Soccer’s Missed Opportunity

I’m a sports fan. My favorite sports are baseball, basketball, football, and ice hockey. In the United States, those are profoundly unoriginal choices. Those sports and their respective professional leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL) are commonly referred to as the “Big Four” American sports. But I must give credit where credit is due and admit that soccer outpaces all four of the Big Four when it comes to its ability to generate fascinating pop sociology.

I used to think that my perception of soccer’s disproportionate popularity among America’s Bobo class made me a particularly insightful social observer, but it seems I’m not as original a thinker as I had fancied myself to be. During this World Cup, I’ve come across numerous articles engaging with the demographics of soccer fandom and what they mean for soccer’s ability to finally “break through” into the popular American consciousness. (As this delightfully wicked article points out, soccer has been touted as the next big thing in America since at least the 1920s.) From Ann Coulter’s brash provocations to more insightful takes, it seems everyone’s talking about those cosmopolitan, globe-trotting, affluent, and highly-educated American soccer fans and the sport’s rural, traditional, and xenophobic American haters.

Therefore, rather than continue to dwell on those same themes, I began to consider what this dynamic means for the ability of soccer to become a permanent fixture in American culture. After all, while the World Cup gets high television ratings in America, I strongly suspect that these figures are rooted more deeply in the World Cup’s novelty as a quadrennial event and its intersection with nationalism than in love for the game itself. The true test of soccer’s salience is its ability to sustain this level of interest between World Cups. Will Americans flock to Major League Soccer stadiums and college soccer matches? Will they keep tabs on the top European leagues? In short, will soccer achieve the steady, lasting prominence that baseball, basketball, football, and (to a lesser extent) hockey enjoy in American culture?

I have my doubts. In her post, my colleague Anne Bloomberg observed that “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.” I don’t think that this base of common knowledge will be built up any time soon. In my view, soccer will probably never be able to join baseball, basketball, football, and hockey in the Big Four of American sports because the conditions that created the Big Four no longer exist in a way that could allow for additions to it. The Big Four is the product of 20th century American mass culture. Consider this – in 1900, television was fifty years from widespread accessibility, and even radio hadn’t arrived yet. The national sports scene, to the extent that one existed at all, also looked very different. The NBA, NHL, and NFL hadn’t been founded yet. Major League Baseball was around, but if you didn’t live close to the stadium of one of the eight teams, you were pretty much out of luck if you wanted to follow it. (It’s possible that newspapers in Minnesota and California were keeping their readers up to date on the exploits of the Boston Beaneaters and Brooklyn Superbas, but somehow I doubt it.)

They probably aren't going to be watching soccer.

They probably aren’t going to be watching soccer.

But with the rise of radio in the 1920s and then television in the 1950s, it became possible for wide swaths of Americans to bond in a way that hand’t been available previously. Suddenly Americans from coast to coast were sitting down to share in common experiences – of sports, but also of music and current events. In the days when only three channels were available, Americans were far more united in terms of what they were exposed to. If teenagers and senior citizens don’t have their own channels devoted to their demographics and both end up watching CBS, they’ll both be exposed to this new singer named Elvis Presley, or this brutal war in Vietnam, or this Monday Night Football game between the Giants and the Eagles. By getting themselves represented in media when there was much less media terrain available, the Big Four claimed space in the mainstream American culture that this media helped forge. Soccer got left out of this gold rush. Today you might have World Cup matches airing on ESPN and Major League Soccer on ESPN2 or the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, but it’s hard for this programming – or any programming – to capture the vast, diverse audiences that the Big Four sports gained from the 1950s to the 1980s – the three-channel era. It’s not just a sports phenomenon; it’s just as hard for today’s top sitcoms and dramas to capture the audiences that shows like The Andy Griffith Show and All in the Family had in decades past. Today it’s possible for specific segments of society to tune into programs and embrace pastimes that other groups can easily sidestep or may not even be aware of in the first place. We’re left with yuppies on the coasts watching soccer on TV and reading soccer blogs and playing soccer in recreational leagues, while the senior citizens of Ohio can stick with watching the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals on CBS. Similarly, today’s young music fans can embrace Pharrell Williams and Taylor Swift with all the passion that their parents devoted to Michael Jackson in the 1980s and that their grandparents devoted to Elvis Presley in the 1950s. But Williams and Swift face much more competition for public attention than did the few superstar musicians who managed to claim media representation in the age when there was much less of it to go around.

You can even see evidence of the Big Four’s power and influence in our language. You don’t have to be an athlete or a sportswriter to hear people speak of “curveballs” or “slam dunks.” And the fact that people still use these terms even today speaks to mass culture’s continuing power. Even though it’s hard for any new sport, like soccer (or any new sitcom, or any new musician) to capture the audience and influence that the Big Four gained in the 20th century, the Big Four are still enjoying the fruits of having been present at the creation. The sports of the Big Four etched a basic familiarity with themselves into the fabric of American life. A man who watched baseball in the 1970s when it was one of only a few sports on television is able to pass along knowledge and appreciation of baseball to his children in the 21st century. Unlike their father, these children have access to soccer and badminton and fencing and virtually any sport that might interest them on one TV station or YouTube channel or another. But it’s baseball that allows the added bonus of bonding with their father over something that they can both share. Once a sport is given the sort of leg-up that was given to the Big Four during the era of mass culture, it’s capable of reproducing much of its influence even as the conditions that allowed it to become so prominent change. Soccer didn’t get this opportunity – not in America, at least. So I believe that, barring some unforeseen shift in the fabric of our society, it’s doomed to be a single voice in the cacophony of upstarts and niche-favorites that is contemporary American culture.

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