Soccer in America: Highlights from “Should Americans Watch More Soccer?”

The Pomona Student Union hosted a social debate entitled “Should Americans Watch More Soccer?” last Thursday. The lighthearted panel discussion focused on some of the major issues facing American soccer fans—a weak domestic league, poor TV viewership, and the overall perception that soccer is not an American sport.

The panel featured two ambassadors of Pomona-Pitzer soccer—Coach Bill Swartz and captain Zack Mirman PO ‘11—squaring off against more mainstream sports fans Kaitlyn Boecker PO ’11 and TSL’s own Stefan Castellanos PO ’11. Each of these speakers answered a series of questions about soccer and general sports fandom. Now, I’m going to attempt to answer those same questions myself and highlight some of the best quotes from the actual panelists.

What’s your favorite sport to watch?

I’m obviously a big soccer fan, but I think the NFL is the best spectator sport in the world because it can be enjoyed on a variety of levels. Soccer is like fine wine—to the uninitiated, it’s indistinguishable from Two Buck Chuck (and at least in America, you’d probably be called effeminate or, even worse, European, if you asked for it in a sports bar). Football, on the other hand, is like PBR—a beer that can be enjoyed anywhere, anytime, by people of all ages, classes, and walks of life. Even a five-year-old kid can admire Brian Urlacher’s strength, Reggie Bush’s agility, or Plaxico Burress’ marksmanship without any prior knowledge of the sport. Five year-olds around the world who wear Messi jerseys to school every day can understand and enjoy American football, even though they’ve never seen it. American kids who’ve never been exposed to soccer before won’t get that same kind of satisfaction because soccer is just more…complicated.

In order to enjoy watching soccer, a viewer needs to have a certain amount of knowledge about the sport’s tactics, strategy, etc. Basically, they need to know what to look for, because there isn’t always time to show instant replays of crucial moments (though the networks are getting better at doing this; ESPN’s soccer productions as a whole have improved dramatically since the days of Tommy Smyth and his catchphrase “bulge in the old onion bag” after every single goal). Because of the nature of the game, football always has downtime for instant replays and for announcers to explain the game to casual fans.

Previously, these pauses implied a lack of action, but innovations such as the Red Zone Channel minimize that downtime so that the NFL can have the best of both worlds—lots of scoring, replayed and analyzed without interruption. It’s now possible to watch all touchdowns, all the time for eight hours every Sunday. How can any sport, let alone soccer, where a 2-0 defeat is considered a rout, compete with that in terms of pure spectator entertainment?

Best answer: Stefan Castellanos, speaking in favor of baseball: “You wanna talk about dedication… try watching a four-hour baseball game. You wanna talk about commitment… I’ve been waiting on the Cubs to win a championship for five of my lifetimes.”

Why isn’t soccer popular in the states? Alternatively, why is it so popular outside the states?

Mirman made a good point in the discussion when he said that soccer actually is popular in the U.S.—more kids play youth soccer than youth football and baseball combined. The perception that soccer is unpopular comes from the fact that TV viewership and stadium attendance for the Big Four sports (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey) outstrip soccer by huge, almost comical margins. Why is this? I’ll give you four reasons:

The MLS is not good soccer. Americans don’t watch the MLS because we enjoy watching the best of the best. It is just not that fun to watch kids fresh out of college play uncreative soccer or washed-up European stars limp around the field for 90 minutes (David Beckham and Freddie Ljundberg, I’m looking at you). All of the best American players go to foreign leagues as soon as they can because the competition there is so much better. American soccer fans who want to see the world’s best turn to Fox Soccer Channel. As a man much smarter than me once said, “The American soccer fan is alive, well, and home on his couch watching Manchester United.”

Soccer is difficult to watch on TV. See above: HD, multiple camera angles, good announcers, and more replays all help, but it’s still a challenge to pick up soccer exclusively by watching it on TV.

Few sports fans actually played soccer growing up. Soccer is a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S., and the first generation of kids who played AYSO, Y-league, and travel soccer in large numbers is just coming of age. As these kids grow up, soccer should become more popular as a spectator sport, but as of right now, most sports fans are older people who weren’t part of the “soccer revolution” in America.

Soccer lacks most of the key ingredients for fandom. I think this is the biggest obstacle to soccer becoming a major sport in the U.S. Back home, everybody I knew growing up supported the Boston Red Sox. When I played Little League, everyone fought to get on the team named the “Red Sox”—kids would cry or throw a fit if they got assigned to the dreaded Yankees. I watched their games all the time, and when I was about nine years old, I started imitating Nomar Garciaparra’s pre-pitch ritual every time I went up to bat. Everyone I knew had a standing agreement with their parents that if the Sox made it to the playoffs, bedtime was extended to at least the seventh inning. As far as I know, there’s no community in the U.S. that comes together like that around a pro soccer franchise—Seattle might come the closest—but it’s common in all of the other major sports. Until this happens, enthusiasm for soccer will just be imported, not homegrown.

Best answer: Zack Mirman, who provided the statistics cited above (and many more).

What single player makes your favorite sport worth watching? Is there a single player who epitomizes your sport? Why?

Since there are so many different types of NFL players, I’d be hard pressed to pick just one. A game-changer like Adrian Petersen is insanely fun to watch, but personally, I’m a sucker for guys with incredible life stories. I’d say someone like Tom Brady really epitomizes the NFL—he wasn’t a star in high school or college, nor was he a highly-sought draft pick, but he came into the league, got an opportunity, and made the most of it. Now he’s a franchise superstar with three Super Bowl rings (and two supermodels) under his belt. That’s the athletic version of the American Dream, and it’s what football is all about.

Best answer: Kaitlyn Boecker: “I like Tonya Harding, because she has a passion to win that shows up on and off the ice. She’s not afraid to beat down her competitors.”

Should Americans watch more soccer?

Americans should do what they want to do, and if Americans want to watch more soccer then I’m sure ESPN and FSC will find a way to provide it. I’m a soccer fan, but I don’t think we have any more obligation to watch soccer than we do to watch another foreign sport—nobody gets fussed when Americans don’t watch field hockey, cricket, Formula One racing, etc. If you want to watch soccer, go for it. But whatever you do, don’t watch sports out of guilty obligation—do it for the love of the game.

Best audience question: Sam Lind PO ’11: “Given that the Red Sox ownership group recently purchased Liverpool, which would you rather see: a soccer player with no hand-eye coordination trying to hit a 95-mph fastball, or David Ortiz trying to play 90 minutes in the EPL?”

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