Sunday, July 06, 2014

Soccer popularity and the World Cup... again

With the defeat of the U.S. team in the World Cup last week, we almost guarantee four years hence the discussion of why soccer is not as popular here in America as in the rest of the world will have a chance to be resurrected.

But we won't rehash that. Four years ago I offered some quasi-serious/semi-tongue-in-cheek thoughts on its lack of popularity, then chronicled getting sincerely caught up by matches, and then when it was over conceded I wasn't quite a convert but noted I'd be back.

Instead let's ponder: Is any American sport as fanatically popular as futbol is (per capita) in these other countries? Even were soccer to outshine the NFL here, it's not certain it would be as popular (when viewed as the percentage of the nation's population who essentially worship the sport).

In four years we'll still be a huge country with many distractions; that seems unlikely ever to change. So the discussion may never have cause to cease—although maybe that's really more due to the fact we (as a country) aren't really listening that closely, because we have other things to do; every fourth year those thusly inclined to talk about it never feel as though it was thoroughly considered the last time, and hence it's still ripe for discussion.

We do this to ourselves.

Proof I watched a World Cup match that didn't involve the U.S. team.

Let's acknowledge that soccer is popular in the U.S. by the fact we have a professional league that has fans and gets acknowledged by the sports media. Also, perhaps more important, there are many living here who follow the games played in other countries (some of which now get telecast on American TV).

The number of Americans who like soccer are pretty massive based on totals; compared to small countries there undoubtedly are more U.S. fans than there are in the total population of these other countries. However, given that the percentage of really rabid fans in the U.S., compared to the total national population, is not as impressive as for other sports, it's not as impressive as the smaller countries where the overwhelming majority of their citizens are active followers.

With the U.S. team's disappointing loss in the "round of 16" at this year's World Cup it's generally perceived in the media (from what I can tell) that interest in those remaining matches will wane. (Mexico's defeat also affected things here in Southern California.) Were the viewing events seen across many U.S. cities indicative of interest in the sport or merely of jingoistic support of our national team (much in the way we root for U.S. Olympians every four years)? There's probably some elements of both, but only time will tell (although I doubt people coming together by the thousands won't continue, mostly because no one will sponsor such events without the possibility of the latter motivation).

Although the sport's popularity continues to increase, and its exposure on English-speaking U.S. television (both MLS matches and those of other federations like the Premiere League) is far more than it was even as of the last World Cup.

But still there has been many discussions (an entire recent Freakonomics episode, for example) devoted to dissecting why soccer isn't more popular here like it is elsewhere. Rehashing those is not the point here. The fact those discussions persist (occurring like clockwork with each World Cup) proves the perception soccer is not popular. That much seems in the hands of the sports media; when ESPN opens Sports Center with MLS highlights just for regular season games that conceivably will get those who aren't fans to start thinking the sport is more popular than they thought it was. It's not transforming those non-fans into fans; it's merely changing their perception of the larger scenario; there's people who dislike baseball but don't necessarily balk when the telecast starts with the Yankees game. How to get the U.S. sports media to change I dare not speculate, but pestering them with comments and emails encouraging such coverage by those who want it seems like a start.

I'm not suggesting things will change rapidly or that no matter how much coverage it receives in the next four years there won't still be the same pondering about soccer's relative unpopularity in the U.S. when World Cup 2018 rolls around. That will happen, whether deserved or not.

I don't have the answers. I'm not passing myself off as that much of a fan, myself, but I will continue to track the World Cup as it progresses.

All I can offer to my soccer-loving readers of any possible help is this: At least when you talk about soccer people know what that is. For years I participated in a sport that is tremendously popular in the most heavily populated country on the planet and has tournaments all over the world, but when I mentioned dragon boating I'd get blank stares. I got in the habit of immediately following the name of the sport with a preemptive "You haven't heard of it"; it was that common a reaction.

Take what little comfort you can in the fact you should never have to say that when discussing your favorite sport. It won't be much, I know.

No comments:

Post a Comment

So, what do you think?