Mr. Posh Spice AKA David Beckham has arrived in America and there’s been the predictable discussions as to whether his presence in Major League Soccer will finally bring the United States into concurrence with the rest of the world of viewing the original football as a preeminent spectator sport. A lot of the naysayers argue that Americans will never warm to soccer because we need lots of scoring (being the land of excess that we are), which soccer doesn’t provide. Of course, I’ve always found this ludicrous, since a 1-0 pitchers’ duel in baseball is infinitely more exciting than a 12-11 slugfest, while football of the American variety assigns multiple points to each of its scores which artificially raises the numerical total score (we might look at it differently if a 21-14 game was instead called a 3 touchdowns to 2 touchdowns game). Sure, there are those that like scoring for the sake of scoring, just as there are those that believe Larry the Cable Guy is a comedic genius. That doesn’t mean that this is necessarily the view of the majority.
However, I will be a naysayer on soccer’s popularity as a spectator sport in the U.S. on a different front which ought to be obvious but I rarely hear being brought up in discussions about the game (in contrast to the simplistic “low scoring” issue). If you’ve ever read “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman, he uses an apt sports analogy as to how the United States has attained its success over the past century. He states that historically, we have been the best on grabbing the “first round draft picks” from around the world in nearly every walk of life, whether it’s scientists that come to study and research at our top universities, computer and technology pioneers building companies in Silicon Valley, financiers running the world’s capital markets on Wall Street and LaSalle Street, actors and actresses making films in Hollywood, and competitive eaters attacking hot dog stands on Coney Island. Our success has largely been predicated on attracting the best of the best from the rest of the world (look at the disproportionate number of immigrants in America that have founded technology companies, run corporations, or are A-List celebrities) and the world of sports in general is certainly no exception. The world’s top basketball players, even if they are superstars in their home countries, invariably long to come to the NBA. The same thing applies with baseball. When we watch professional sports in this country, part of the allure is that we know that we are watching the very top players in the world competing at the highest level. That’s why we feel justified (or maybe we’re so vain) to crown our ultimate winners in the postseasons of our pro sports leagues as “World Champions” – other countries be damned.
Of course, there’s one glaring exception to this superiority, if you haven’t already figured it out: soccer. If we called the champions of the MLS “World Champions”, that would be the biggest joke to the rest of the world since the fact that we voted George W. Bush into office not once, but twice. (I’ll admit that I was a contributor to this. Sorry, folks.) Do you know how NBA fans like myself have a nice chuckle over the grainy footage posted on YouTube of Yi Jianlian posting up 5′ 5″ power forwards in the Chinese Basketball Association since the quality of play between the leagues is so glaringly wide? Well, that’s exactly how fans of the English Premier League and other top European leagues feel when they watch the MLS. The reason why watching the MLS feels like watching minor league baseball to me is because that’s exactly what it’s comparable to: it can be perfectly nice family entertainment for an evening, but it’s very apparent that the best in the world aren’t on the field.
Americans have already shown that they have the capacity to watch top quality soccer with their increasing interest in the World Cup and the U.S. national team over the past decade. The ratings for the World Cup last year vastly exceeded expectations even when the U.S. team got bounced out early. However, that doesn’t translate into increased attention for the MLS at home since the average sports fan intuitively knows the difference in the quality of play between the World Cup and MLS, even if the games have the same 1-0 score (just as you can tell the difference in the quality of play between a Major League Baseball game and a minor league baseball game even if the scores are the same). We will gladly spend our precious time and hard-earned dollars on watching the best of the best, whether it’s sports or movies, but we will only give a passing glance to anything less than that.
What American soccers needs is David Beckham… from five years ago when he was in his prime, along with attracting other soccer superstars from around the world while they are at the tops of their games as opposed to being on the descent. Until the MLS (or some other professional soccer league) gets to the point where it can legitimately call its champion at the end of the year the “World Champions” or at the very least be able to compete with the top European leagues without being laughed off the field, soccer as a spectator sport is going to have a hard time gaining traction outside of the World Cup and the U.S. national team. The scoring issue has nothing to do with the soccer’s problems. It’s all about the quality of play.
(Image from The Big Lead)