My students have their rough drafts due today, which means my rough draft is due today. There is a lot I want to change, much I want to cut down, and some I want to remove altogether. That is the beauty of a rough draft.
Soccer in America (I like catchy titles, what can I say?)
The New Jersey Meadowlands was packed to capacity. Fans clad in green walked to their seats, beginning their songs long before opening kickoff. As the teams entered the field, the stadium rocked as the cheers and singing overwhelmed the announcers. It was a thrilling game decided in overtime. But these 80,000 fans were not there to see the New York Jets or Giants play football, but Mexico and Guatemala square off in the semi-finals of soccer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. Meanwhile, the United States, in the same tournament, played in front of nearly 1/3 of the people that had shown up in New Jersey. For the entirety of the tournament held in American stadiums, Mexico’s games continually saw higher attendances and were held in higher capacity venues than those of the Americans. Although the attendees of these games were primarily Latin immigrants finally able to see their home teams on American soil, the disparity in support highlights the difficulties soccer has had in gaining the attention of the American public. While soccer is overwhelmingly the most popular sport in most European, African, and Latin American countries, it has failed to attract similar popularity in America and lags far behind other team sports like football, basketball, baseball, and hockey in terms of attendance, revenue, media attention, and success. Soccer’s inability to find the level of support and popularity in America that it does abroad can be traced to the very development of the sport here. The cultural, regional, and ideological roots that have made soccer so popular abroad have failed to take root in America and the game continues to be seen as a “foreign” enterprise.
The sport America now calls soccer has been existed in England in some form since the Middle Ages. For centuries, it was played in a variety of styles until the London Football Association (LFA) finally agreed upon a standardized set of rules in 1863. In 1870, the first International soccer match was played between England and Scotland, in 1871, the first FA Cup tournament was held, and in 1888, the first English Football League began play (Szymanski and Zimbalist). Surprisingly, soccer has an equally long, and sometimes longer, official history in America as well. The first recorded competitive American game was held in 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers, although what was played only superficially resembles the sport as it exists today and many people also claim it as the first competitive American football game (Van Rheenan). Ironically, America even had a professional soccer league before the British after the American Football Association (AFA) formed in 1884, and the nation’s longest running cup, the National Challenge Cup (now the U.S. Open Cup) began competition in 1913 (Wangerin).
Although it shares a history as old or even older than the sports that currently dominate the American consciousness, soccer has been plagued by a series of false-starts and dead ends. The AFA quickly fell apart to be replaced by the equally unstable American Soccer League (ASL). The league enjoyed modest success through the 1920s by luring foreign players with lucrative contracts, and the sport, it seemed, was on its way. But political infighting, poor organization, and the onset of the Great Depression destroyed any chances the league had to rival baseball, America’s most popular pastime (Wangerin). Soccer continued primarily as an amateur sport, with leagues like the San Francisco Soccer and Football League enjoying modest, local success with teams comprised of primarily recent immigrants (Van Rheenan).
The next significant development in American soccer was the creation of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1968. In the mid-70s, the league saw enormous success as teams like the New York Cosmos signed some of the most famous players in the world, most notably Brazilian legend Pelé. For a while, the team regularly played in front of 70,000 fans, but as Ian Scott notes, “the NASL was relying on an increasingly superficial audience for an increasingly superficial existence” (842). After Pelé’s retirement in 1977 and the league’s failure to renew its television contract with ABC in 1982, support dwindled and the league eventually collapsed under a weight of political infighting and bankruptcy (Scott).
In the wake of 1994 World Cup hosted in America, there was yet another attempt to professionalize soccer domestically. Major League Soccer (MLS) began as a 10 team league in 1996. Today, there are 18 clubs in th United States and Canada, with more being planned (Scott, 844). Like the NASL, the league has attempted to bolster popularity by recruiting famous players like David Beckham and Thierry Henry to play in the waning years of their career. But unlike the NASL, the league has managed to overcome significant hurdles to maintain and even grow its fanbase. The MLS has done well to place its roots firmly in domestic player development, individualized stadium construction, and an equalizing draft system. As a result, after 15 years of play, the MLS is only growing in popularity (Scott). But this success must remain in context. Soccer is nowhere near as popular as the other major American sports. Its attendance, television and advertising revenue, and journalistic coverage still lag far behind baseball, basketball, football, and arguably hockey. Despite its historical roots in America, soccer is still treated as a “foreign” sport.
The perception of soccer as a “foreign” sport has been the largest stumbling block to it becoming a popular American pastime. While modern commentators continue to make this claim, it has actually been present since soccer began in this country and the United States has a long history of “Americanizing” foreign sports. David Wangerin writes, “Virtually from the time of the first organized games, the United States has been much more concerned with establishing its own existence and playing by its own rules than in joining any international fraternity” (16). When the AFA formed in 1884, baseball was the most popular sport in America. Baseball itself was a derivation of the British game cricket. Unlike the leisurely, aristocratic British game, baseball was played at a faster speed, the rules were simplified, and a greater emphasis was put on manliness and strength (Szymanski and Zimbalist).
In many ways, soccer underwent a similar transition. The first version of the game played in America was really a mixture of soccer and rugby. Players could catch the ball and even run while holding it. At the time, the game was played primarily in colleges, and Harvard was at the forefront of athletics. In 1874, they scheduled a match against Canadian school McGill University. An adaptation of the sport called the Boston Game was played which involved much more physical contact and handling of the ball. Wangerin writes, “From that moment on, American football never looked back.” They quickly set up matches against local schools and “Yale agreed that the handling game was much more hardy and scientific and, unable to resist the allure of a regular encounter with its nemesis, soon gave up on soccer.” For soccer, this was a tragic blow. Wangerin continues, “With two of the nation’s most influential institutions converted, it was only a matter of time before others followed” (21). Sure enough, the Americanized sports like baseball, football, and basketball did indeed leave soccer behind.
The decision of Harvard and Yale to abandon soccer also highlights the ideological difficulties the game had in establishing a foothold in America. As Wangerin notes, football was seen as a superior sport because it emphasized physical strength and scientific calculation. Each play was a new chance for the strategy and physical acumen of one team to overwhelm the other. Soccer, on the other hand, is an amorphous, liquid game that can go long spells without “anything” happening. Brian Phillips arguesthat soccer has more chaos and intangibles than any other sport, which leads to long periods of boredom. American sports, on the other hand, attempt to minimize this chaos at all costs. In football, each play is followed by a short regrouping period. Teams are also given strict regulations: ten yards must be gained in four plays or the other team gets a chance themselves. Baseball emphasizes one on one confrontation between the pitcher and batter that is also governed by the strict, limiting rules of balls and strikes. Even basketball, which seems on its face to be the most soccer-like, enforces a strict shot-clock that governs how long a team can hold on to the ball. In soccer, a team could theoretically hold on to the ball for the entire game without ever even attempting to score.
The potential outcomes of a soccer match also fly in the face of most values Americans hold dear. Even those American commentators who support soccer have a difficult time accepting the possibility of a tied result. Rick Reilly, popular sports writer for ESPN, wrote of the World Cup, “In the NFL in the past 10 years, there have been two ties. As of Tuesday Morning, in the first 11 games of this World Cup [2010[, there have been five ties. You will not see more ties at a J.C. Penney’s Father’s Day Sale. I hate ties. Doesn’t anybody want to win in this sport?” A tie flies in the face of the most fundamental American and free-market beliefs: there are winners and there are losers. The better man (or product) will succeed. Just as no company wants to break even, no sports fan wants to see a tie. American sports, for their part, have worked to ensure this does not happen. Of sports played in America, only soccer and football allow for draws. Football, though, generally avoids ties by way of the possible permutations of its score lines and a sudden death overtime period (a tie has only been accepted as a possibility in football because of the dramatic threat of injury in extended games).
In soccer, ties have been accepted for a number of reasons. First, most leagues award a champion based on total accumulated points over a season (38 games in many top-flight leagues). A draw is awarded one point and thus adds to the overall score. For favored teams like Manchester United or Real Madrid, a draw is seen as a loss. For lower teams like Wigan or Osasuna, a draw against these teams is seen as a massive win. Second, draws are seen as crucial in opening up the tactical possibilities of the soccer. They allow physically outmatched teams to adopt a gameplan that can still achieve a successful result. Although they might not have the technical skill to threaten the opponents goal, if they are defensively solid and unified, they can still earn a point.
The importance of draws in soccer highlights a fundamental disagreement in how America and the world views competition. A draw gives smaller clubs a greater chance in achieving success while also creating a much smaller margin of error for teams with realistic chances of winning the title. For example, in the 2009/2010 Premier League Season, Chelsea and Manchester United both won 27 games, but Chelsea’s five draws to Manchester United’s four were the deciding factor in who was crowned Champion (similarly, in 2008/2009, Liverpool only lost twice, but there eleven draws to Manchester United’s six left them four points behind first place) (“League Table”). Unlike the NFL which sees a 9-7 team squeak in to the playoffs and ultimately win the Super Bowl, soccer ensures that each game plays a significant role in the ultimate outcome.
The concept of a draw also feeds into a larger operating model of promotion and relegation that soccer uses around the world, something that has been rigorously avoided in America. Most leagues around the world (with the MLS as a notable exception), employ a system in which a country does not have merely one professional league, but a series of leagues that are hierarchically arranged into one system. In these countries, there is a system of promotion and relegation whereby the bottom three (or four) clubs in one league are demoted to the next league down on the totem pole. Likewise, the top 3 clubs from the lower league are promoted to the next higher league. What results is a fluid system by which small clubs, through hard-work, strong results, and adept player selection can see themselves move up into new echelons of competition, visibility, and profitability. Likewise, even large clubs can, through poor personnel decisions, underperformance, and even bad lack, find themselves demoted to lower leagues with lower profit potential, player recruitability, and prestige.
This system has also dramatically affected the business models of most clubs in world soccer. According to Szymanski and Zimbalist, “Promotion and relegation increase competition and decrease the long-term monopoly power of the big clubs […] It is a hypercompetitive system in comparison with a closed system [American leagues], and it shows in the relatively high profitability and low frequency of financial failure in the US majors than in the top European soccer leagues” (47). American sports like baseball have established themselves as closed systems that deter new entrants and emphasize the profitability of the brand. Clubs are treated like businesses, are owned by businessmen, and, through the consistency of the product and brand, have all but assured profitability. Furthermore, the draft system ensures that poor performing teams have first choice in the addition of new players which allows them to address weaknesses quickly. For example, the Detroit Lions went an unprecedented 0-16 in 2008 but were granted the first selection in the next draft. Now, just three seasons later, they earned their first trip to the Playoffs since 1999. In soccer, demotion to a lower league does not only affect prestige but also dramatically affects the profitability of the club. With television contracts and ticket prices, the difference between playing in the Premier League and the next-lower Championship can mean tens of millions of dollars. As a result, many clubs over-spend to keep themselves in their present league which has led to massive debt issues throughout world football.
The ideological battle between profitability and competitiveness is perhaps the single largest hindrance to soccer becoming as popular in America as it is around the globe. In America, sport has become a matter of profitability, whereas in soccer it is a matter of competition. The system of promotion and relegation speaks to this significance. The stability of American sports’ leagues assures continual income sources while the relegation/promotion system (and the added level of European competitions like the Champion’s League) keeps soccer clubs in a constant state of economic unpredictability. In addition, American sport franchises are, with few exceptions, located in large urban centers that can assure owners profitability. Owners have the ability to re-locate clubs to places that are more economically viable if they see fit. This does not occur in soccer. As a result, soccer clubs are much more intimately tied into their location. Unlike American sports franchises that are begun by owners, “most European clubs were not run by a single individual or corporation as they are now. They were run as associations with member’s dues and board elections. The members of a club wished to control the club’s affairs rather than allow the economic elite to manage them” (Benoit 535). Many clubs, as a result, became to represent the places where they were located, not only in terms of membership dues, but in terms of ethnicity, religion, politics, and ideology.
The ideological basis for many soccer clubs can account for the unrivaled, and to many Americans, off-putting passion of soccer fans. Macon Benoit writes that “the club became a symbol of importance for much of the local population. Support for the team was an expression of loyalty, and was construed to be support for the territory and the people who lived there” (535). Many clubs, as a result, were formed along very strict ideological lines. In Scotland, for instance, Celtic was formed as a Catholics-only football club by Irish-Scots, and Rangers was formed as a Protestants-only, Native-Scots football club. As a result of these ideological antagonisms, the rivalry has become one of the most passionate, violent, and contentious in world football. For Benoit, “the domestic game fed religious particularizing, political partisanship, and ethnic rivalry throughout Europe” (535). These ideological underpinnings help explain the perilous economic position of many teams in soccer. Because success is representative of the people themselves, profitability is often seen as a hindrance towards competitiveness and success. Clubs will do whatever it takes to win.
Regional allegiance to teams only intensified as the sport made itself international. America has only recently begun active exportation of its home-grown sports, which means, in general terms, that America still dominates those games on an international stage (many failures of American teams in these sports on an international stage can be accounted for by the use of amateurs [baseball] or other participation issues [basketball]). Soccer, on the other hand, was used by the British to open up and create allegiances in its colonial project. Szymanski and Zimbalist write, “[British ex-patriots] saw their sport as embodying the virtues of the nation and their class, and saw the spreading of their game as a kind of missionary work” (53). The simplicity of the game assured that even impoverished countries would be able to easily play the sport. In addition, “Soccer […] is sufficiently simple that it can admit to any number of styles of play, each of which can become the distinct property of a particular culture” (51). These styles of play then come to represent the ideological underpinnings of the nation itself. Brazil is known for their flare; Germany is known for their work-rate and organization; the Spanish are known for their intricate, artistic passing.
In the lead up to World War II, international matches became loaded with political significance. In one famous instance, the England Foreign Office forced the English team to perform the Nazi salute before their match with Germany in May of 1938. It was supposed to be a signal of peace and respect, although many players argued against the move. As tensions rose throughout Europe, “The national team ostensibly came to represent the entire nation, while the pitch became a surrogate battlefield on which mock war was waged, bringing citizens of a state together in victory or defeat” (Benoit 536). These allegiances only served to double the passion of most fans throughout the world.
Because of its historical, cultural, and ideological formations, soccer has became an integral part of daily life for much of the world. In America, these roots will never be able to be established. Our long isolation in terms of sport not only assures that it will be difficult to create a similar rivalry system in the sports we do cherish, but it also assures that a “foreign” sport like soccer will continue to play a marginalized role in the American sports landscape.
Benoit, Macon. “The Politicization of Football: The European Game and the Approach to the Second World War.” Soccer & Society 9.4 (October 2008): 532-550. Print.
“League Table.” Premier League, Premier League. 2011. Web. 9 February 2012.
Phillips, Brian. “Soccer’s Heavy Boredom.” Grantland, ESPN. 17 January 2012. Web. 9 February 2012.
Reilly, Rick. “World Cup Buzz Kill.” ESPN, ESPN. 15 June 2010. Web. 9 February 2012.
Scott, Ian. “From NASL to MLS: Transnational Culture, Exceptionalism and Britain’s Part in American Soccer’s Coming of Age.” The Journal of Popular Culture 44.4 (2011): 831-853. Print.
Szymanski, Stefan and Andrew Zimbalist. National Pastime. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005. Print.
Van Rheenan, Derek. “The Promise of Soccer in America: the Open Play of Ethnic Subcultures.” Soccer & Society 10.6 (November 2009): 781-794. Print.
Wangerin, David. Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America’s Forgotten Game. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008. Print.