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Thursday, June 26, 2014

On soccer

Brishen Rogers has a great, long post at CoOp considering why soccer (or futbol, if you like) never caught on in the United States. He somewhat piggybacks on David Post's VC post from last week.I was always actively antipathetic towards soccer, partly because I did not understand how the overall game worked (beyond "kick the ball in the goal" and "stop using your hands"). I started watching more in recent years, when my daughter took up the game for a few years, and I have to admit to feeling pretty down on Sunday night. I also knew we were not going to beat Germany (although that may be the pessimism that comes with being a Cubs and Northwestern fan).

I like a lot about what Rogers and Post propose; I'll add a few additional points in the gaps.

First, I want to defend the "too little scoring" explanation for soccer's relative unpopularity. The counter to that (which Rogers offers) has always been "look at baseball," which can be just as low-scoring as soccer (especially now that fewer players are juicing). But we need to tweak the comparison by recognizing the differences between soccer and baseball. Even the lowest-scoring baseball game involves a series of one-on-one encounters between pitcher and batter, each of which has a "winner" (batter gets on base or batter is out) and each of which marks a step towards the ultimate result and the ultimate victor in the game; the winner of the game is based on the sum total of those individual encounters. More importantly, baseball is untimed--the point of the game is to score the greatest number of runs within the 27 outs each side is given. So each team has two simultaneous goals--to both score some runs and to get the needed 27 outs in order to win. So we should not say "well, baseball and soccer both have a lot of 2-1 games," because that 2-1 baseball game also had the 27 outs the team needed to win the game resulting from those individual encounters. Relatedly, do not ignore the effect of ties. In baseball, the aggregate of those individual encounters--and getting both runs and outs--is guaranteed to get us to a victor.

If we want to test the "not enough scoring" explanation, the proper comparison is other timed sports, sports in which the only goal is score more points than the other team within a given period of time. And the two major timed U.S. sports--football and basketball-- both involve a lot of scoring.

Second, Post argues that there is "wa-a-a-y too much failure" in soccer and Americans do not like failure. (He adds that the hardest skill in sport is not hitting a baseball, but kicking a soccer ball into the net in a game). Comparisons aside, there still is an awful lot of failure in baseball--the offense fails in more than 75 % of those individual encounters and the greatest individual hitter fails 65 % of the time. Of course, if we focus on the individual encounters in baseball and getting outs as a team's contemporaneous goal, that sense of failure goes away, because we can say the pitcher/defense succeeds in 75 % of those individual encounters.

Third, Americans and American sports media gravitate to individual star players and those stars are more obvious in the big American sports than in soccer because it is easier to see the "star" plays they make. We see LeBron James making shots, we see Peyton Manning throwing touchdown passes, we see Mike Trout hitting home runs or Stephen Strasburg striking people out. And, particularly in basketball, one player makes the difference--in the NBA, the team with the best player in a series generally wins the series. Because we see Lionel Messi score less frequently, we have less of a sense of him as a star making "star plays" (at least plays that produce success). And one star player is less able to dictate soccer outcomes--after all, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo is regarded as the best player in the world and his team did not get out of the "Group of Death."

Fourth, I agree with Post about the randomness and caprice involved in soccer. Football, and to a lesser extent basekball, involves precise plays and much less of the free-wheeling running that soccer seems to entail. While all sports involve a bit of luck at the margins, soccer seems to rely on more of it.

Finally, Rogers makes some good cultural and sociological arguments for why America went in the direction of football and basketball rather than soccer. I would add one pont. MLS and professional soccer in this country is said to not be successful because it is not as big as the NBA, NFL, and MLB. But part of the problem has been the insistence on measuring MLS success (monetary and attendance) compared with the sucess of today's other leagues, as opposed to how those leagues looked when they were ten years old.  The NFL was founded in the 1920s (and no one one really cared about it until the 1950s), the NBA in the 1940s; it is ridiculous to measure a nascent soccer league against those mature leagues. In 1925, the early days of modern Major League Baseball, no team had more than 1 million in attendance; in 1955, the midpoint of baseball's so-called Golden Age, only eight teams had more than 1 million in attendance and only one had more than 2 million; in 2013, every team had more than 1 million and eight teams had more than 3 million. So the question should not be if soccer is earning the same attendance or money as the other three leagues; it should be how it is doing for a new sports league. And by most measures, the answer to that question seems to be "quite well."

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 26, 2014 at 05:47 PM in Current Affairs, Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


Let me try that luck issue from another angle and a slightly different take, fwiw. I can't think of any time I've said about a basketball game, "Team A outplayed Team B throughout the game and nonetheless lost." But it's entirely possible in soccer.

The frequency of scoring is so high in basketball that we can have a lucky play at the very end that determines the winner, or even a lucky sequence of a few plays at the end that do so, but we don't have in basketball what we do have in soccer: the team that consistently outplayed the other loses. It seems that the odds of that happening are roughly inverse to the frequency of scoring, which means that among the most popular sports basketball is at one end of the spectrum and soccer is at the other.

For me, that's no knock on soccer. It's a virtue. After the USA-Portugal match we had lots of current and former players stoiclly say, "soccer is a cruel game." That's can be viewed as a feature, not a flaw.

Posted by: John Steele | Jun 27, 2014 7:51:25 PM

CJ hit the nail on the head re. luck/randomness (and saved me from making virtually the same comment). I will say that Ian Darke and Taylor Twellman (the primary booth team for the US matches at the WC) have been fairly solid and provided some sophisticated commentary this WC, but cannot do the John Madden style telestrator because there are so few breaks in play. (Obviously I am a HUGE soccer fan and played the game for 20+ years).

Posted by: Brian Clarke | Jun 27, 2014 2:59:02 PM

"While all sports involve a bit of luck at the margins, soccer seems to rely on more of it."

I don't think so. It can seem that way to casual American fans (like me) because we're watching the wrong things. We see the player on the ball, watch him kick it, follow the flight of the ball, and assume that it's often luck whether it gets where it's meant to go--goal or successful pass. What we aren't seeing as well is the complex strategy, tactical thinking, and athletic ability that led to that opportunity in the first place.

American players, teams, and the MLS have been criticized internationally for years as tactically immature. It's one of the primary reasons Klinsmann was brought in to coach the U.S. national team. (Which in turn amuses Europeans, who think he is tactically naive himself.) Unfortunately, most American fans are equally unsophisticated about tactics and strategy--poor television mechanics and the quality of American announcers don't help. (Think about how much time is spent during NFL broadcasts diagramming, explaining, and replaying details that most fans miss because we're just watching the ball.) Ultimately, whether any single scoring chance goes in might come down in part to luck, but they seem to go in a lot more for the best players than the for the rest, just like in every other sport.

And, even if luck can play a role in an individual match--the U.S. had maybe one good scoring chance in the entire Germany match, but it could have gone in and tied the game--it does not play as much role over the course of a tournament or a season. One piece of bad luck might take a team out of the World Cup, but it isn't going to win it for anyone. That's going to take talent and effort. Meanwhile, in the upper-level leagues, it plays very little role over the course of a season. Most capable observers can tell you at the beginning of any English Premier League season which teams will be in the top four at the end. That's about $$, not luck.

Last point--there's no less luck in American sports. I'm a New Orleans Saints fan. We won the Super Bowl in 2009, but we wouldn't have even been there at all but for a lucky interception at the end of the NFC Championship game against the Vikings. That's hardly an isolated example. See, everything from the Immaculate Reception to the Miracle at Michigan to every Florida State/Miami matchup decided by a missed fieldgoal. If you're looking for it, it's everywhere.

Posted by: CJ | Jun 27, 2014 10:55:08 AM

Even if MLS is twenty years old, we still are not comparing it to MLB in 1940 (20 years after end of Dead Ball Era) or the NFL in the 1940s or the NBA in the 1960s. So I think the point still stands.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jun 26, 2014 6:44:42 PM

One big difference that I noticed this world cup as compared to the last world cup is that soccer finally seems to have gotten some decent video technology. The traditional "ants on a giant field" camera work was very unappealing to new viewers in particular.

Posted by: brad | Jun 26, 2014 6:07:18 PM

"And the two major timed U.S. sports--football and basketball-- both involve a lot of scoring"

I've always thought the scoring in football can be exaggerated. Yes, teams score 15-25 points a game, but they get 3 and 7 points for those scores. If you break it down into the number of scoring events, it's probably 3-5 per game per team. So more than soccer, for sure, but not THAT much more.

"and the greatest individual hitter fails 65 % of the time."

Yeah, no. If success is defined by not making an out (and this is by far the best definition), it's more like 55% of the time.

"But part of the problem has been the insistence on measuring MLS success (monetary and attendance) compared with the sucess of today's other leagues, as opposed to how those leagues looked when they were ten years old."

MLS is twenty years old. Though I agree that critics are way too harsh. It's a solid third tier league, probably the third or fourth best in the Americas, and on par with smaller European leagues like the Swiss or Austrian leagues.

Posted by: Curious | Jun 26, 2014 6:00:43 PM

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