18,000 seats and all the usual stadium amenities, plus 24 other pitches. Aurora claims they can mark out at least 12 full-sized pitches at their complex. A few of the pitches are artificial turf for year-round use, and indoor 7-on-7 soccer is played year-round. Leagues for everything from the tots to full-on serious adults to tottering oldsters. Lots of places where you can drop in and be assigned to a team for pick-up games.

    From high-school up, football is still the glamour sport with the biggest stadiums and TV coverage. But lord, it’s not what the people are out playing.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Michael Cain
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      Define “don’t play”.

      Oh, it is certainly hyperbole. I confessed to that in the piece. Interesting things are going on with soccer in the US. How this will play out is not at all clear to me.

      If you prefer, change the question about not playing by adding an “until recently.”

      As an addendum, I am totally not anti-soccer. I played it as a kid through the YMCA. Both my kids play it through a local soccer association. But soccer, particularly as a spectator sport, simply does not have the cultural mindshare of American football, baseball, or basketball. It is perhaps comparable to hockey, but even that is disputable. I am uninterested in a “why soccer sucks” discussion, for many reasons not the least of which is that soccer doesn’t suck. But a discussion of why this non-sucky sport isn’t a bigger deal than it is? That is an interesting topic.Report

      • In the US, for the last 50 years, consumption of professional sports has largely been by means of television. This is unsurprising; today’s 32 NFL teams and 330 million people mean most are priced out by time and money from ever seeing a live game. The US television model was, until recently, a commercial break every few-to-several minutes. My understanding is that 50 years ago, this model was relatively unique in the world. American football was already a good fit, and certainly at the pro level, the league(s) were willing to make accommodations.

        So, a fortuitous — or not — combination. A TV model that required a game that could be easily broken up into few-minute chunks, and a game that fit that mold that needed TV coverage to expand the revenues.

        (Going to the stadium and watching an NFL game these days is an interesting experience. There’s an unbelievable amount of dead time: players jogging back to the huddle or to/from the sidelines at the end of a play; long delays following change of possession (commercials are running); video review; time outs; injuries. I gained an appreciation for how hard the director and announcers are working to fill those gaps.)Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Michael Cain
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          That’s my understanding how football became more big than baseball to. Football was a big deal since the 1890s but it was a big deal at the high school and college level. Professional football existed but it wasn’t popular until television provided a good match because you could place commercials in a lot easier with football games than baseball or basketball games.Report

          • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to LeeEsq
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            I am bemused by the implication that baseball lacks natural breaks in which to insert commercials.

            Television is certainly crucial in the rise of professional football, but I would state it in terms of American football being an ideal television sport. Face it: it kind of sucks as a live event, if you want to see what the hell is going on in the game. It is great as a communal experience, which ties in with its earlier popularity as a school sport. But you can’t actually see the plays. Television changed that. Even with the TV coverage we had when I was a kid you could really follow the action, and it has gotten better as cameras improve and grow more numerous, with high definition and super slow-motion instant replay.

            Baseball, on the other hand, is a great live sport, but kind of sucks on television. In person you get both the communal experience and you can actually see what is going on. Not everything, but well enough. The leisurely pace is not so much of a problem in person. There usually is plenty of sensory input. But on TV there is an awful lot of talking heads filling what would otherwise be essentially dead air. I prefer baseball on the radio. If I am near a computer I may pull up a highlight play, but then again I may not.Report

            • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Richard Hershberger
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              Baseball might have natural breaks but not enough of them for the sponsors.Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to LeeEsq
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                Baseball games are a much more localized form of entertainment (note how most major franchises have their own local cable channel), opposed to American football, which, due to its schedule and timing tends to be more nationalized in its audience. So you get enormously big sponsors for football games, but less often, as opposed to baseball games where you often see local advertisers who are big fish in the area, but not huge nationally.Report

              • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Nob Akimoto
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                There’s a bit of the inherent difference between a sport that the physical toll means you can only play about once a week, vs one that you can play twice a day every so often.

                But a lot of it was also the singular effort and vision of Pete Rozelle. The NFL radio broadcasts, for example, are still team based.Report

        • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Michael Cain
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          The first time a US soccer league had a major TV contract, there were studio-dictated commercial breaks – signaled to the referee, who would then stop the action and the clock until given the all-clear. And the teams were all European sides on their summer break, here to earn more money while drinking and sleeping with groupies while an ocean away from their wives. And to think that there were a few people surprised when it all failed…Report

    • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Michael Cain
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      Soccer is huge among adults in my area as well, although to be fair it is one of the traditional hotbeds.

      The thing is, it has a lot going for it that makes it a great amateur sport – you don’t need a lot of equipment, you can get by even in an organized league with one referee, every high school has a proper field that isn’t being used most of the year, and injuries that would cost you time from work are relatively rare, oh, and you can play in mixed company at most skill levels. Only one of these is true for full-contact American football.

      I hear that, in Seattle, there is a fairly committed group that plays pick-up Australian football, which sounds like a blast even if it would be somewhat constrained on a normal US-sized field. Unfortunately, the meeting place is over an hour from where I live here in 1980s Seattle.

      Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate to ratings points. MLS isn’t going away, and the Sounders will have sellouts until they have multiple seasons where they suck on ice, and possibly not even then. But I don’t see a path to entering “Big Three (apart from NASCAR)” status. It would take soccer becoming not the sport that kids play but the sport that kids breathe, and that’s not going to happen here.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to El Muneco
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        Soccer was HUGE in Pittsburgh, until the televisions came. (Think about it: these were all European folks who played it back home — and a ball’s cheap, and works for any day that’s not subzero. And maybe even then — Pittsburgh ran a marathon while it was snowing, once).Report

  4. Avatar Kolohe
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    Doesn’t one also have to consider that until roughly the Superbowl era, the American indoor spectator sport was boxing and the American outdoor spectator sport was horse racing? (and baseball).Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Kolohe
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      I didn’t really go into this, but team sports have a different dynamic from non-team sports, and seem in many ways to occupy a different domain. My hypothesis is that sports teams acquire institutional continuity that affects fan behavior, garnering intense loyalty, with families rooting for the same team for generations. Individual sports don’t have that. You might be a fan of a particular boxer, but his career lasts only so long. In other words, rooting for laundry turns out to be a strength. Horse racing and boxing, while very big deals a century ago, weren’t really in competition with team sports, or to the extent that they were it was in a more “competing for general entertainment/gambling dollars” way than a “competing for hearts and minds” way.

      Hence my argument that you have certain team sports niches, and you have to compare like with like to construct a coherent thread.Report

      • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Richard Hershberger
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        I’ve said this before, I think – I’ve met some expats who are supporters of the same team that I have adopted. To a one, they were incredulous. To them, their team loyalty is practically something they inherited, like hair color or hemophilia. The idea that someone would, given free choice, choose to bear that particular cross was not something they’d ever considered.Report

        • Avatar J_A in reply to El Muneco
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          I can see you are not talking Barça hereReport

          • Avatar El Muneco in reply to J_A
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            Yah. Even in the UK, someone from outside the catchment who supports Man U is seen (even by the players!) as having at least a whiff of glory-chasing about them.

            Earlier this year, I spent a real interesting hour in a parking lot talking with a guy I’d just finished playing a soccer game against – his team wore green, so he had a shirt from his childhood team (Hibernian, from Edinburgh). I had the red shirt of my adopted team (Leyton Orient, late of the lowest division in the English League). He recognized it, since he’d spent time in Cambridge at school and had picked up kind of a secondary interest, and – like the weekend league we play in – you tend to run into the same opponents year after year. Both of our proxy teams would, in fact, end up in the two places just outside last season’s playoffs…Report

  5. Avatar El Muneco
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    Exactly. My hometown competes at the top level in two major sports, and has significant time spent in another (the team moved – this is something else unheard of outside of the USA and Milton Keynes), plus a lot of years in two majorish sports.

    In something like 150 competitive seasons during my lifetime (among all teams combined), we have two championships(*). Is it really unfair to look upon people who only got on the bandwagon when those championships were either imminent or already accomplished as being somewhat of a flag chaser?

    (*) No, I don’t count the Seattle Totems championship in the Spanish Flu season as being real. It was well before my lifetime, anyway, since it was in, what, 1916? And were they even the Totems then? I’m not even sure of that…Report

  6. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto
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    Oddly enough, along with having the largest professional baseball league outside of the United States, Japan also has a professional American football league that’s been around since the 1970s. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-League )Report

  7. Avatar Michael Drew
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    I’d totally watch a special in which NFL All-Stars & EPL All-Stars competed in *some athletic competition or other* (perhaps chosen on the day?!), not to include football or football. Or, come to think of it, basketball, baseball, cricket, or rugby. That would be fascinating.Report

  8. Avatar J_A
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    A cricket match would be perfectly fair in the sense that it’s very unlikely any of the EPL All Stars would know the game. The majority are foreigners (*), and few to none of the Englishmen playing come from schools where cricket would have been played

    (*) in 2010, watching on TV the Champions League final, Inter Milan against Bayern, I noticed there was not a single Italian in ami.an’s opening roster of players. They won 2-0.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to J_A
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      There is surprisingly little overlap of soccer and cricket, outside of Britain itself. There is more overlap than between cricket and baseball, but much less that you would expect were it a random thing. I will get into this in part 5.Report

  9. Avatar J_A
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    If you haven’t seen the movie The Cup ( I mean this one https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cup_(1999_film) there are several The Cup movies) you must before you end this series.Report

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