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

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(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.)


D. Jasper

Haven't listened to the podcast, so I don't know if it gets mentioned there, but I'm not seeing in the comments the best theory I've heard yet about soccer's lack of popularity in the US.

Simply, in the rest of the world, soccer is the sport of the streets and the city slums. It is the vehicle of aspiration for the lower classes in nearly every country on the planet. In America, at least for the last 50 years, it's a college sport and a sport for suburban kids. It doesn't feed on the hunger to aspire here as it does in the rest of the world.

The best evidence is to look at the sports over the last 100 years or so that have been played in the streets and slums in America: most recently that's basketball, and before that it was baseball. Both of those sports' growth in the US last century was driven by kids in cities and small towns playing those sports as if their lives depended on it. Never so, soccer.

Our collective childhood romance with taped up balls and makeshift equipment, playing till after dark, etc are almost exclusively related to baseball and basketball.

Elsewhere in the world, the taped up balls and dirty sandlots were (and still are) used for "football".

Until soccer becomes the sport we look to to improve our station in life, our vehicle of aspiration, there is little chance our level of skill will compare with that of the rest of the world.

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Stefano

I agree with some of the previous comments, and in my opinion the main reasons are:

1) low number of goals per game: having a 0-0 tie is totally fine with me (I was born and raised watching soccer back in Italy...), but I understand that if the term of comparison is the 100+ points in basketball people might find it less interesting. To this point I would argue that a 0-0 tie in the last few minutes of a soccer playoff game should have the same thrill as a 100-100 tie with less than 1:00 to go in basketball...

2) the concept of tie, which is inexistent in American sports. Just to give an example, some colleagues invited me to fill in a bracket for the world cup on ESPN.com: even if this is the website of a national TV network that focuses on sport events, the choices for the results of pool stage games were only two: Team A wins / Team B wins or draws.

James

Perhaps part of the equation is that in the US, soccer is a sport for playing, while football is almost exclusively played by a small, usually professional, elite, from the high school football jocks up to the pros. By that measure - people who play, or have played at some point in their lives - I would bet that soccer is far more popular than football.

Maybe nowadays it's mainly a sport for suburban kids (there are a lot of those, though), but back in my younger days, it was the sport small, rural schools in poorer areas played because the school districts couldn't afford the insurance coverage for football. And a bunch of kids could easily play by themselves, with no more equipment than a ball, on a bit of field that you could chase the cows out of. (Note: playing in a pasture randomly spotted with cowflops really incentivizes agility :-))

I don't understand why it's not a major spectator sport in the US, but then I've never understood why people watch sports in the first place. I'd much rather be out playing myself.

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Alex

One reason attributing to the women's national team success is that outside the USA girls are not encouraged to play soccer. It is considered a boy's/man's sport. Only in the US do they play co-ed soccer. Abroad you will rarely see girls playing soccer.

Mark

I enjoyed the soccer podcast, but I believe that they missed what is the major factor for why soccer is not popular with the american public:

Americans tastes are shaped by television, and television, especially sports television is paid for by advertising. If you look at the major sports in order of their popularity: Football, Baseball, Basketball, and Hockey, they are ordered in the same direction as their friendliness towards advertising on television. Baseball is carefully designed to provide at least 9 commercial breaks per game, basketball and hockey have regular stops in the action which the broadcaster can easily extend to accommodate a few more ads. A football game which has 60 minutes of actual playing time turns into a 3 hr broadcast - while a soccer game, with 90 minutes of action can be broadcast in only 2 hrs. As long as television networks make more money broadcasting football, they will do everything that they can to keep it as the most popular sport in America.

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Patrick

I think it has a lot to do with the quality of the product offered by MLS compared with the other American sports leagues. The NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL are all the best in the world at their respective sports, while MLS is minor league by comparison. Why watch a minor league soccer game when there are so many superior alternatives?

Further, I don't think a U.S. World Cup victory would move the needle very much. Most of the best US players would still go back to playing in the European leagues.

Dutch

I agree with your logic but I doubt most Americans (myself included) could really appreciate MLS gameplay compared to top tier gameplay. I've watched World Cup finals and AC Milian matches but it was still boring.

It's the game itself that doesn't translate, US World Cup victory or not

Patrick

It doesn't matter if people can tell the difference. Most people can't tell the difference between Coke and generic brand soft drinks, but buy Coke anyways because they perceive it to be better. Most Olympic sports also fall into this category. No one can tell the difference between top and mid tier Curling, but people watch Olympic curling every four years anyways, in part because they know they're watching the best curlers in the world.

People know that MLS is inferior and therefore don't even bother to give it a try.

MLS needs to recruit more top tier players, market them effectively, and then it has a shot at breaking through.

Dutch

I enjoyed the podcast but I think it missed some points.

1) The title begs the question that soccer will one day be popular. This future promise has been attached to soccer in America for decades. The refrain that soccer will be popular because American kids play it has been around since Pele was introduced to America. I vividly recall being a kid playing competitive soccer in the early 90's hearing about how soccer would eclipse baseball and all other sports but basketball and football by 2010. It didn't happen but compare how popular NASCAR (which I hate) and UFC (which I enjoy) has become in the same time span. So it isn't that America refuses to adopt new sports. Barring earth shattering demographic changes from mass immigration soccer will continue to be a fringe sport in America.

2) The sport is boring but in theory should be at least as popular as hockey, if not more. Hockey suffers from many of the same complaints (e.g. low scoring, etc.) as soccer but doesn't have the main problems that turn Americans off.

3) Hockey players are tougher, athleticism is valued here. I still can't wrap my head around the quote in the podcast that made it seem like a drawback.

4) Officiating and rules matter a great deal and is much better in hockey and every other popular sport in America. Soccer players taking dives (which draw a lot of ire in America and this comment thread) is a symptom of a much larger problem. In many countries soccer is incredibly corrupt and that spoils the basic fairness that Americans enjoy in sports. Hence why cheating scandals or points shaving are such a bigger deal here than anywhere else (see: Pete Rose)

5) Related to that is the clock, which only the ref has the official time so no one ever really knows how much time is left. I have many die hard soccer fan friends and the ones born in America get this point.

6) Lack of strategy, planning, adjustment, and tactical coaching: My soccer friends born in other countries can't understand why knowing the official time matters. I say that in football your strategy and play calling varies wildly depending upon whether there's 10 minutes left or 2 minutes left. They answer that in soccer the strategy doesn't change which, in my opinion, strikes at the heart of why soccer is boring and unpopular in America. In our sports, we want strategy and complexity to "arm chair QB" the game.

7) Tie games are enraging. In 2010 I joined my soccer friends to watch US v England. We tied which was a major upset. I know this intellectually and some at the bar went crazy with excitement. But emotionally it was boring and unsatisfying. The American sports fan would rather go to 18 innings than not see a victor.

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José Dias Lopes

I'm Brazilian, In my country soccer is a religion. I can't say because football is not a success in the USA, but I think that soccer is a success and much of the world for a few reasons: First, players can be high or low, strong or lean, hence there isn't a typical physical soccer player, so the fans can identify more with athletes, second point: the best team doesn't always win, the best team favoritism is not absolute, there is the famous "zebras" the weakest is more likely to win in a soccer match, in a third point is that soccer can be played with little structure with only one ball, In Brazil, soccer is one of the possibilities of social mobility.

aaron

I think soccer is very successful here in the United States.
The question you are really asking is why doesn't men's soccer make tremendous amounts of money here in the United States.
Every Sunday morning out here, I can see people enjoying league games of soccer out at the park. To me, that is a love of soccer.

Human

We Americans simply don't like women's sports. It's that simple.

Pinki

Simple answer low scores, American like to see a lot scores etc.