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The History of Soccer’s Unpopularity in the US

Clint Dempsey and DeMarcus Beasley Celebrate

This is the first in a three-part series analyzing soccer’s impact on American sports. SoB’s Erikk takes a look today at soccer’s history in the U.S.

In very few international arenas is the United States of America second to any other country. However, when it comes to men’s soccer, or, as the superpowers of the sport prefer, football, America is far from having any sort of clout. So when the stars-and-stripes squad upset the balance by slaying fútbol Goliath Spain on June 24, 2009, anyone with a heartbeat was shocked- unless they were American. In fact, if it weren’t for ESPN, most Americans never would have heard of their team’s 2-0 David-like triumph over the world’s No. 1 team.

To Americans watching their baseball games or evening news, the scoring line at the bottom of their television screen was incapable of revealing the enormity of such a victory. Drawing comparisons to the 1980 Miracle on Ice or the New York Giants’ victory over the 18-0 Patriots, the American victory over Spain still went unnoticed by most sports lovers in America. Why? Why hasn’t the land where all are welcome greeted soccer? Why hasn’t the melting pot of the world embraced Earth’s most popular game? Simply, why hasn’t soccer been successful in America?

Why hasn’t soccer been successful in the U.S.?

Experts in all fields – history, sociology, marketing, and even religion – have come up with possible explanations, most of which are highly plausible. The list of them all is long, but it can be summed up in three words: because it’s America.

Americans first rejected soccer for historical reasons, going all the way back to the Revolutionary War. When thinking of successful soccer countries, it doesn’t take long before England comes to mind. Americans said no to their taxes and told them to keep their “silly” sport as well.

“America was all about being independent from Great Britain, so soccer’s inability to stick here really is a product of historical forces,” says Randy Roberts, a historian at Purdue University.

Following the Industrial Revolution, when leisure activities became the norm, Americans embraced sports that had been invented in the New World – baseball, basketball, football, and ice hockey – instead of taking to the soccer pitch. With these sports came a love of sporting characteristics that have made it difficult for soccer to be popular in more recent years.

In baseball, Americans enjoy the strategy behind each pitch & each line-up and the mano-a-mano battle between pitcher and batter. From basketball, Americans have found a love of high scores and emphatic dunks. Football brought Americans a hard-working physicality with the snap of each ball, each yard the result of refusing to stop moving legs and never quitting. Despite its lack of popularity in recent years, hockey popularized itself on its physical nature, particularly with fights and brawls, and as a way to make winter enjoyable. Most people believe that soccer lacks at least one, if not all, of these characteristics, which has prevented its popularity in America.

“There’s simply no action. It’s like watching wallpaper dry. Every once in a while someone scores, but there’s no hitting like in hockey, no alley-hoops like in basketball, no grand slams like in baseball, and no 80-yard touchdowns like in football,” says Ken Kirkwood, an avid sports fan.

When faced with the argument about the slowness of baseball, critics are able to slither out of that question, too.

“I don’t see the same level of intense strategy as we have in our sports,” Trozzi continues.

Proponents of soccer try to point out the strategy of the game, like matching the size, speed, and skill or players against each other.

“But then I might as well watch basketball and get intense action to go with that kind of strategy,” counters Tom Harrison, a Boston Celtics season ticket-holder. “Besides, there’s the history of it all. There’s no soccer rivalry like the Red Sox and Yankees.”

These sentiments, popular amongst most Americans, have made it difficult for soccer to be successful at a professional level. Added into the mix is the “poor marketability” of soccer. Beyond people finding the game difficult to watch on television, there are few opportunities for commercials because of the lack of natural game breaks. Furthermore, as a summer sport, soccer must compete with baseball, America’s pastime, which it has been unable to do. The lack of revenue resulting from poor viewing audiences and poor advertising has made it impossible to sustain a professional soccer league and keep the most talented players in America.

Major League Soccer

Since the establishment of the first professional soccer league in the United States in the early 1900s, there have been one half-dozen major soccer leagues, all of which have lasted only a short while, making it difficult for rivalries to flourish. The current league, the MLS, is in its sixteenth year of trying to create a history for the sport, but is facing financial troubles. According to a Business Week article published in 2004, the MLS has lost more than $350 million since it’s founding in 1993. The 2007 season marked the first year that the MLS didn’t have to pay a major network, like ESPN/ESPN2, to broadcast it’s games. However, as of just last year, only three franchises – Los Angeles Galaxy, Toronto F.C., and F.C. Dallas – were profitable.

The MLS, and the now defunct leagues, have done everything to turn a profit, from selling jersey advertising rights and building new stadiums. Each league also experimented with rule changes at one time or another, trying to tailor the sport to American desires, the same way the NBA has different rules from those of FIBA. These changes, which included clock stopping, shootouts, and more substitutions, to name a few, did not serve any of the leagues well. Instead of drawing in new fans, the leagues ended up losing fans.

David Beckham

Beyond toying with the rules, the MLS has been particularly aggressive in acquiring highly regarded European players. In 2007, David Beckham, the English footballer noted for his looks, his wife, and his ability to curve a soccer ball around an obstacle, joined the Los Angeles Galaxy. Despite positive initial results, like increased attendance, an injured knee prevented “Becks” from playing extensively for the Galaxy and his wife’s distaste for American forced him returned to play in Europe, ending any opportunity for the league to benefit from a “Beckham-effect”.

Pelé

The NASL, a league that reached its peak in the 1970s, tried a similar marketing stunt with South American players, most notably Pelé. However, after playing only two years for the New York Cosmos, Pelé, who by the time he joined the Cosmos was well beyond his prime, retired, and the NASL folded just a few years later.

Freddy Adu

While importing players has failed up to the present, there has always been the hope that there would be an American soccer prodigy. While not insulting their talent, players like Cobi Jones, Landon Donovan, and Alexi Lalas have never provided the MLS with a story that grabbed the attention of America. In 2004, Freddy Adu changed that.

A naturalized-American, Adu became the youngest professional athlete in America in over a century when he played in his first MLS match in 2004. While garnering attention from all over the State, his unbelievable abilities with a soccer ball quickly became a problem for the MLS. European teams began to ask Adu to try out for them, including Manchester United, the current English Premier League champion. Eventually Adu followed the money and signed with S.L. Benfica, a Portuguese soccer club. With the MLS dreaming that kids would want to be “like Adu” instead of “like Mike,” Adu’s departure for Europe was a major blow to the MLS.

Youth Soccer in America

Interestingly enough, most kids do want to be like Adu, or at least like another soccer player. In 2002, U.S. Soccer reported that 17.5 million youths play soccer in America, compared to 260,000 playing Pop Warner football. Unfortunately, kids are playing for the wrong reasons, at least as far as making soccer popular in America is concerned. Compared to football and lacrosse, baseball and soccer are relatively safe sports. There are fewer concussions, not as many bruises, no as-a-mother-I-can’t-stand-watch-my-child-get-tackled sentiments; only halftime oranges, pats on the backs, and rides home with soccer moms in mini-vans. The safety of baseball and soccer has also been forced off-field, into the award ceremonies. Parents, afraid of seeing their children hurt in any way, have taken the competition out of soccer. No matter who wins or loses, assuming someone was even keeping score, everyone gets a trophy. No hurt bodies, no hurt feelings.

But, robbing the game of its competitive nature has hurt the game in the long run. Because soccer is viewed at the youth level as a safe, non-competitive hobby, most players lose interest and abandon the game before high school, swapping it for prestige of throwing the game-winning touchdown or hitting the turnaround jumper at the buzzer.

As a result, at the high school and college levels, the best athletes don’t play soccer. Instead, they thrive on the competitiveness and bask in the glory of the major sports. The possibility of signing a huge baseball, basketball, football, or hockey contract at the end of college (or high school), something the MLS cannot offer, is also incredibly attractive to athletes when they have to decide which sports to play. Even when a multi-sport athlete, like Eddie Johnson, chooses to play soccer, they follow the money to Europe, like Adu, where they can make millions of dollars playing, ending any hopes of positive press for the MLS.

The Importance of U.S. Soccer

Without the positive press, there will be no positive marketing for the MLS, and without positive marketing, there will be no marketing revenue for the sport. Without revenue, marketing or otherwise, there will, ultimately, be no opportunities for positive press for the MLS.

If soccer can’t be popularized by the professional leagues or by the countless youths who play it, there remains only one hope left for soccer in the States: the U.S. national team. Their victory over Spain in the FIFA Confederations Cup might be exactly what the sports needs.

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Discussion

16 comments for “The History of Soccer’s Unpopularity in the US”

  1. “There’s no soccer rivalry like the Red Sox and Yankees?” Is that guy out of his f**king mind? I love Sox – Yankees more than most, but has this clown ever seen Arsenal v. Tottenham? West Ham v. Chelsea? For that matter, West Ham v. Millwall, saints preserve us. Those are bloodthirsty rivalries of utter tribal brutality. Even Yankees – Red Sox looks positively genteel by comparison.

    Posted by Jon | July 4, 2009, 4:06 pm
  2. Also, those are the ones I can think of from London alone. Think how many there are around the world.

    Posted by Jon | July 4, 2009, 4:06 pm
  3. Football played with a round balling using the foot has been played in this country since the 1600s. Association Football (AKA soccer) was as popular as baseball in this country in the 1020s. The U.S. reached 3rd place in the first World Cup. The two professional leagues who were in competition went bust in the 1930s during the great depression. That’s why we had no soccer for near 40 years. Soccer is back and growing. Soccer doesn’t destroy the brains and spines as gridiron football but otherwise is not sigificantly safer or less safe than basketball, baseball or any other team sport. It doesn’t have the obesity of some of these other sports.

    Posted by Jonathan Brown | July 4, 2009, 4:40 pm
  4. I see your point Jon. As a Liverpool fan I can attest to my hatred for Man United and the rivalry with Everton.

    Though I think the comparison that guy made is a little apples to oranges. Arsenal-Tottenham only takes place twice a year (save for a cup tie) where as Yankees-Red Sox happens 19 times a year (not including pre-season/postseason).

    Obviously, if Yankees-Red Sox only happened twice a year, it may be even bigger than it is. That said, England has the advantage of being so small in size that geographical rivalries are natural.

    Posted by Jeff Christenbury | July 4, 2009, 5:11 pm
  5. @Jeff: Good point. England’s — and, by extension, Europe’s — relative size compared to the U.S. certainly does contribute to geographic rivalry. I once read a description of Arsenal-Tottenham that ran as follows:

    “It’s like the Yankees and the Red Sox, if they played at opposite ends of Central Park.” I mean, YIPES.

    To figure out whether the comparison is apples to oranges, consider: If the Red Sox and the Yanks played each other just twice a year, would it be as belligerent as Man Utd (I hate them too, btw) against Liverpool?

    Conversely, would any great soccer rivalry be less passionate if they played each other 19 times a year?

    Posted by Jon | July 4, 2009, 8:43 pm
  6. Having lived in England and Spain – I must agree that a denser population makes it easier to have these rivalries because fans can easily drive to their opponments stadiums to support their teams. This is happening in MLS and USL. Rivalries such as Seattle vs Portland. Houston vs Dallas.

    Posted by Jonathan Brown | July 5, 2009, 11:12 am
  7. I agree with you on the article, but i disagree with you on one thing, and that’s that mls soccer does have a rivalry a classic you might say, people that know their history would know that,that rivalry is L.A GALAXY versus D.C UNITED, first two teams in the first ever historic final in 1996, only two teams to win the concacaf champions league, these teo have outlasted any other teams in mls soccer, these two are the originals, and their’s a bigger audience boost when these two play

    Posted by tech | July 5, 2009, 4:36 pm
  8. I thought that Erikk’s ‘rivalry’ argument meant there were no soccer rivalries like the Sox/Yanks in MLS, not anywhere in the world.
    That being said, in addition to proximity, the Arsenal/Tottenham, and other rivalries, have had so many more years to develop.
    In MLS, Columbus and Toronto seem to be developing that tasty ‘Euro’ style rivalry.

    Posted by Peter C | July 5, 2009, 4:39 pm
  9. Hey, I have an idea…

    instead of talking about why soccer has failed to take root, let’s talk about how much headway it HAS made in the last 10 years. Let’s talk about the success of MLS teams like Seattle and Toronto (I know they are Canadian, but it’s still MLS). Let’s take about how we can make it take root more strongly.

    Written pieces like this just make soccer seem more irrelevant to people who already think it is.

    Posted by Vnice | July 5, 2009, 6:07 pm
  10. I overall agree with most your article but disgree with a couple of your points.

    1. As many people already pointed out, there are heated rivalries in soccer such as Portalnd-Seattle, Chivas-LA, Houstan-Dallas, DC-Chicago.

    2. Other than Football and Hockey where people continually smash each other, Soccer is probrably the next most dangerous sport. Personally, though, I think the whole “dangerous Sport” thing is stupid. Who the hell cares that more people get injured in one sport than another? It doesn’t make it more interesting to me.

    3. You make soccer seem as if it is not competitive. That is completley FALSE. Even from a young age soccer is a very competitive sport. I have no clue where you got your idea that soccer isn’t competitive.

    4. I have to disagree with your point that soccer is slow, and any other person who says that soccer is slow. Soccer plays continiously for 45 minutes and then another 45 minutes, no breaks. Can any other sport boast that? No. Soccer has constant action in the form of passing, moving, shooting, corner kicks, throw-ins, free kicks. There is always somthing happening. Baseball-lets not even talk about lack of action, football-has huddles, timeouts, big breaks between each play, Basketball-Constant Time outs.

    I could go through so many other reasons why soccer isn’t slow to me, but I don’t have the time.

    Anyway, good article, but too many points I disagree with.

    Posted by j | July 5, 2009, 11:14 pm
  11. I think Erikk raises some good issues here. Americans have a difficult time giving soccer the same respect as its favorite pasttimes – baseball, basketball and football. And while the rest of you clowns think that MLS rivalries are just as latent in the US, there is nothing farther from the truth.

    Posted by Bebo | July 6, 2009, 12:13 am
  12. All reasons aside, I think the most important aspect is that soccer has not yet attained “cool” status. Once that happens – where not just soccer fans but average sports fans want to be apart of – it should explode in popularity.

    Look at the other sports, there are fair-weather/bandwagon “fans” who know little about the rules or players on teams.

    Posted by peteo | July 6, 2009, 4:05 am
  13. The “COOL” status is correct. There are too many a-holes fathers telling young boys that soccer is for p…ys. I had my 10 year old newphew tell me this. Only 250000 kids play pop warner football but in high school the easy way to popularity is joining the football team. Because the entire HS. experience is built around the Homecoming game. There are millions of closet soccer fans out there and as soccer gains respect in this country their slowly coming out.

    Posted by noel | July 6, 2009, 1:49 pm
  14. [...] Featured, Soccer ⋅ July 6, 2009 at 1:05pm ⋅ Post a comment This is the third in a three-part series analyzing soccer’s impact on American sports. SoB’s Ty takes a look today at the [...]

    Posted by Impact of U.S. Soccer Success | Sports of Boston | July 6, 2009, 2:07 pm
  15. [...] Featured, Soccer ⋅ July 5, 2009 at 1:00pm ⋅ Post a comment This is the second in a three-part series analyzing soccer’s impact on American sports. SoB’s Teddy takes a look today at the [...]

    Posted by Confederations Cup Offers Hope for U.S. Soccer | Sports of Boston | July 6, 2009, 2:10 pm
  16. J- with all due respect, your an idiot. Im gonna respond to your 4 points. Keep in mind i am a soccer fan, played soccer for 15 years and follow it regularly-

    1. Those “rivalries” do not deserve the term heated as compared to others. More often than not people who do not like or follow baseball know about the hatred between the Sox/Yanks. With soccer no one has any idea about those unless they really follow the league.

    2. Who the hell cares? alot of people. look at the popularity of hockey when fighting was banned compared to when it was reinstated.

    3. Look at local town leagues- its happening more and more.

    4. When a score ends up being 1-0 the public will often think that is a slow game. the lack of scoring is where people say slow not the “constant action.” after 90 minutes and 1 goal (sometimes in the opening minutes), i, a person who grew up with a soccer ball on his foot, will say slow.

    Sorry J but your wayyy off. good try tho

    Posted by C | July 12, 2009, 2:01 am

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