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The Worlds Game--But not Our Game
Except In America
Wednesday, June 23 2010, was billed as the day soccer arrived in the US. Landon Donovan's extra time goal to defeat Algeria in a must-win game was supposedly the moment that Americans caught on to the game that captivates so much of the rest of the world.
I though this day had come before; in 1994 when the US was awarded the World Cup, in 2002 when the US team advanced to the round of 8, or even last year when we upset Spain in the Confederations Cup.
What needs to be said first is that what I think people mean when they say soccer "arrives" in America is that it is seen as a legitimate spectator sport. There are, to me, three reasons why it hasn't and likely will never become fully accepted on the American sports landscape.
The first is simple enough, the game is seen as foreign. Soccer is a sport that people from "over there" or "down there" play. Much of ESPN's coverage of soccer likely has to do with the number of immigrants, especially from Latin America, that live in the US. The game is seen as a foreign sport played mainly by foreigners.
Those Americans who do play the game tie into the second problem, The game is seen as a sport that suburban youth play because their parents don't want them to get hurt playing American Football. In a sense, Soccer occupies the same niche that golf or tennis occupy in America, a sport of a privileged class. This strikes me as a bit odd, as in much of the rest of the world, soccer is what basketball is to America; when I visited Madrid, Spain, I saw kids kicking a soccer ball around the way young people in my hometown, or in Harrisburg, PA would be playing "one-on-one" or even "three-on-three" basketball.
The final issue, and perhaps the "nail in the coffin" of soccer as a spectator sport in America, is that the game does not translate well to the TV. You have a game played on a field approximately the size of an American Football field, but with the ball and the game in near continuous motion; unlike baseball, basketball or hockey, there's no way to significantly stop the play to allow for the all-important ads to be shown. It's not like golf, where one can selectively focus on a few players, either
One way to get around this may be to take a cue from what I have seen done for what is seen as that most "American" of sports, NASCAR racing, do on a few occasions. Now for one, I will say that I do see those drivers as athletes; you try driving a 3500 pound car at 170 miles an hour along with 41 other cars of similar weight traveling at the same speed. What I have seen them do for some races is put the coverage in one section of the screen, run ads in the other, and scroll standings and other news along the bottom of the screen.
Or perhaps soccer is best left to be a kind of niche sport. There are enough of these on the American sports landscape, and many are quite successful.