The mystery of soccer

Soccer_graphic Soccer is not a professional sports Americans care about very much.  It does not rank in the top 20 sports (as pictured) and it actually comes in below equestrian jumping and tractor pulls. 

This is a mystery. 

After all, soccer has four passionate fan bases in the US:

1) immigrants arrived from soccer mad countries (South America, Africa, Europe, um, like, the whole world)

2) women under the age of 55 (thanks to the triumphs of Mia Hamm and company at the World Cup events in the late 1990s)

3) kids now participating in school and neighborhood programs that have embraced soccer because it is 3.1 inexpensive, 3.2 co-educational (if required), and 3.3 easy to play badly.   Are there a lot of these kids?  I believe there’s a reason we call their mothers "soccer moms." 

4) kids who have graduated from said programs.  Kids have been passing through these programs in big numbers for at least 20 years.  This means that the first cohort is now in its mid twenties and in possession of the disposal income to support a local club and a national league.

This is what a marketer would call an "installed base."  Millions of people have followed or played the game.  If only 20% become fans, it should be more or less easy to sustain a professional league play.  But this has been really hard to do.  Soccer has struggled.

But things are looking up. 

According to an article in BusinessWeek, the money is now in place with investors pouring $1 billion dollars into the league in the last two years.  Red Bull putting down $100 million to buy a New York franchise.  New stadiums are being created.  Ticket sales are up 20% this year with attendance approaching 20,000 a game. 

This is good news for fans of dynamism because soccer is a dynamic game in a way that football and baseball are distinctly not.  George Will once said of the former that it combined two of the worst aspects of American life: violence and committee meetings.  Baseball would be improved by either one.  Soccer is all about pattern recognition on the fly.  Says the striker, "if this is true, and this is true, and this is true, then this pass is called for.  No!  He moved."  One of the real pleasures of the game is watching patterns form and reform on the field as these two little universes reconfigure themselves in a spectacular display of "sense and respond" as Steve Haeckel would call it. 

But there is room for product development.  Specifically, something has to be done about the physics of the game.  There is too much time and too much space.  A 90 minute game is too long and so is the field.  Both tax players so heavily that dynamism is actually suppressed.  I am not suggesting dramatic reductions.  Otherwise, soccer would become merely basketball played with one’s feet.  But I think 60 minutes and a smaller field would bring the game alive nicely. 

Will this happen.  Absolutely not.  Soccer fans are religious zealots.  There will be no reformation.  I think this means that while soccer will climb from its present obscurity, it will never be ready for prime-time, and the present marketing opportunity will be wasted.  Too bad. 


For more on the ranking of sports, go here

For more on Steve Haeckel and his ideas, go here.

Holmes, Stanley.  2006.  A breakout year for soccer?  BusinessWeek.  May 1, 2006, p. 86.

20 thoughts on “The mystery of soccer

  1. Lance Knobel

    I suspect you’ve never really seen a first-class soccer game, in a league like England’s Premiership, Italy’s Serie A or Spain’s Primera Liga. The size of the field (which incidentally isn’t standardized — it can be between 90 and 120 meters long and between 45 and 90 meters wide) doesn’t tax players too heavily: it allow room for a tenuous balance between attack and counter-attack. At lower levels of play it’s true that the size of the field can lead to a slow game with little strategic interest.

    As to length, 90 minutes is really 90 minutes, unlike in American football or basketball where the time on the clock bears no relation to the length of the game.

    But of course I’m one of your zealots.

  2. steve

    The biggest structural problem with soccer is that there is a much lower correlation between the quality of play and the outcome of the game than any other major sport. It is routine for commentators and observers to point out that Team A dominated the play even though Team B won or tied. That happens very rarely in American football, basketball, or baseball, and it does take much of the fun out of watching soccer.

    Another sign that something is wrong with the rules is the constant flow of complaint among coaches, fans, and commentators about “negative” play. Basically, coaches can drastically reduce their chances of losing a game by playing very conservatively and waiting for the other team to make a mistake. It’s unattractive but effective. While such a style of play may be employed in other sports, it’s neither as boring nor as effective as it is in soccer. And when two teams both play adventurous, “sporting” soccer, some of the pleasure is lost by the realization that neither team is really doing what is best to win.

    I enjoy watching World Cup soccer because of the stakes and the nationalistic aspect and the embodiment of national playing styles (even though these teams don’t practice together enough to reach the highest level of coordinated play). But to watch a game between two teams of international mercenaries where the outcome is loosely tied to the relative quality of play? No thanks.

  3. glen

    Soccer never caught on in the US becuase of television advertising, plain and simple. Football and baseball are excruciatingly slow games, and advertisers love that – it gives an enormous amount of time to show commercials.

    Speed and complexity are absolute killers for sports in the US – hockey, soccer, and lacross are some of the most dynamic sports in the world, but they are ranked very low in popularity.

  4. stev

    Then why, in many other countries, is televised soccer watched? There isn’t “too much time and too much space” for them, it would seem. What makes American audiences different?

  5. St├ęphane

    Maybe I’m one of the sport zealots, even thought not a big soccer fan. I would just find it sad if the “most popular sport on heart” was changed to match the US market. (Canadian Football changed the basic rules, and it is still a weak sport across Canada.)
    I think that you can’t make up a interest in a sport. Being a fan is a question of entertainment for sure, but also it a huge belonging occasion. Therefore, regional differences in sport preferences are natural.


  6. Joe Grossberg

    Umm … that list is from fourteen years ago.

    Also, it doesn’t pass the “smell test” — “Men’s gymnastics” above NBA, college football and NASCAR? Give me a break. The methodology is bunk.

  7. steve

    I’m sure the list isn’t right, but it is true that no one–and I mean no one–outside of a small fan base knows anything about Major League Soccer. The number of people who could tell you who won the title last year, who’s in first place now, which players play for which teams, or even name more than a couple of teams is miniscule, even compared to a niche sport like ice hockey.

    Mass participation doesn’t equal mass spectator interest. Lots of people play pool, but it isn’t a major sport (although it may get TV ratings comparable to MLS). Soccer may be fun or parent-friendly for kids to play, but that doesn’t make it compelling to watch. Conversely, not too many people have raced a car around an oval, but that hasn’t stopped NASCAR from growing like mad.

    My guess is that soccer would have a better chance of getting traction in the US as a college sport, where there’s at least a pre-existing rooting interest. But I’m not holding my breath.

  8. Henry Lambert

    Grant, as usual you make some great points. It is odd that soccer (or football as it’s know to the rest of the world) has never taken off in the states as conditions are so favourable. It’s also true that soccer is a dynamic game that relies on pattern recognition.

    However, as one of your zealots, I’d argue that soccer doesn’t need the USA. Neither does it need to have it’s rules altered so that bad players are made to look good and poor games become entertaining. Soccer, unlike basketball (the closest US sport to soccer), is all the richer for the rareness of goals scored and the amount of raw skill and inventiveness needed. This provides a natural market ensuring that the best players, coaches and teams tend to dominate the leagues and pay rankings. It also means that lower league sides charge lower entrance and TV fees.

    As a marketeer, would you really suggest that any other product that dominates the globe to the extent that soccer does, change its basic ingredients to suit a tiny minority? That sounds like a poor business strategy to me.

  9. Rich

    I agree that footbal doesn’t need the USA. The US is only becoming (has become) interested in the game b/c of money. In Europe and most of the rest of the world everyone plays the game at a least a rudimentarily level and almost everyone has an appreciation for the game b/c of the entrenchment in the culture. The game does not need to be changed b/c of US interest, the field is not too big, the time is not too long, it creates a great balance between fatigue and explosive skill as has been suggested. TV controls sport in the US and unless TV buys into the sport it will never develop further. The fact that a team can dominate the amount of play but still lose makes it exciting. Why would I go to any game (as has been suggested with American sports) where the team with most posession or perceived better skills always wins? That sounds really boring to me.

  10. Audrey

    I don’t think the low mainstream interest in soccer in the US has much to do with the sport itself at all. I live in a town (Portland OR) with both an a small but devoted professional soccer fan base and a beloved (and league-dominating) women’s college team. In my three years of following soccer here, the biggest obstacle I’ve seen to getting more attention, more TV coverage, more new fans, etc. is that people haven’t heard that we even have a team. When people come to games, they like it, they get excited, but the team has a tiny advertising budget and the local media hasn’t translated “hey, these fans sure are excited about this thing in an interesting and crazy way” into a need to provide better coverage of the team itself.

    The biggest marketing issue I’ve seen people representing the team struggle with is the conflict between their desire to keep the sport “family friendly” to interest the soccer mom crowd, and the reality that most adult fans in the US, especially if they have any experience with how the sport is viewed in other parts of the world, have a much rowdier take on the whole thing. The World Cup soccer ads are much more willing to take this one on, because they don’t have to worry so much about conflicts between different interests at a local game.

    I get the impression that the media in general in the US is still trying to figure this thing out. Is it a family sport? Is it a crazy foreign thing? (So far, the Nike World Cup ads have been low on American players) Does anyone in that fun 18-35 demographic actually have an interest in it? I think there’s a big opportunity here, based on what I see locally. The interest is here, but it could be so much bigger if someone worked on bringing that excitement that follows the game in the rest of the world to the American public.

  11. Grant

    Lance, you are right, this anthropologist has not collected the data, nor will I, having read Buford’s book on the soccer fan. Not without an armed escort. Thanks, Grant

    Steve, what a great and disasterous point. There cannot be indeterminacy of this order and a game flourish…not unless it is meant to be a mythic Greek demonstration of the injustice of the universe. And frankly the world impresses that point upon us plenty…no 90 minute demos are called for. Thanks, Grant

    Glen, very interesting, I think this is why God created the big screen at home, to make room for ads in “picture in picture.” Thanks, Grant

    Stev, I think this is a critical path question. Best, Grant

    Stephane, If baseball is cricket made less tedious,I wonder if soccer couldnt be improved as well. Thanks, Grant

    Joe, grumpy! Hey, I can’t be out there doing new research. Even 14 year old data paints a picture. Thanks, Grant

    Steve, I think it will bump up nicely. Baseball would die tomorrow if generations had not played it as children. And now that X and other sports have made such substantial inroads, I think this is bad news for baseball and I’ve decided to sell my franchises. Bezt, Grant

    Henry, I take your point, but I think a game like soccer only takes if people have enough exposure, and this is not going to happen if would be American converts end up thinking, “Good lord, 40 minutes gone and it’s still 1-0.” This game is positively denying itself a tipping point. Thanks, Grant

    Rich, You do sometimes wonder what soccer indifference might cause the US in the long term. All the world loves it, the US does not. Isn’t this how empires fall. Probably not. But it is odd. Thanks, Grant

    Audrey, thank you for the portrait of soccer in Portland and for identifying that nice tension between family game vs. something wilder. Very interesting. Thanks! Grant

  12. Mike Madison

    I think that the premise is wrong.

    Whether or not MLS is a success isn’t a true or fair gauge of the level of American interest in soccer. Think about soccer fans not in terms of who there *are,* but in terms of how they relate to the sport. Soccer is, at its core and around the world, a people’s game, not a game for elites. In most countries, and for most of its history (including most of its history in the US), soccer has been as baseball used to be here: what kids played in vacant lots and in the street, using whatever they could find for a ball. The local pro or semi-pro team was genuinely local: the players were locals (and many of them had grown up playing for the club — remember that even today, many of the most successful pro soccer clubs around the world are actually the top teams represnting an athletic club that fields squads all the way down to the youth level), the coaches (if there were coaches) were local Suburban soccer in the US is a paradox in soccer’s historical and cultural terms, as is the separation of professional soccer from community roots. Lifetime soccer zealots don’t learn the game on manicured fields; they learn the game by knocking a ball around in the alley or (if they’re lucky) in the backyard or (if they’re really lucky) by getting recruited around age 10 to play for one of the local clubs. That’s why trying to build a professional soccer league in the US out of soccer moms and dads will never work, and why MLS only achieved some measure of stability by letting go of the American pro sports emphasis on season ticket sales (middle and upper class customers) and embracing the walk-up buyer (not necessarily middle and upper class customers).

    Instead of bemoaning marketers’ inability to monetize the suburban soccer market, we should celebrate the fact that a meaningful number of Americans aremaking a living playing pro soccer, both inside and outside the US, and that a skilled high school soccer player in this country now has a shot at a real professional career. We should celebrate the fact that in cities across the country, including many cities that have experienced only the faintest whiffs of pro soccer, thousands of adult men and women are playing in organized leagues sanctioned by the national federation. These aren’t people who decided to play kickball on Saturday afternoon; many if not most of them grew up playing the game, sometimes in the US, sometimes elsewhere, and have the opportunity to enjoy it as an adult, thanks to the explosion of community interest in the sport over the last 40 years [note: AYSO was founded in suburban Southern California in the late 1960s], MLS is only the tip of a soccer infrastructure (national, state, and local associations) that sponsors organized competition on a scale (geographically and demographically) that few if any sports in this country can match. And I haven’t mentioned the degree to which most of this competition is racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse. (Well, there I just did.) In Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh!), where I live, there are 23 over-40 men’s teams alone, competing this Spring in three divisions. It’s true that few of us care about MLS, but we have great conversations about the World Cup.

    Oh, and if you play the game, you see quickly that a smaller field (even a field within the lower end of the allowed range) keeps some of its beauty from emerging. If I were to change a rule, I would keep the field the same size but reduce each side to 10 players, from the current 11.

    –Mike (yes, a soccer zealot)

  13. Tom Guarriello

    Two words explain for me why Americans don’t like soccer: “no hands.”

    We will never become enthusiastic about a sport that forbids the use of our primary method for making things happen. We grab he world by the lapels, have people in the palm of our hands, toss things off, smack people around, pass the buck.

    For us, hands = action!

    We are manual chauvinists!

    What kind of sport gives priority to feet while prohibiting picking things up and throwing them?

  14. Charles Frith

    The beautiful game is surely the most poetic spiel ever given to a sport. What sporting endeavour isn’t beautiful? Football is a real struggle to feign interest for, when the entire world believes it is universally loved. It’s not and as far as I have observed it’s a safe vehicle for male to male discussion without which silence would be very noticeable. Irrelevant in some respects to the post, but not as much as some might think.

  15. Jarrett Campbell

    Buford’s book is not about soccer fans…it’s about mob violence. Soccer does not breed violence anymore than hip-hop begets gangs.

    Having seen numerous games in Europe and the USA, I can say it’s a pity you’re denying yourself an opportunity to see the game in its natural environment. I went to an ACC basketball school and grew up on SEC football, but I’ve never seen anything like the Euro 2004 finals I attended in Lisbon or the matches I’ve seen in England and Germany.

    I think you may find that your concern about the physics has been addressed by indoor soccer, futsal, and even beach soccer…none of which are as popular in the United States as the original unadulterated outdoor game.

    I believe Glen is dead on about advertising (commercial breaks) and soccer. It’s a chicken and egg problem. If the game is not marketed, people won’t follow it. If people don’t follow it, teams and leagues cannot afford to market it. One of the reasons that MLS will succeed in this country is because the deep pockets of folks like Lamar Hunt and AEG saw beyond the quick buck and realized that they had to build the league over the long term, tapping the four markets you listed above. As they do that, you’re going to see soccer become a MAJOR sport in the USA over the next 25-50 years.

    I love all sports (even Pairs Ice Dancing and Platforming Diving which made your list over soccer) but I cannot deny that my real passion is for soccer

  16. Ron

    Try as I might, I’m simply unable to maintain the slightest interest in soccer. To me, it’s staggeringly boring, like hockey, only worse. A 1-0 pitchers duel in baseball has far more tension than the best soccer game I’ve ever seen. I know how many people like it, but I’d rather watch paint dry on a wall.

  17. Taeyoung

    I have to say I’m less surprised by soccer’s place in the rankings than I am by the way figure skating, ice dancing, and gymnastics dominate the top 10, outranking basketball, for example. In line with the unexpected popularity of tractor-pulling, say, the entire list fails to conform well to my preconceptions of what “sport” means to Americans, and which sports are actually the most popular.

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