So we're now...what, fifteen days after the end of the World Cup? And once again, Americans have said to the rest of the world, "Thank you very much for showing us your crazy foreign sport, now shush. Football season's about to start." And they haven't even noticed the bitter irony that the rest of the world thinks they're actually talking about the sport they're dismissing.
Why? What exactly is the deal with soccer (for purposes of clarity, I'll use that term for the rest of the column) that makes it so hard to catch on in America? I'm aware that to some people, it's simple enough; soccer doesn't have time for many ad breaks, which makes it hard to televise, which makes it hard to sell to America. But I don't buy that. It's part of it, sure, but soccer does get airtime, and it doesn't get viewers. It remains the unofficial "fifth sport" of American sports, despite attempt after attempt after attempt to shove it down our throats. (Anyone remember the Minnesota Kicks? I do...)
The problem, I think, lies in two major areas: tempo and scoring. Everyone generally talks about the second first, and overlooks the first completely, but I think the two are related in a way that makes them both worth discussing. Sure, soccer's a low-scoring game, but football can end in a score of 7-3 and baseball can end in 1-0. Yet both are vastly more popular than soccer.
Why? Because they have a recognizable, discernable tempo to the game. In football, you can build anticipation for a potential score. When a team crosses the 50-yard-line, the average fan puts down their drink, and the conversation in the room starts to quiet. By the time they've crossed the twenty, fans are leaning forward in their seats, wondering what's going to happen. Even if that drive ends in an interception or a missed field goal, a football fan has a sense of mounting tension that keeps them in their seat for a low-scoring game. (The same is, of course, true of baseball. Two out, bases loaded, count is at 0-2...that inning might end with nobody scoring, but try to get a baseball fan to walk away right then.) In soccer, you can spend twenty-five minutes ten feet away from the goal and nothing will happen...or someone will kick it from half-way across the field and score in five seconds. You can't judge the pace of a game. Hockey and basketball suffer from similar tempo problems to soccer, of course, but basketball is high-scoring, and hockey...well, there's a reason hockey's a distant fourth.
Because hockey also shares another problem with soccer, one that makes both sports relative pariahs in the professional sports world. The Dreaded Tie. Soccer's not just low-scoring, it can be no-scoring. There's nothing in the world more likely to frustrate a fan more than spending 90+ minutes watching a game, only to have it end in a scoreless tie. It's like nothing happened at all. Football? SUDDEN DEATH overtime. Sure, it might not be that fair (although that'll change this year) but you're almost never going to walk away with a tie. Baseball? Extra innings. They go until it's done. Basketball? Overtime until someone wins. Even hockey has taken steps to eliminate the irritating tie, with sudden death shootouts and rules to open up scoring.
As long as soccer stays a low-scoring, erratically paced game, it's probably not going to penetrate the American market. Which probably suits a lot of people just fine, of course; as far as they're concerned, it's our loss if we don't want to watch the game. After all, it'd be a boring world if everyone liked the same thing. (Even so, I bet nobody could watch last year's Saints/Vikings playoff game without becoming a football fan...)