World Cup

Stop Comparing Soccer to American Sports

In the days after the United States Women’s National Team winning the 2015 World Cup, I’ve been reading and hearing many bold proclamations (and/or hot takes) about how this victory means that soccer is on the rise, and it won’t be long before soccer surpasses one of the “four major sports” (football, baseball, basketball, hockey) in some manner – viewership, attendance, fans, etc.

Let’s just slow down for a minute.

Yes, soccer is arguably bigger in America than it has ever been.  The game has grown in popularity over the last 20+ years, and that growth shows no sign of stopping.  And yes, the World Cup final drew a huge TV rating, notably surpassing the viewership from Game 7 of the 2014 World Series and the decisive Game 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals.

But…

First, let’s address those TV numbers.  More accurately, let’s acknowledge that comparing the Women’s World Cup championship to the other two broadcasts is an apples to oranges comparison.  Yes, all three are “fruit” – decisive, championship games in their collective sport.  But the difference lies in the teams.  The World Series featured the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants.  The NBA Finals had the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Women’s World Cup had The United Freaking States of America.

I would argue a decent (if not sizable) percentage of the WWC audience tuned in not because they are soccer fans or because they enjoy watching soccer played at a high level by amazing athletes.  They tuned in because it was a chance to see America to win a prestigious global competition.

Who was the primary audience of Game 7 of the World Series?  Fans of the Giants (6th largest US television market) and the Royals (31st largest).  For Game 6 of the Finals, you have Warriors (again, 6th largest market) and Cavs fans (17th largest).  For the WWC, your primary audience is fans of America in EVERY market with a Fox affiliate.

It’s the same reason why NBC shells out billions of dollars for Olympic broadcast rights:  Americans love to watch other Americans competing (and winning) at a high level against top international competition – no matter the event.  I’m not saying that a U.S. versus Japan competition in say, water polo, would draw the same numbers as the World Cup final.  But I am saying the nation’s love and support for the red, white, and blue greatly surpasses the nation’s love and support for the Kansas City Royals.

Until the MLS Championship draws more viewers than the World Series, Stanley Cup, or NBA Finals, stop with this comparison.

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Without question, soccer is growing in America.  I won’t argue that.  But where is the peak?  You’ll find many credible voices who say soccer could become the “national pastime” or supplant baseball or hockey in the “big four” of American sports.

I disagree, especially in the short-term.

Soccer interest, at least in America, tends to be cyclical.  Setting aside the loyal fans of MLS and European leagues, a person who identifies themselves as “liking soccer” will get into the big tournaments (men’s and women’s World Cups, Olympics, etc.).  After those events end?  The interest tends to wane.

An article in the Seattle Times referenced a marketing-research study on “fan engagement” of Americans towards soccer, conducted after the last four men’s World Cup tournaments.  Every time, there was a significant drop off in interest after the tournament ended.

 

“You see the same pattern,’’ said (Robert) Passikoff (of Brand Keys), who added that his surveys are accurate within 3 percent. “You get high interest, high numbers during the tournament and then it’s ‘Thank you very much and goodbye.’ ’’

With other sports, he added, the numbers climb a bit during playoffs and championships but “you don’t see as high a fluctuation.’’

Personally, I wonder if the growth and expansion of soccer will follow a similar pattern to NASCAR.  There was a point in 1990’s / early 2000’s where NASCAR experienced phenomenal growth, with some saying that the sport was poised to join the big four.  Fast forward to the mid to late 2000’s and NASCAR’s popularity hit a big bump, with attendance and TV ratings taking a dive.  Obviously, that is not a perfect comparison – most notably, the millions of kids in youth soccer should help to sustain soccer’s rise – but NASCAR’s failure to join the Big Four should serve as a cautionary tale for soccer fans seeking to join the big time.

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So where will soccer be 15 or 20 years from now?  I fully expect that MLS will still be going strong, with 32 teams across the country playing in soccer-only stadiums in front of passionate crowds.  World Cups – both men’s and women’s – will still be events that grab headlines and national attention (especially when the U.S. is winning).  I would not be surprised if the United States has a true soccer superstar who is on par with the greatest players in the world.

But I don’t expect soccer to have bumped MLB, NHL, NBA, or especially the NFL from their perch as America’s favorite sports.

And that should be okay.

Dear Soccer Fans (from a non-fan)

An open letter to fans of soccer and the World Cup,

Dear Soccer Fans,

I apologize for the lateness of this letter, as you are probably already enjoying the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.  But before you get too far into the month-long tournament, my non-soccer-loving friends and I would like to come to an agreement with you, our futbol-loving friends and neighbors.  Think of it as an agreement of mutual respect to get both of us through the next month.

World Cup (image from Wikipedia)

Here is what we propose:

  • We, the non-soccer fans, promise to respect that the month of your life is going to revolve around soccer, if you, soccer fans, promise to respect that, for us, this next month is the sporting equivalent of having your mother-in-law perform dental work on you.
  • We promise to let you call it “football” without telling about where the “REAL football” is played on America, if you promise to not correct us when we refer to your sport as “soccer”.
  • We promise to not call you a douche, if you promise that only fans of Latin descent should say “futbol”.
  • We promise to go easy on bashing soccer and pointing out the lack of scoring, the flopping, and the weird rules if you promise to limit the breathless descriptions of how the “beautiful game” was played in a 1-0 match.
  • We promise to not judge you when you tell us how you’re rooting for some country you have no affiliation with, if you promise not to judge us when we jump on the U.S. bandwagon should they win a match or two.
  • We promise not to unfriend you or block you on Twitter, if you promise to take it easy on the social media updates.  Surely there cannot be 50 tweet-worth items in a 2-0 match.
  • We promise to be accepting of World Cup-themed promotions, commercials, and marketing, if you promise to not cite a Coke can or McDonald’s commercial as proof of soccer’s growing influence in America.

In general, we promise to stay of your way and let you enjoy the Cup if you promise to allow us to ignore it completely.  We won’t bash on soccer like we usually do, but we ask that you don’t try to make us care.

Because we really don’t.

It’s nothing personal.  Soccer just isn’t our cup of tea.  We know this puts us in a vast minority amongst the world’s population, but we’re cool with that.  Please, enjoy the World Cup.  All we ask is to be left alone.

We feel these mutual agreements are in everybody’s best interests as you would certainly like to enjoy the world’s biggest sporting event with billions of other fans, and we want it to be over quickly so ESPN will spend more time talking about NFL training camps.

Sincerely,

People who don’t care about soccer

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