Seeing as how you are on the internet right now, odds are you know that the US has been knocked out of the World Cup. Many commentators claim that this, along with record high ratings for the live matches, provide evidence that the sport is finally catching on here at home. I, for one, am not convinced.
And, it will take more than some big numbers to convince me. More people watched the US-Portugal game in the United States than the entire population of Portugal but that was still only a fraction of the viewers that tuned into the Super Bowl and the London Olympics. The average ratings for the overall tournament is roughly 4 million per game, or about the same number of people who watched So You Think You Can Dance last night. Just because 32 million people watched the Olympic 100-meter race doesn’t mean that track is the new baseball. So why do so many commentators focus on TV ratings as a measure of America’s fondness for soccer?
This ratings obsession points to the fact that we are, most certainly, not becoming a soccer loving nation. Imagine if we covered more traditional American sports the way the World Cup is being covered. You would never see headlines such as, “Three players to watch in the NBA Finals” or “Which to team to cheer for now that the Panthers are out”. Americans lack of commonsense knowledge of soccer means that most everything needs explaining. It can not be taken for granted that people will know the basic players, teams, rivalries, etc.
I am not saying one must acquire an arcane knowledge of everything soccer in order to be a fan–quite the opposite. Plenty of Americans, myself included, casually follow football, basketball, and baseball. This is easy because these sports have become an unconscious part of our daily lives. During the NBA Finals major news outlets included updates in their rundown of top stories. When Lebron James announced that he was becoming a free agent, NPR told me every hour, assuming I would understand who that is and why he matters. It is hard not to notice March Madness when it is in full swing or the Super Bowl. So that, over time, you internalize which teams are good (becaus
One reason for this is ESPN’s over-analysis of these traditional American sports. ESPN taught America to care about the NFL draft, which means caring about college players and their potential (measured by things like their Combine performance). You don’t have to be a fan of A&M to know that Johnny “Football” Manziel is a player worth watching. When it comes to soccer the analysis is largely limited to the facts relevant to the tournament currently on display (US is out, Tim Howard had a record number of saves). The story isn’t Suarez’s contract negotiations instead it is basic instruction on key players– breaking news Messi is pretty good at soccer! ESPN doesn’t do a deeper level of analysis because it assumes (correctly) that the average viewer lacks the necessary assumptions to make sense of that information.
Until common sense knowledge is built up around soccer in the United States, the relatively small fan base will continue to be viewed with suspicion. Those who share in the assumptions of soccer have usually spent time in, or are from, places where soccer is taken for granted. I learned to follow soccer living in East Timor. In my village, where there was no electricity, kids had jerseys of their favorite players– Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Rooney. Groups of men would pool their money to pay for gasoline to run a generator to watch Premier League and Champions League games in the middle of the night on televisions that served no other purpose. I didn’t have to actually watch the games to learn how they turned out because, being newsworthy, the results spread quickly. Similar to how today, though I don’t follow tennis, I somehow know that that Murray and Williams–people who require no explanation– are both out of Wimbledon.
While some people, believe that soccer is an elitist sport, I firmly believe the opposite. While in certain social circles, American soccer fans are able to trade their knowledge of the sport for cultural capital. This is only possible because much of the commonsense knowledge of the sport, that is taken for granted elsewhere, appears to be privileged knowledge to the uninitiated outsider. Until you can talk about major soccer events without fear of being branded an elitist, no amount of ratings will convince me that Americans are taking to the sport.