Thursday, July 8, 2010

Soccer is now America's Game? Don't fool yourself

I know I’m a week late on this, but I’ve been looking for a new house and traveling for the 4th of July weekend. But lost in all the hoopla over Landon Donovan’s incredible goal to send the US to the knock out round of the world cup is one simple thing. Nothing has changed.

Before I get labeled as a Soccer hater, let me say that I enjoy watching an occasional game. When it comes right down to it, I follow football religiously, love hockey and will seek out games to watch and that’s just about it. No baseball on TV, I go to a game about once a year with friends or family, no basketball at all and will put a NASCAR race on to help me nap on a lazy Sunday afternoon. So you could almost say I like Soccer since I’ll watch the world cup and enjoy it.

Perhaps some of my reluctance to accept the proclamation that the US finally has it’s defining soccer moment that will change the way the sport is viewed in this country has to do with my experience with the sport. I went to High School in a soccer mad town. The Soccer team was regularly one of the best in the state, and up until my Sophomore year the football team was a joke.

Despite that, I felt that the Soccer jocks still harbored an inferiority complex. Actively seeking any chance to point out how they played the “worlds” sport, that real “football” players didn’t wear pads, how there was so much more skill involved in soccer. It was tiresome at best, and served to only reinforce the negative soccer stereotypes.

I still enjoyed going to the games to support my friends on the team, or to ogle the girls team (all the best looking girls at our school played). And having played youth soccer up until 7th grade, always had a favorable opinion of the game.

So all that said, I would actually like to think that the goal in extra time would actually increase America’s awareness and appreciation for the sport. That maybe it could move up the American sport’s pantheon to the level of basketball. But sadly, beating Algeria inextra time won’t change that.
See here are the problems with this line of thinking as I see them:

The generally accepted fact that American’s love an underdog is false under most circumstances. America loves winners and seeing those on high being knocked from their perch.

Look at the most popular teams in American sports; they all have longstanding winning traditions. The Yankees, Steelers and Cowboys all are at the top of their respective sports in terms of number of championships and have won constantly over the years and have the largest fan bases to show for it. When people root for the teams playing them, it is as much from a desire to see them lose, as to see them win.

America doesn’t want to be the underdog; they want to be the juggernaut. That is why when the world caught up to us in basketball we put together the dream team. It was no fun rooting for our college players as the underdog; it was fun to watch our best destroy all comers.

Plus, it is hard for America to accept the concept that we could be the underdog against a country we see as inferior to us. The lake placid hockey team could be seen as underdogs against the USSR. They were the boogieman from that huge red country across the ocean with their missiles pointed at us. In the minds of Americans, a third world nation the size of the state of Pennsylvania should not be favored over us in soccer, even if the Soccer loving world knows otherwise.

The Internet is doing as much harm as good.

Donovan’s goal became an internet sensation. YouTube tributes spread like wildfire. Bloggers spent days celebrating the goal with flowery prose. Surely more people were exposed to the goal through the internet than would have been in the days of the newpaper.

But soccer also suffered due to the internet and instant scores. When the US upset the USSR in hockey there weren’t tweets and live blogs covering the event so that everyone knew in real time. Sports fans were forced to tune in at night to watch the game on tape delay to learn the result, spoilers were hard to come by. Everyone tuned into that Hockey game got the full range of emotions that occur in a game of that magnitude. The growing hope that the underdog could come through and the exultation when they did was shared by all.

Unless you were one of those who took the day off (more on them later) to watch the game, chances are you knew the result without seeing the game. There was no tension, no overwhelming disappointment as it seemed that the game was slipping away only to be replace with joy as those American persevered to win in the end. The emotion that is so critical to sport was lost.

The hype leading up to the World Cup in America was false.

For the months leading up to the World Cup ESPN had their powerful hype machine on full blast. U2 was brought in to do a theme song. Soccer story after soccer story was pushed. The problem is, Sportcenter is no longer truly a sports highlight show. It is ESPN/ABC’s marketing arm.

One need only look at the way the coverage of the NBA vs. NHL has changed since ESPN dropped the NHL to pick up the NBA. No more NHL tonight, it is a slow day when all of the NHL games get highlight packages. The NBA gets primetime shows and prime coverage year round. The disparity in coverage far outweighs the disparity in popularity.

When ESPN/ABC showed the shots of the fans packed into bars showing the game they tried to sell it as American’s embracing the World Cup, but they were just preaching to the converted. It was the Americans who already loved soccer finding a way to watch the game, not those of us who just liked the game, or were ambivalent.

Nearly all of those who got to experience the emotion of the game already had a deep seeded appreciation of the game. I won’t say that the emotion was wasted on them, but the chance to share it with the rest of America was lost as ESPN relegated the replay in primetime to ESPNU, which many don’t get, or at midnight on the more widely seen ESPN2. Even ESPN didn’t see the value of using prime airtime on this supposedly sport changing game.

These thought were all running through my mind in the days following the game as I looked at the hyperbole being put forth about America embracing soccer through my cynical eyes. Then it was driven home the following Saturday when the US team played Ghana.

Watching the game, I got caught up in it. I held out hope that the US could pull off the upset. Watched them fall behind early only to fight their way back and to ultimately fail. Losing was not unexpected, but there was some emotion there.
hat night I went to a baseball game with about 30 of my coworkers. The same crew that had announced the scores of the previous games to everyone else as they came across their computer screens the previous weeks. The same crew that discusses whatever big game was on the night before. The majority of whom are 25-40 year old sports loving American males. The demographic that, according to all reports, had just fallen in love with soccer.

Not a word about the game was uttered the whole night as we ate our burgers and hotdogs and drank our beers. Lebron’s free agency was discussed, baseball talk flowed and talk of the upcoming football season was heard. All that sports talk and Soccer was already an afterthought. So quickly things had gone right back to normal. Nothing had changed.

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