We are in the midst of one of the best UEFA Champions league seasons in years. FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich look to be the best in the world, but Juventus isn’t far behind.
What? You don’t know who those teams are? You’re not alone. Even after one of the most successful World Cup runs in US history, a recent poll of Americans showed that 40% cared “not at all” about the World Cup and only 22% cared “a great deal”.
Why is that? Is it because the youth of America don’t play? Not a chance. More kids play youth soccer than football & volleyball combined, until about age 11. It’s also the fourth most popular sport for boys and girls among all kids, outpacing track, swimming, and fast-growing lacrosse. But that foundation doesn’t translate to success on the world stage or the ability to displace one of the big four leagues in popularity. While the NHL has done its best to take away all the things that die-hard fans loved about the sport (hitting, fighting, etc), it’s still strongly the fourth most popular league and the MLS is quite a ways behind. So again, in a day and age where the US is finally somewhat competitive in a sport on a world stage, we’re sending players to play for some of the biggest clubs in the world, why do only 2% of Americans call soccer their favorite sport?
Americans are all about fair play. Truth, justice, the American way…apple pie, all that stuff. And yet, in soccer, justice does not always prevail. The dives that we have the benefit of seeing on replay in slow motion, as the announcers declare their dismay, the referees have to call on the field. And while often they make the right call, on occasion in the wrong place, they make a bad call, and it affects the outcome of the match drastically. For example, the biggest controversy during the NFC playoffs this year was the horrible officiating during the Dallas Cowboys/Detroit Lions game. It was so bad that the NFL apologized to the Lions for the number of missed calls. That sort of thing would NEVER happen in MLS, Premiere League, La Liga, or any other major soccer league. It just doesn’t happen. And, the three referees can have a tremendous affect on the outcome of a match. Unlike NFL where there are several officials who look at a play from different angles, plus have replay, in soccer, the call is the call is the call. The center referee can overrule the assistant referees, but the center is the final authority on the field. The New York Times investigated soccer match fixing by professional gamblers in South Africa and found that there were a number of referees accepting bribes to affect the outcome of games. While in America we’ve had some issues with that, (Tim Donaghy in the NBA for example), they are few and far between.
Americans also hate ties. Look at the NHL. They had to bring in shootouts to keep fans interested, as their fanbase was eroding badly. Americans like to have a winner and a loser. There’s very little an American hates more than to watch and cheer their team on, only to watch them battle to a draw. It leaves an empty, draining feeling that we just don’t like. So, sports where draws are common, will never gain popularity here.
Soccer can be amazingly entertaining, dramatic, and fun to watch. But Americans will likely never get the rhythm of the game with the ‘faked’ injuries, the dives, and the possibility that the teams will battle for 90 minutes only to go home with a point each.
And that’s too bad, because it’s a BEAUTIFUL game.