Why America Doesn’t Love Soccer (Yet): A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: Steven Depolo)

(Photo: Steven Depolo)

With the 2014 World Cup getting underway in Brazil, we’ve just released an episode called “Why America Doesn’t Love Soccer (Yet).” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) The episode tries to answer a few questions:

1. Why doesn’t America love soccer the way the rest of the world does? 2. Would that change if the U.S. ever managed to win a World Cup? 3. Is No. 2 possible without No. 1?

It’s no secret that soccer continues to lag behind other U.S. sports in viewership and enthusiasm. For instance, 111.5 million Americans sat down to watch Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014. Meanwhile, only 24.3 million watched the 2010 World Cup Final, which was actually a record.

To put this in global perspective, total Super Bowl viewership is roughly 90 percent American while viewership of the biggest soccer event is roughly 3 percent American. And relatively few people in the States rank soccer as their favorite sport.

To address these disparities, Stephen Dubner turns to a real-life football superstar of the American variety: Indianapolis Colts Quarterback Andrew Luck. Luck was selected first in the 2012 NFL Draft and has become one of the best quarterbacks in America’s favorite sport. He also happens to be a huge soccer fan. What does Luck think it would take for U.S. soccer to take off in popularity?

LUCK: I think…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. … 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.

Dubner also interviews Sunil Gulati, an economist at Columbia who also is the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and on the FIFA Executive Committee:

GULATI: [T]here aren’t many countries that have 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….. So this is a real world champion…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 good in some of those areas 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.

The U.S., of course, is an elite power when it comes women’s soccer. Our national team has won the World Cup twice and is currently ranked No. 1 in the world. In the podcast, Gulati explains why the U.S. women have performed so much better than the U.S. men.

Jonathan Wilson, a Tufts professor who is the author of Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball (Bloomsbury Reader), explains why culture around soccer is so different in the U.S. But he, like Luck and Gulati, believes that immigration and other factors are already changing this.

You’ll also hear from Solomon Dubner, a 13-year-old aspiring soccer journalist who has written for World Soccer Talk and maintains a blog called  Solomon on Footy. Coincidentally, he is also the son of Stephen Dubner, and his papa is proud.

(Special thanks to Sal Tuzzeo at Nielsen and Kevin Alavy at Futures Sport + Entertainment for helping us sort through viewership data.)

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  1. Mike says:

    Thanks for the putting out this podcast. I have a comment and a question:

    1) Jonathan Wilson is also the name of a high profile soccer journalist and author which led to a small amount of confusion when his voice was not what I was expecting.

    2) Who is the artist and what is the name of the (Brazilian?/Portuguese?) song which plays at the 0:58 second mark? It fades in right after the media clip of Ray Hudson shouting “a wet dream of orgasmic proportions!”

    Thanks again!

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  2. Cara says:

    I’m listening to the podcast now, and as usual, it is great. Soccer is the only sport I follow, and I primarily follow MLS. I’m not a grammar nazi, but you made one common mistake whike talking about MLS that makes many supporters whince. You would never say THE Major League Soccer, so drop the THE when using the acronym.

    Thank you for all of the great podcast. They get me through the slow work days.

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  3. Bill says:

    I enjoyed this story, but it seems to me that you missed one of the fundamental reasons the sport (particularly at the pro level) hasn’t gotten more traction in the US. There’s one fundamental difference between soccer and the major US sports: it doesn’t stop. They play 45 minute halves without a break. No timeouts, no place for commercial breaks, no big TV money.

    Simply put, the nature of a soccer game is a terrible fit for commercial television in the US. Networks wishing to air, say, MLS games are faced with the dilemma of either airing 45 minutes of continuous play before they could run any ads (unimaginable), or cutting away during game play to air ads, risking missing a goal or a great save, etc. (infuriating and alienating the viewers).

    Where does the really big money come from in pro sports in the US? Big TV contracts. No timeouts, no commercials. No commercials, no sponsors. No sponsors, no big TV contracts.

    So it seems to me that the basic structure of soccer gameplay is fundamentally incompatible with the demands of US commercial television. And that’s a big problem.

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    • NZ says:

      That’s an interesting take on it. I used to wonder if that was the reason too. Now I’m not sure.

      For example, soccer is huge in other countries that have TV channels and sponsorships and commercials and all that stuff. So, what’s their workaround?

      I know that in England, the financial structure of their soccer leagues is very different from how most professional American sports are structured. I wonder if that has something to do with it.

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      • Richard says:

        But in many, many countries, broadcast commercial messages are lumped together between programs, and are creative enough to make viewers want to watch them, instead of using the time to run to the kitchen.

        When European friends visit me in the USA and watch American television, they find two aspects particularly striking: (1) programs are constantly interrupted for commercial messages, which they find quite frustrating, and (2) the President can interrupt scheduled programming to make a nation-wide televised announcement and say nothing whatsoever of importance.

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    • Diogo Sodré says:

      You are completely right! I was about to write just that!
      Another huge factor is that soccer has a small amount of goals per game. If you look at the 3 most popular sports in the US (Football, Baseball and Basketball) they all have many scores that count for many points and that allows a back and forth score that you rarely see in soccer.

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      • Andy Planet says:

        An American football game that ends 21-7 is actually the same as 3-1.

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      • Voice of Reason says:

        That’s what I’ve always thought Andy. Plus, soccer games are usually less than two hours long, while football and baseball games are about three hours long. If you think of a FG as 0.5 scores, and a TD as 1 score, you’re really not getting many more scores per hour than you would be in soccer. And, if you consider that in baseball many of the scores happen 2-3 runs at a time. How would you explain hockey too? Those games are three hours, and they’re usually pretty low scoring.

        Sure, you have basketball, but that takes the idea of “we need scoring to be happy” to the extreme.

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      • SP says:

        >>An American football game that ends 21-7 is actually the same as 3-1.

        This is completely untrue. In American football there are multiple ways of scoring, each with different number of points: touchdown (6), point after touchdown (1), 2-point conversion after touchdown (2), field goal (3), safety (2). So a score of 21 is not necessarily as simple as 3 touchdowns followed by 3 PATs.

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      • Voice of Reason says:

        I was using a bit of an assumption with my argument, but I was throwing safeties out of the equation (because they’re rare), and I was assuming that a field goal was only half as important as a TD, and was seen as a failure of sorts. There’s no real equivalent to a half score in soccer, so it’s hard to compare it.

        However, one factor that people don’t bring up much, that they should, and maybe describes to aversion to sports like soccer and hockey: the lack of importance of position and attrition. In baseball, pitch count is an important factor, and you scratch runs across pretty frequently. In football, even if you don’t score, you can wear the other team down or put them in bad field position. So you feel like if you don’t score, you still accomplished something by moving down the field.

        In soccer, you can give up all of your field position in a matter of minutes if you miss the shot, in hockey it’s a matter of seconds. That’s mainly why I’ve always disliked hockey. It’s the ultimate blue ball sport.

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      • SP says:

        >>I was assuming that a field goal was only half as important as a TD, and was seen as a failure of sorts.

        Also not true. In the end, points are points. You can score 7 field goals to win 21-20 or 3 touchdowns. What matters at the end of the game is that you had 21 points vs. the other teams 20 even if you scored them without a single touchdown while the other team had two touchdowns in the 20.

        In fact, the decisions of whether or not to go for a field goal, whether or not to go for 2-point conversion, etc. add much excitement to American Football. And you are absolutely right that there’s no equivalent in soccer :)

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      • LMD3014 says:

        >> In soccer, you can give up all of your field position in a matter of minutes

        Minutes? Many (maybe most) goals are scored in counters, at most a minute after recuperating the ball, most of the time deep into your defensive field.

        The obvious obstacle here is that if you have never played soccer you will have a hard time to understand and an even harder time to care about the midfield battle and the search for some kind of opening… and that’s where most of the enjoyment comes from.

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    • JJ says:

      Perhaps not ideal, but there are two obvious solutions. First, partial screen ads are compatible with continuous play. Second, play could be interrupted at a lull, for a commercial, and recorded play resumed (during the same lull) after the commercial. The viewer would see all of the play, despite interruption for commercials. Recorded play could “catch-up” with the live play by continuing during the half-time.

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    • Hunter says:

      I thought for sure this would be mentioned in the podcast, though there’s obviously a lot to cover. In terms of advertising, American football is a perfect fit for television with its frequent stops and starts, many of which are perfect length for a commercial.

      While obviously the rest of the world has no problem monetizing soccer, it’s much more in demand. Cutting out a huge chunk of prime time (or not prime time due to time zones) for something with an unproven advertising scheme and currently small viewerbase seems like a risk the networks don’t need to take.

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    • aaron says:

      As a counterpoint I would like to point out that NASCAR auto racing also does not stop and has considerable success here in the US. F1 auto racing has had limited success, but Indy Car racing is successful here.

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      • Voice of Reason says:

        Good point about NASCAR, but a few counter arguments and explanations:

        1: I think that NASCAR gets a larger percentage of revenue from ticket sales (and other in-stadium money) compared to TV revenue than the big four sports. It’s very popular to go to, but I barely see it on TV except for occasionally on Saturdays on FOX, or maybe niche cable stations. It’s not saturated like MLB or NFL.
        2: Is it really as popular as the big four? Really? Maybe in the south, but in most parts of the country I don’t really see it.
        3: I think that they do cut to commercials mid-race. This is accepted in motorsport, but would be seen as a heresy for soccer.

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    • Andy Planet says:

      I was also waiting for this point to be discussed on the show, considering it’s about economics and all. I suspect that media have too much control over what is and isn’t popular in the U.S. But commercials are the American way — we actually celebrate them during the Super Bowl — and, anyway, when else is someone supposed to order a pizza or run to the toilet?

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    • djhomeless says:

      I take it you’ve never watched hockey then?

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    • HA says:

      Other countries air commercials all the time: The banners around the football pitch are green screens, with each channel putting banner space up for bids. you see different banners depending on the channel. It could still be true, that the commercial pauses are a must. I actually think, conversely, that American sports would be much more popular outside of the US, if it where not for the time-outs. F or a time, a lot of commercial TV channels in Europe did show commercials as often and for as long a time as the US, but they noticed a marked decrease in viewership, so they had to cut back.

      On a different note: to Europeans, American commercial documentaries seem like they where made for people with short-term memory loss, because they keep repeating everything. This is generally taken as a proof for how stupid Americans are supposed to be. But I recently realized, that it is because the commercials are so frequent, that you probably start to forget what you are watching.

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    • mscales says:

      Soccer needs timeouts to sell commercial ads and give me an opportunity to make a sandwich and use the bathroom. Also instant replay helps Americans with football after a play… but soccer doesn’t have the downtime between plays like American football. Ad revenue derived in the arena from billboards often belongs to the arena or the league, not the network and chroma key ads only provide branding, not messaging. If it doesn’t sell ads, it doesn’t stay on TV.

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  4. Doug Seidlitz says:

    It is very simple.

    I don’t watch soccer because when I watch TV, I prefer to stay awake.

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    • Juan says:

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  5. Tarrou says:

    Two points, the first of which Bill covers, the difficulty of monetization.

    The second is more important, I think. It is a lack of scoring. Hockey is quite similar, but still has a much higher average score, and there’s fights too!

    No one wants to watch three hours of straight soccer for a 0-0 tie. You might as well have not even played the game. Just hold a shoot-0ut.

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    • Name says:

      “Two points, the first of which Bill covers, the difficulty of monetization.

      There’s so much more money in soccer than than the NFL or the NBA, it’s not even funny.

      “No one wants to watch three hours of straight soccer for a 0-0 tie. You might as well have not even played the game. Just hold a shoot-out.”

      Billions of people disagree. Just say **I** don’t wan’t to watch a game that ends in a 0-0 tie. Oh btw, soccer games are about 1h45m without stoppages. They rarely last 3 hours.

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      • Tarrou says:

        Name, The question is why soccer in America hasn’t taken off. In most of the world, yes, soccer is big, really big. I offered an opinion as to why it wasn’t big in the US. So saying that my opinion is flawed because the rest of the world likes it is pretty circular. But I shall add this: In much of the world, poverty favors the cheapest game to play, and it doesn’t get any cheaper than soccer, unless you consider professional tag to be the dog’s bollocks. In the US, we have always had the disposable income as a nation for things like helmets, bats, gloves, basketball hoops and courts etc. And this was widely distributed, unlike say, tennis and golf in England, which were old aristocratic games. As a result, these more expensive games became embedded in our culture early. Many nations have moved out of poverty, but retain certain trappings, sport being one of them.

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    • reuben says:

      A normal soccer game lasts 2 hours, start to finish for 90 minutes of play. If you are watching “three hours of straight soccer”, it’d be some sort of tournament game where the first 90 minutes ended in a draw, and then someone would have scored in the next 30 minutes of extra time and/or it would remain tied and then proceed to penalty kicks.

      TLDR: it is impossible to watch 3 hours of soccer and have the game end in a tie. 2 hours, yes; 3 hours, no.

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  6. Jeff says:

    I live in Canada, which is like the USA, European Football is not terribly popular up here, Hockey is. While I do follow the world cup, I don’t follow much else.

    I have always looked at the sport and know I don’t like it for one major reason, which I think is probably prevalent all over Canada, and probably the USA as well.

    I don’t like what in Football is referred to as “gamesmanship”, I would describe it as being a wimp, faking an injury in order to draw a foul. It just doesn’t jive with what I consider key in sports, toughness. Look at the rest of major sports in North America, nearly all off them this type of behavior is either frowned upon or downright not allowed.

    I think that this is a huge hurdle for Football to overcome in North America. Its men are taught that it is dishonorable fake injuries (not sure if this is the correct term to capture the feeling), not admirable to show weakness.

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    • Jonny says:

      English soccer fan here. I agree that diving (feigning injury) is an issue, and it is something that is frowned upon and often widely criticised. Many in the media are calling for retrospective punishments for diving, and I believe a system like this has been implemented in the MLS?

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      • Stan Breckner says:

        Most of us Americans may look at soccer and fault it for the diving. It’s amazing how much flopping occurs in American basketball these days. Basketball athletes are encouraged to embellish a charge to prevent the offensive possession from counting. In the NBA, it seems flopping is becoming more of an epidemic now than it has ever been and much of that could be attributed to the combination of the adapted playing style of LeBron James and the exposure of critical (non-pooled) media. In football, the defensive linemen are encouraged to show an emotion as if they cannot get through the line to encourage the backfield judge to throw a flag. The punter is NOTORIOUS for embellishing any form of contact to draw a 15-yard roughing-the-kicker penalty. In baseball, batters are encouraged to embellish a pitch that flies near them, or a pitch that is just outside/inside the zone to convince the umpire that the pitch was indeed a ball or that the pitch almost struck the batter.

        My argument may not be very valid, but I do believe that American sports fans should not point the finger at soccer and condemn it for being the only sport that encourages athletes to dramaticize. It seems all of our sports encourage that and incite a heightened sense of emotion from the fan base.

        I’m a relatively new fan to soccer and I understand that the globe’s most influential game neither has a definite ending time and only 4 officials attempt to enforce the rules on a field much larger than an American football field. But something about the drama that unfolds without having to use a scoreboard as a constant factor to determine the progress of the game is something that I really tend to enjoy. Yes, the game can be 1-0 for an hour and a half of real time; but the change in strategy, the various methods of attack and defense evolve so well over the game that a story is being told in a way that I just don’t see any American sport can convey.

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    • DT Shangers says:

      You can claim that diving is “frowned upon” but they still train players to take a good dive. My issue with football is that the outcome of any match is in the hands of one man- the referee (or umpire, I forget and don’t care). Too many times I’ve seen a star player on home field take a dive which results in a game-winning penalty. 90 minutes of battling only to have the outcome depend on the decision of the ref who is more concerned with getting out alive.

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    • Azin says:

      I think you nailed the biggest reason right there. That along with the low goal count is why I personally am not interested in soccer.

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    • Johnno says:

      They say the difference between soccer and the other football codes (gridiron & rugby) is that in soccer you spend 90 minutes trying to show how badly hurt you are, when in rugby and gridiron, you spend 80 minutes trying NOT to show how badly hurt you are.

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  7. Al says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • James says:

      IMHO, if you’re sitting on your butt spectating rather than out there playing the sport, you’re already a loser.

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    • Tarrou says:

      Mate, Baseball is a game for losers. The best in the game fail 70% of the time. The best teams lose hundreds of games a season. Don’t be silly.

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  8. caleb b says:

    Several thoughts on why soccer is not popular in the US. Some already touched on by others.

    1) Scoring – (and knowing when to expect scoring) – in soccer and in hockey, the goalie can basically punt the ball down the field and eliminate the scoring threat for another 5 minutes or so. In football, if the Patriots have the ball, 1st and goal, at the 4 yard line, I can expect that they’ll either score or i will see a great defensive effort. Also, bc scoring is so rare, comebacks are nearly impossible. A soccer team down 0-2 is dead with 10 minutes remaining. In football, onside kicks and timeouts allow teams to come back…adding excitement and giving a reason to watch until the end. On top of the fact that I might watch an entire soccer game and only see one goal….it doesn’t give me much of a reason to tune in. At least in the NFL, if I only see one goal I’m probably seeing at least a few big hits in the meantime.

    2) The love of extreme – in America we love extreme stuff. The Chicago Style Pizza, the foot long hotdog, the 64 oz soda. It’s why we love the Olympics but never watch track and field otherwise. Soccer doesn’t provide the right avenue to appropriately be able to see extreme athleticism. Watching Marshawn Lynch go “beast mode” is much more impressive because he needs to be both extremely athletic and tough. Watching a 156lbs soccer player dribble around a guy just doesn’t have the same effect because the defender is limited in what he can do. Lynch had to deal the possibility of getting blown up…which is way cooler.

    3) Softness of soccer players – this problem exists in the NBA too and we’re fining people because of it. Americans hate watching some faker lie on the ground, pretending to be hurt in order to draw a call. I hate it when wide receivers do this to draw a call and I can’t stand it when soccer players do it. It’s garbage.

    4) Football is clearly much more difficult than soccer –The NFL is a much more complicated league than anything soccer has. There are 11+ coaches, the ball can be run or thrown, or run THEN thrown, or thrown then pitched back. Thousands of plays, hundreds of different formations, specialized style of players, dozens of coaches….there is only so much that can be coached on a soccer field because it is a continuous game. See the NBA as another example. Derek Fisher gets a head coaching job without ever having coached. That’s bc it is possible to do that in the NBA bc there are only so many things you can coach in basketball. But that would never happen in the NFL because it is way too complicated. There are too many variables. Tom Brady could not wake up tomorrow and be the head coach of the Browns or something. He’d need to get some actual coaching experience…THEN he might be able to coach, but he’d need to prove it by winning at least at the college level.

    5) measureable progress. In soccer, i have no idea if my team is really doing well or not. In football, i can count the yards and first downs. I have some quantifiable reference for how well my team is doing and how much closer they are to making progress. If it is 3rd and 15, i know that my team is going to try and get 15 yards and if they don’t they failed. In soccer, there is no point of reference. Oh, the goalie cleared it…oh well, dribble around for a while and try again.

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    • jimmy says:

      I listened to the podcast, and like you, felt that it pretty much ignored the fact that Americans have many choices in what to play and watch… maybe, just maybe, soccer isn’t popular because the other options are better… it isn’t historical, cultural, the lack of winning, etc. Now I played soccer for 12 years growing up, and occassionally adult rec. My brother played on a scholarship in college. So one would think I’d be a super-fan as an adult. But in fact I don’t like the outdoor game, for some of the same reasons you mention.

      1) The players are constantly taking dives and acting till a card is thrown, then they get back up and start playing. Americans, in general, don’t respect this behavior.

      2) You mention low scoring the lack of ability for a comeback. I think the root cause is the terrible offsides rule, which creates a huge advantage for the defense, and shrinks the field. If soccer adopted the lacrosse “offsides” rule, which forces the field to be spread out on offense and defense, there would be much more scoring.

      3) Tangential to #2, too often when I watch an entire game, the team that clearly played better loses the game! This rarely happens in football. But with games decided by shootouts or 1 goal, it can be the result of a lucky shot, one simple mistake, or the non-core skill of penalty kicks. When the score rises, such as in indoor soccer, this huge problem goes away.

      Basically, if MLS wanted to become popular in the USA, they should get rid of the offsides rule (which would cause FIFA to cry and scream, but who cares), and they should fine fake injury actors.

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