This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Why America Doesn’t Love Soccer (Yet).“
[MUSIC: Jonathan Geer, “Happy Elevator”]
Stephen J. DUBNER: Okay, time for a guessing game. I’m thinking of something that only happens every four years and that everyone gets really excited about …
MEDIA CLIP: Well, this year’s a leap year! Anyone with a special leap day birthday today can get in on some good deals. How does a dozen free cupcakes sound?! That sounds fantastic!
DUBNER: No, not leap year.
MEDIA CLIP: The race for 2016. 2016. 2016. 2016 fast approaching. There are still almost 1000 days before the first votes in the 2016 contest.
DUBNER: Yeah, presidential elections are pretty exciting – but that’s not what I’m after. So what am I after? Here’s what I’m after …
MEDIA CLIP: …Goal. Goal. Gooooaaaallll! Are you kidding me? It’s ecstasy. Astonishing! This is not just a dream. It’s a wet dream of orgasmic proportions!
DUBNER: The last World Cup, held in South Africa in 2010, drew a total TV viewership of some 3.2 billion over its four-week run. This year’s tournament, getting underway this week in Brazil, is expected to do even better. The world is pretty much crazy about soccer.
Solomon DUBNER: What’s soccer?
Stephen DUBNER: You don’t let me say “soccer,” do you?
Solomon DUBNER: No, I do not.
Stephen DUBNER: That’s my son.
Solomon DUBNER: Solomon Dubner.
Stephen DUBNER: Age?
Solomon DUBNER: Thirteen.
Stephen DUBNER: Profession?
Solomon DUBNER: Sports writer.
Stephen DUBNER: Aha, can you tell me where you’ve published your work, young man?
Solomon DUBNER: I had an article published on World Soccer Talk and I occasionally write on my own blog.
Stephen J. DUBNER: What is your blog called for interested listeners?
Solomon DUBNER: “Solomon on Footy.”
Solomon DUBNER: What is footy?
Solomon DUBNER: Football, in America known as soccer, the game played and loved worldwide.
DUBNER: “Loved worldwide,” yes – for the most part. But here, in the U.S.? Eh … Not so much:
Roland MARTIN: Let’s just be honest, the reality is when the World Cup is over, soccer is not going to be a dominant sport in the United States.
Daniel TOSH: Nothing can help me care about soccer.
Jason SUDEIKIS: What the hell, that’s not a tackle! That’s just sliding around!
OTHER VOICE: Soccer tackle, sir.
Bill O’REILLY: If nobody wants to see it, why is it the most popular sport in the world?!
Glenn BECK: No, nobody here wants to see it!
O’REILLY: Nobody, here? We’re a tiny speck. There’s a big world out there, you chauvinist! What is wrong with you?!
BECK: (laughs). Chauvinist? I’m an American!
DUBNER: Many Americans, of course, do love soccer. Here’s a hardcore fan who happens to be one of the best players in a sport known to the rest of the world as “American football.”
ANDREW LUCK: Hey, Andrew Luck. Quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts.
DUBNER: He spent a lot of his childhood in Europe.
LUCK: I think if we would have stayed in Europe, I probably would have ended up playing soccer. I don’t know if I would have been good enough to be a professional (laughs).
[MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “$4/Gal” (from Outcries From A Sea Of Red)]
DUBNER: Andrew Luck, as you’ll hear later, is a soccer fanatic. As is Solomon Dubner. Nor are they alone in this country. A variety of TV networks now broadcast European club matches all year long. MLS, or Major League Soccer — the U.S. and Canadian professional league – continues to grow. Next year it will add a twentieth team,NYC-FC, or New York City Football Club, which is co-owned by the New York Yankees and Manchester City,which has won England’s Premier League two of the last three seasons.David Beckham, the sport’s biggest star of the past few generations, is trying to start another MLS team, in Miami.And indeed, if you take a look at a magazine rack this week, it’s hard to find a magazine without the World Cup on its cover. Every four years, we hear the same mantra: this time, soccer will really take root in the U.S., the way it’s taken root elsewhere in the world. But let’s be honest. It probably won’t. Many of the people who are most fanatical about the sport in the U.S. have some kind of ties to Europe or South America or Africa. All those magazine covers? They’re really an excuse to put a great-looking international superstar on the cover – the pouty metrosexual Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal; Leo Messi, the magical undersized Argentine who plays for Barcelona; and Messi’s 22-year-old Barca teammate Neymar, coltish and exuberant, plays for Brazil. So yes, we may profess our love for soccer over the next month, but how deep is our love? One poll, conducted by Harris Interactive, found that just 2 percent of Americans who follow at least one sport consider men’s soccer to be their favorite. Fewer than 1 percent name women’s soccer as their favorite. American football, meanwhile, between its pro and college versions, gets 46 percent of the vote; baseball, 14 percent. So, on today’s program, we will ask a few questions. No. 1: why doesn’t America love soccer the way the rest of the world does? No. 2: would that change if the U.S. ever managed to win a World Cup? And, No. 3: is No. 2 possible without No. 1? Among the favorites in this year’s World Cup: home team Brazil; its next-door neighbor Argentina; and defending champion Spain. Also expected to do well are mighty Germany and, believe it or not, tiny Belgium. And who is Indianapolis Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck picking to win the World Cup?
LUCK: My best guess, well, shoot. I’d love to say the Americans.
DUBNER: Okay, your best guess after the Americans. Let’s assume the Americans…
LUCK: After the Americans… I’m a true fan, Stephen (laughs).
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
[MUSIC: Louis Thorne, “Bossa Trio”]
DUBNER: Today on Freakonomics Radio, we are talking World Cup, and why the U.S., unlike the rest of the planet, typically doesn’t get very excited about watching a soccer game.
Solomon DUBNER: Don’t you mean football match?
DUBNER: Yeah, sorry, Solomon. “Football match.” Played on a pitch, not a field; wearing a kit, not a uniform, and boots, not shoes. Just how popular is this sport that Americans don’t care about all that much? Consider this: the Super Bowl, America’s biggest sports spectacle, is seen by about 125 million people worldwide – but roughly 90 percent of them are in the U.S. And how about World Cup? In the 2010 final, when Spain beat the Netherlands, nearly a billion people tuned in worldwide. And how many of those viewers were in the U.S.? Less than three percent. The journalist Jason Gay, writing in the Wall Street Journal, says the World Cup “makes the Super Bowl seem like open-mike night at a coffee shop.” Okay, so let’s look for some answers. Why don’t Americans care more about soccer? We’ll begin with Sunil Gulati.
GULATI: I teach economics at Columbia University. I’m also president of the United States Soccer Federation and on the FIFA executive committee.
DUBNER: FIFA is the sport’s international governing body. The U.S. Soccer Federation oversees our national teams and Major League Soccer, which Gulati helped get off the ground.
GULATI: We started essentially in 1992, 1993 putting together a business plan. And it was a small group of people that were working at the World Cup. Part of our manifesto for a successful World Cup was to start a professional league.
DUBNER: That’s right – the U.S. hosted a World Cup in 1994,won by Brazil.Soccer fever did not sweep the nation:
WILSON: As soon as you left the stadium, and I remember this very clearly once… going downtown, and it was as if there was no World Cup going on.
DUBNER: That’s Jonathan Wilson. He’s a British born author, an English professor at Tufts. He covered the ’94 Cup for The New Yorker.
WILSON: I used to feel during the World Cup in ’94 that if the I.N.S. had raided one of the grounds they could have arrested 90 percent of the people who were inside.
DUBNER: But Wilson admits the sport is growing here.
WILSON: I feel that it’s actually sort of become indigenous.
DUBNER: A lot of this has to do with the success of the MLS. Sunil Gulati again:
GULATI: So the attendance is approximately 18,000, which puts it sixth, or seventh, eighth in the world in terms of attendance, which is obviously a phenomenal accomplishment after 18 years. The economic trends are generally positive. The number of teams has increased, overall attendance has increased… The one area where we’ve still got some challenges is in the media side from television and television ratings.
[MUSIC: The Civil Tones, “Gin Rummy” (from Rotisserie Twist)]
DUBNER: Okay, so the growth is real. But again, soccer here isn’t what soccer is elsewhere. Why not? Here’s Jonathan Wilson:
WILSON: Well, I think it’s a number of things. First of all it’s the competition of other sports. I mean, it’d be hard to dislodge football or American football from the number one position. And soccer has to compete against football, basketball, hockey and baseball.
DUBNER: So, true, that’s a lot of competition from other sports. Plus which: to many sports fans in America, there’s something just … un-American about soccer. Here’s what you’ll hear on ESPN:
ESPN ANNOUNCER 1: Let’s move to a real man’s game, Soccer. Tony I could not be more fired up for this. How about you?
ESPN ANNOUNCER 2: I’m just gonna take issue with that. “A real man’s game.” Soccer.
ESPN ANNOUNCER 1: A man’s game!
ESPN ANNOUNCER 2: I mean people take dives like divas all the time. When somebody comes within three feet of them they fall down, hold their ankles for years and years and years.
ESPN ANNOUNCER 1: Quit acting! That’s some real men’s men who are actors?
ESPN ANNOUNCER 2: It’s a Julia Roberts kind of situation as far as I’m concerned.
WILSON: You know, it’s too, it’s too, it’s viewed as too nice here.
DUBNER: Jonathan Wilson again:
WILSON: I remember when I first came and I first started coaching here, I had a kid on a team who I was coaching and he was six, and he was fantastic. And he scored something like five goals in a game, and the parents started screaming at me take him out, take him out. And I thought why would I take him out? He just scored five goals, we’re crushing the other team, these other kids, and they were in a panic. And I never saw this happen in Little League. You know, I never saw anybody say you know that kid he just struck out two players in a row…take him out! It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen in basketball…
DUBNER: Why in soccer then?
WILSON: Because soccer became a sort of site of middle-class angst in America. And you know the whole soccer-mom phenomenon and a feeling that somehow it’s tied to you know, your suburban team’s victory, and the U9 league is tied to your kids getting into Harvard in 10 years’ time.
[MUSIC: Vagabond Opera, “Ganef” (from The Zeitgeist Beckons)]
DUBNER: In most places, soccer has been a bootstrap sport. In England, where the modern game developed, the posh kids played rugby while the rough kids played soccer. Even today, in the most soccer-mad countries like Brazil and Argentina, soccer is still a hard sport, played with elbows out. You don’t see a lot of soccer moms toting Ziplocs full of cut-up oranges. Sunil Gulati:
GULATI: I think there’s some truth in that, that soccer in the U.S. has been traditionally a suburban sport. But that’s changing. So if you look at some of the other American sports and where those players have come from, in lots of cases inner cities, we’d love to have more players from inner cities and have more diversity. And I think that’s starting to happen. So you’re absolutely right, in Argentina or traditionally in England it may be kids who were learning how to play in the streets rather than perfectly manicured fields in $200 soccer shoes.
DUBNER: This also means a different career trajectory for a young soccer player in the United States.
WILSON: The American system of how you kind of come up in soccer is very different to the rest of the world. Most of the world’s great soccer players did not and do not go to college. And they are plucked very early.
LUCK: I think there’s a fundamental difference in how soccer is taught in the rest of the world, or sort of the structure surrounding it.
DUBNER: That’s Andrew Luck again, the American football quarterback – who, before he went pro, graduated from Stanford, in architectural design.
LUCK: It seems like kids go professional at age 13, 14 and then they’re professional soccer players with sort of a supplement of education maybe up to those years, and once they’re age 16, 17, they’re full-fledged professionals. Which doesn’t mesh, I think, with our system. The college system. How every other sport in this country is run, really. So I think there’s a difference there, in terms of just practice hours for kids who are 15 years old. Right or wrong. I’m not saying either one is right or wrong. So I do think that creates a disparity.
[MUSIC: Russell L. Howard III, “Keep The Groove”]
DUBNER: So when you look at the U.S. National team – the ones who’ll be competing this month in Brazil, trying to survive a Group of Death including Germany, Portugal, and pesky Ghana – what do you see?
WILSON: The U.S. has never produced a truly world-class player. They’re a good team, they play well as team. They have world-class goal… Although maybe I take that back, they have world class goalkeepers.
DUBNER: And that’s because they can use their hands presumably, yes?
WILSON: Probably yeah. And they’re big. But they’re not, you know, they’re not the great artists of soccer…. So the U.S. is not huge fun to watch as a team. They’re workmen-like; they’re athletic.
DUBNER: I love how only in soccer is the word “athletic” an insult, I’ve noticed. In every other sport to be athletic…It means something different in every sport. But in soccer it means that, well…
WILSON: It means your skill levels aren’t…
DUBNER: Your muscles are fairly coordinated.
WILSON: You have to run around like a nutcase because you don’t have the skill to just stand in one place and do something extraordinary.
DUBNER: Something extraordinary like Leo Messi, who dribbles at full speed as if the ball is attached to his boot. Or Luis Suarez of Uruguay, who scores mind-bending goals, occasionally bites his opponents. Or the 36-year-old Frenchman Thierry Henry, who after a legendary career in Europe, now plays for the MLS’s New York Red Bulls, who play in New Jersey. This is becoming common. International stars, their speed and skills fading, come to the U.S. to play in our league for a few sunset years. Beckham did it. NYC-FC has just signed the Spanish striker David Villa. But the MLS traditionally hasn’t attracted the best players at their peak – even the ones born in America.
WILSON: The MLS, the league that we have is a sort of second-rate league. So if the players want to be great players, they’ve got to go play in Europe, in Germany, France, Spain, Italy or England.
DUBNER: So, what about the correlation between a country’s professional league and the strength of their national team? Sunil Gulati says there are two successful models.
GULATI: One is to have strong professional league. And the other is to essentially have an export-driven model where you develop players and your clubs survive either by having those players play until they’re 17, 18, 19, 20, or maybe a little bit later, and then they’re transferred overseas playing in some of the best leagues in the world.
DUBNER: This is the Brazil model, for instance.
GULATI: The Brazil, the Argentina, the Chile.
DUBNER: South America.
GULATI: Denmark. All of those countries are in that situation. My view is that in a country like the United States with the population base that we have, with the economic strength that we have, the long-term model has to be the first one for us. Americans want to have the best players in the world. And we’ve got a big population So I don’t think eventually we’re going to be an export-driven model. And that’s changed over time. So in the short term when we started Major League Soccer, it might have been best to have all of our best players playing abroad, because the league wasn’t as strong as other leagues around the world. Over time that’s changed, and now, you know, a number of our players are playing at home in the league. Others are playing abroad. That’s fine, that will continue to happen. But as the league gets stronger and players want to play in the best environment, then I think we will follow model A where we have a top flight league and a top flight national team to match.
[MUSIC: Carson Henley, “Fire” (from 100 Hours)]
DUBNER: Okay, so we’ve learned a few things about why U.S. soccer isn’t like soccer elsewhere in the world. But maybe we’re better than we think? This spring, the U.S. national men’s team has been ranked No. 13 and 14in the FIFA standings — pretty good for a country that’s not so enthusiastic about the sport. And, coming up on Freakonomics Radio, we are world champions in the women’s game. Why the disparity?
GULATI: So whether it’s women in the workforce, or voting rights, all sorts of things, that movement, that liberation, those positive steps happen in the U.S. much earlier than they did in many countries around the world.
DUBNER: And: what’ll it take for U.S. men’s soccer to become truly world class?
LUCK: I do think people tend to follow money, when it comes down to it.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
[MUSIC: Sangre Mixto, “Sistema Mayoridad” (from Cuchata)]
DUBNER: The World Cup is upon us. Soccer, as you probably know, is the most popular sport on the planet – but not in the U.S. Perhaps not coincidentally, we’ve never won a World Cup. Our best finish: third place – in 1930, when only 13 teams played. In our last two Cups, the U.S. was eliminated by Ghana, which has fewer people than Texas. I talked to Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, about this lack of American exceptionalism:
DUBNER: Now, the average American sports fan, let’s say, someone who understands that soccer is a, how soccer works and understands the World Cup, that person probably thinks oh, U.S. National Soccer men’s team, failure. Last six World Cups they’ve not gotten out of the groups stage in three of those, and others they reached the round of 16 twice and the quarterfinals once. That’s it. And this is the U.S., which is a sport power in many if not most ways. So what’s the story, why not better?
GULATI: Well, a couple of things, there aren’t many countries that are qualified for the last seven World Cups like we’ve just done. There are some. But unlike some of the other sports in which the U.S. is dominant in, this sport is played in every country in the world, and it’s the number one sport in probably 95 percent of those countries. There’s a few where baseball or cricket may be number one. So this is a real world champion where I don’t want to use terms like life and death but where it’s extraordinarily important where you’ve got countries with several million in habitants who take it very, very seriously. So to be world champion leaving aside some of the other sports in the U.S. where we declare world champions.
FINAL SECONDS OF SUPER BOWL XVIII: The Seattle Seahawks, the first world championship in franchise history. The Seahawks are world champs.
GULATI: In this case there are 208 countries that play. We’re not a newcomer, we’ve been doing this a long time, but other countries have taken it far more seriously at a much earlier stage. And it’s not just down to the fact that we’ve got 320 million people and are a relatively affluent country because then China would be very good in one of those arenas and some of the European countries which haven’t done as well would also be at the top. So we’ve made a lot of improvements, and if we could replicate the progress that we’ve made both on and off the field over the last quarter century, then I think we will be where we want to be in the next quarter century, which is one of the elite powers in the world.
DUBNER: That said, the U.S. used to be relatively good at soccer. The first World Cup in 1930 they played and famously beat England in 1950. But then there were those, I think 40 years, so 10 cups, or nine cups where the U.S. did not qualify… Can you explain what happened to a sport that was pretty prominent in a country like this fall off so far?
GULATI: Well in many ways what was happening 70 or 80 years ago there weren’t professional leagues in the same way there are now. That’s changed very much. Second in the U.S. American football and baseball took hold in a major way. So what you had back in the 30s, the 40s, and even our 1950 team were a number of ethnic players who were first or second generation young players and came to the U.S., either were born here or with their families and so we were competitive…But saying that we were a very good team, or competitive in the 30s… is the same thing to me as saying that at one time India on an economic development level was one of the richest countries in the world. All right that doesn’t, obviously it’s a different time horizon and a different issue. But that doesn’t mean that it’s got all the necessary ingredients to stay the course for several hundred years, or in the soccer case 80 years.
DUBNER: Now, you’ve given a lot of compelling and resonant suggestions for why U.S. men’s soccer is not “better” and that it seems to be heading in a direction where it is better than it has been. But here to me is the biggest mystery. Men’s team is ranked 14th, if we look at the women’s rankings however, number one is the U.S. women’s soccer team. Beyond that they’ve had massive success, winning the World Cup twice, never finishing lower than third. So how can it be that our men are so, let’s call it promising for the moment, very good and promising, and the women are just totally kickass, why such a divide?
GULATI: Well, I think there’s a few different reasons. One is the role of women in American society is very different and has been different for a longer period of time than it is for many countries around the world. So whether it’s women in the workforce, or voting rights, all sorts of things, that movement, that liberation, those positive steps happen in the U.S. much earlier than they did in many countries around the world that we could name pretty easily. Second is we invested far more resources in the women’s team than almost anyone else in the world at an early step. So we had a head start. And unlike technology where you might have a patent, we didn’t have a patent on this and the gap has narrowed certainly. But we had lots of girls and women playing. We had early success, which gave us role models, and Mia Hamm and world champions. We had something that was very important in that process Title IX, and that changed dramatically the number of girls that had university scholarships. So I think all of those things changed the landscape in terms of women’s soccer.
[MUSIC: Abbas Premjee, “Waiting Patiently”]
DUBNER: One more reason the U.S. women’s national soccer team is so great: the best homegrown American female athletes aren’t necessarily diverted to big-money sports like basketball or football. Like this guy was:
LUCK: Hey, Andrew Luck.
DUBNER: Luck, you may recall, is the Stanford graduate who’s also an NFL quarterback.
LUCK: And also diehard Houston Dynamo fan. And happy to be here.
DUBNER: Luck’s father, Oliver, used to run the Houston Dynamo. Before that, he was an NFL quarterback himself – when he stopped playing, he helped run NFL Europe. So when Andrew was a kid, the family moved to Europe. Andrew grew up playing and watching a lot of soccer in Germany and England.
LUCK: I think part of my affinity for soccer is not necessarily the game but, I don’t want to say pageantry, but the emotions involved in the clubs… and the people. I think the political, the geopolitical struggles, I think is the most powerful thing. I think we always, when talking to people who maybe don’t know the sport as well, they bring up the Barcelona versus Madrid…Madrid, the seat of power in Spain, and forcing the culture of Barcelona down at one point, right? You couldn’t speak the language, you couldn’t read the books. They couldn’t wave their flag. So the stadium, the Nou Camp is what it’s called—I may be totally off here, but this is my understanding of it—was one of the few platforms where you could express yourself as a citizen of Barcelona, and speak the language, and wave the flag. I think that’s a very powerful thing and it’s obviously something we don’t have in this country. The closest might be college football down in the South. But that’s different and I think there’s a different culture surrounding it, with the tailgating and everything else. I think in Europe, soccer seems much more…physically, it seems ingrained in the neighborhoods. You walk along and ‘Oh, there’s a stadium,’ right next to a bunch of houses…
DUBNER: Yeah, yeah. Because as you said, a color of a flag or a uniform or a scarf or whatever represents hundreds of years of political history and everything else. So translate that, then, blow that up for me to the bigger stage, which is now World Cup. And talk to me just for a minute about how, again, you see fans’ attachments to their national teams and to the World Cup generally versus U.S. sports fans’ attachment to our national team.
LUCK: I think it’s very funny, in one sense. You think about watching the Olympics every two years, that our country really cares about who’s representing us, and we tend to forget all the names. I think you’d find folks around the world with their national soccer teams who remember every starting lineup of every game that’s been played in the past 30 years. It seems to be sort of the stage for how their country’s viewed around the world. If you think of a country as a business, it’s almost their marketing, almost their PR side of it.
DUBNER: Let’s talk a little bit about the economics of professional soccer in this country. First of all, talk to me about the financial incentives at play. MLS, Major League Soccer, salary caps have risen a lot. And attendance has risen and even viewership is rising. How much of a factor do you think it is, in building a sport like the MLS, is the pure financial incentive? In other words, as soccer pays more, will some of the best American athletes start to move into that more? That’s what theory would predict at least, right?
LUCK: Yeah, I think people tend to follow money, when it comes down to it. I think there’s now three designated player spots for MLS teams. I want to say the salary cap’s at around $5 million, and that doesn’t include those DP slots. So I’m sure it gets stretched a little thin towards the back end of the roster, which I think, from my understanding, are probably the same in all sports. The longer you go in the season, the more you get worn down. That’s where you may lose your quality, on the pitch, on the field, whatever arena you’re in. I think by having Dempsey and Michael Bradley, guys in their prime come back to the States and get good money and show that it is quality—soccer, that it is a quality product—and they’re putting it back on the field, I think that’s huge for the league. And great for fans. Great for me. Great to be able to watch those guys.
DUBNER: What do you think it would take for American soccer to explode… When Tiger Woods started playing professional golf and dominating in a way that nobody’d ever seen—even Nicklaus didn’t dominate in the way that Tiger did—it changed the perception of literally a generation of potential athletes. So all the guys playing in the PGA now who are, let’s say, between 20 and 30 say that when Tiger began doing what he did, they paid attention in a different way. And Tiger’s dominance brought a lot of money to the sport, which trickles down to everybody. And there are a lot of people who became golfers who wouldn’t have become golfers without Tiger Woods. Plain and simple. I’m curious if you think a sort of parallel like that might exist, or be worthwhile, in pro soccer in the U.S.? And if so, who’s out there? Who might be out there to be that Pied Piper?
LUCK: I think more of a Pied Piper would be a U.S. national team, you know, winning the World Cup. As we know, we love winners in this country. I was a little angry and sad that we didn’t win the medal count at the Winter Olympics…It’s sort of ingrained in our society. So I don’t know if there’s one player that would be a Pied Piper that would bring everything with him, be a Tiger Woods. I do think our national team winning the World Cup would be unbelievable.
[MUSIC: Squidley, “Matt’s Dream” (from Welcome to My Spaceship!)]
DUBNER: I’m curious, I’ve always wanted to ask you — I don’t know if you’ll want to answer this question or not, but I did always want to ask you: You were the number one overall NFL draft pick a few years ago, which is a big, big, big deal. And you signed a four-year contract for a reported $22 million dollars over four years, which to most people listening to this program, or any program, is an incredible amount of money. So I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you but through a quirk of history and labor relations, you came into the league just one year after this new labor agreement went into effect between the players and the owners. And that vastly lowered the amount that a team could pay rookies, rookie signings at the top level. So, for instance, the guy who came in two years before you, Sam Bradford, also the number one NFL pick, got $78 million over six years. Now, I guess I’d ask you two things about that. And if you don’t want to answer this, that’s fine, but I’d love to hear what you have to say. First of all, you kinda got legislated out of an extra 20, 30, 40, depending on how you want to count it, 50 million dollars. A. How did you feel about that? It was through no fault of your own. It was through a labor agreement. Were you burned or bummed? Or did you just think, my timing was a little off and I’m still extremely fortunate?
LUCK: There was an initial, maybe half a second pang of bitterness at my parents for not having my earlier. But once I realized that, you know, you can waste your whole life worrying about things you can’t control, right? So I haven’t lost any sleep over it. And actually, as I’ve sort of gone into year three now, and talking to folks in our union and or each other, our teammates and folks at the front office, I realize the thought process behind it all. And I’m OK with it.
DUBNER: That is the best blaming of parents I’ve ever heard, I have to say. People blame their parents for a lot of things, but that one was, that’s worth it. Here’s the real question having to do with that. So the NFL is easily the most successful sport in America, probably in American history. And yet, there are these pressures on the NFL. There’s the concussion issue, which is surely scaring some potential participants away. There’s the financial issue. People are still getting paid a lot to play in the NFL, but if you look at the aggregate numbers, the average NFL salary—considering how short the career is and how difficult the career is, physically and otherwise—in a lot of ways, soccer begins to look like a really nice viable alternative if you’re a great American athlete. You can play for a long time. It’s a contact sport, for sure, but not the way the NFL is. And now there seems to be this money flowing in. So I’m curious, predicting the future is impossible, but could you look down the road and envision a future where soccer does establish, if not a dominance, then at least a real secondary or tertiary prominence in the American sports landscape? Or, do you think we’re destined to be the country that doesn’t go along with all the other countries—we have our sports and they have theirs?
LUCK: Yeah. I think two things. One, I think there’s definitely enough room in the sort of sports culture for Soccer to keep gaining traction. I don’t want to say ‘take’ traction. I think it is big in some areas of the States right now. And two, I don’t think we’re gonna always be the little brother, in a sense, in the soccer world. Our mindset in this country is we have to be the best. Right? And eventually, enough people are gonna care about it. And hopefully it’s this year. Hopefully we’re the best at this World Cup. But I think it’s a matter of time before we are the best. Only a matter of time.
[MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “$4/Gal” (from Outcries From A Sea Of Red)]
DUBNER: For the final word, I went back to the source who follows the sport more closely than anyone I happen to know. Conveniently, he also lives under my roof.
Solomon DUBNER: Solomon Dubner. … Thirteen. … Sports writer.
Stephen DUBNER: So what do you think it says about how soccer or football is different as a sport than the American sports that we’re used to?
Solomon DUBNER: Well, it definitely unites the whole world because it’s in some ways it’s a universal language. Almost everywhere in the world plays and follows football, in every country pretty much. And it just unites everyone somehow, it’s kind of crazy.
Stephen DUBNER: Why do you think Americans generally are less enthusiastic about footy than most people around the world. Because as you said, it’s this kind of universal love, universal sport, but here, not so much. Why do you think that is?
Solomon DUBNER: Well, there’s so many other sports that America is good at. And we just haven’t been the best at football. It’s weird, it’s kind of an unknown mystery in ways. I think though that a success in Brazil this summer will go a long way towards promoting football in the United States.
DUBNER: You hear that, Team U.S.A.? It’s on your shoulders. Don’t let my kid down.
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Why America Doesn’t Love Soccer (Yet).“