With Americans Coming Around To Soccer, Is U.S. Domination Around The Corner?

In the latest installment of the Butterfly Effect, we look at what might happen if interest in soccer continues to grow: TV deals, a World Cup victory, and the American Dirk Nowitzki.

1. The Rise Of The Other Football

U.S. Women’s Soccer star Abby Wambach returned from Germany to a hero’s welcome last week after her late header against Japan in the final of the Women’s World Cup had brought number one ranked Team USA within minutes of clinching its third Cup. The final drew 13.5 million television viewers, the most to watch a match on ESPN, nearly doubling last summer’s U.S.A.-Algeria men’s World Cup match. It also set a social media record as well, generating 7,196 tweets per second at its peak. When Wambach arrived in Rochester, NY for her first post-Cup Women’s Professional Soccer league match, she was met by a crowd of 15,000—large enough to break the fledgling league’s single-game attendance record. "You would have thought we won," she said.

In the after-glow of the U.S women's near-triumph, talk in the sports universe turned once again to whether soccer—men’s and women’s both—had finally passed a tipping point in fandom and would join football, basketball, baseball and hockey in America’s major league pantheon. From there, would it be just a short time before the U.S. became as dominant at soccer as it is at the other major sports? And would the world welcome America’s belated rival as a soccer power, or resent us for butting into their game (especially if we started wielding our influence to change the rules)? Will soccer be America's next pastime?

"It won’t, it won’t, it won’t," says Andrei Markovits, a professor of sports and politics at the University of Michigan and co-author of Gaming the World. Markovitz returned from Germany last week "heartbroken," he says, but insisted we shouldn’t read anything into the brief flare of national pride surrounding the Cup. "If you haven’t made it into the hegemonic sports culture by 1920, the barrier to entry is intense. It doesn’t mean you can’t, but…"

The irony is that it already has. The game has higher youth participation rates than either baseball or basketball, and Soccernomics authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski note the "strange equilibrium" in which a majority of Americans play soccer, but watch football. Catapulting American soccer to the big time may require such unlikely events as winning the men’s World Cup and losing Major League Soccer altogether.

  2. Starting For Man U: Landon Donovan

For the second straight year, tomorrow's MLS All-Star Game in New Jersey will pit the American league’s all-stars—featuring the homegrown striker Landon Donovan and past-their-primers David Beckham and Thierry Henry—against the Premier League superpower Manchester United, which thrashed the Americans in their first match 5-2. And for the second straight year, more fans in the stadium may be pulling for Man U.

It was a given when MLS was founded before the 1994 World Cup that sustaining Americans’ interest afterwards required their own league. It only made sense. Fandom is traditionally geographic; with rare exceptions, you root for the team nearest you. But because American fans came late to soccer, or at least late to appreciating the game’s complexities, their consciousness was molded in the era of the Internet and DirecTV. Let’s face it: Watching time-shifted Man U matches at home in HD is even better than the real thing.

American soccer fans are a new species, the first truly global, post-geographic ones. "I think the problem MLS has—and they’ve told me this themselves," says Markovits, "is that you can live in the middle of Brooklyn or Ann Arbor and follow more European matches than if you lived in Munich," where most matches are pay-per-view.

While MLS has struggled for 15 years to build critical mass in its fan bases, American fans have naturally gravitated toward the best teams on the field—which are all overseas. Major League Soccer’s strategy to cultivate homegrown stars for homegrown fans (with a Beckham thrown in from time to time) has been a failure. What American soccer needs instead, Markovits suggests, is its own version of Dirk Nowitzki, a transcendent player who almost single-handedly wills his top-tier European team to the title. The success of European players in the NBA—Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Pau and Marc Gasol, Hedo Türkoğlu—has been instrumental in creating support for more competitive leagues in those players' home countries.

"What you need is heroes of your own nationality," says Kuper, a correspondent for The Financial Times and also the author of Soccer Against The Enemy. "But they don’t necessarily have to play for their local club."

Instead of playing against Man U tomorrow night, Landon Donovan should be playing for them.

3. Taking Home The Cup

There is another way. "The only way to spark an instant shift in the culture—the only total game-changer—is if and when the men win the World Cup," Markotvits says. The stage is so huge and the stakes so high that maybe, just maybe, it could work. After all, the U.S.-hosted 1994 World Cup, with America’s improbable victory over Colombia, was instrumental in galvanizing a baseline of interest in the first place.

In any case, that day may be closer than you think. "The U.S. is strong enough that if it has a good day and Brazil has a bad day, the U.S. will win," insists Kuper. And then what? The reason American fans have gravitated to European teams is because they want to watch the best players in the game—homegrown and imported. Narrowing the gap between the best Americans and the best of the rest requires recruiting the best athletes, and therein lies the problem.

Football and basketball have flourished in the last few decades by becoming the greatest talent magnets in American sports. Baseball and boxing, the dominant sports 60 years ago, have both suffered accordingly. While a talented boy in one of Rio’s favelas is quickly funneled toward soccer’s star-making machinery, "a phenomenal athlete in Detroit would have to be a lunatic to touch soccer," says Markovits. "Of course you’re going to go into the hegemonic sports."

That presents soccer with a chicken-and-the-egg dilemma: How do you attract the best athletes without being a dominant sport, but how do you become one without talent? The obvious shortcut is money. The NFL’s ascent to the pinnacle of American sports was predicated in large part on TV money, and the top-tier European soccer leagues are starting to catch up. Which means the entity in the best position to elevate soccer in America is ESPN.

The network has made sports before. "Our network created college basketball," anchor Bob Ley boasted to authors James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. ESPN, they write, "is worth more than the entire National Football League, worth more than the NBA, MLB, and the NHL put together," so why not soccer, too?

4. Soccertainment

There’s no reason America can’t be a soccer juggernaut; all the numbers suggest it should be. "The U.S. is a massive underperformer given its resources," according to Kuper. The Soccernomics authors found that population size, wealth, and length of soccer experience correlate closely with success, which makes America’s hibernation confounding.

Assuming it does, would the league of soccer nations greet it with open arms—for its money—or resentment? "We’d be resented," says Markovits, "but we already are. It doesn’t matter either way."

What matters is having the gold to make the rules. Sooner or later, Americans would want to make changes, says Stefan Szymanski, co-author of Soccernomics and an economics professor at City University London. "It used to be that halves were the norm," in football and basketball. But quarters are so much TV-friendlier. (Earlier this month, FIFA denied that it had given 2022 World Cup host Qatar permission to play the matches in thirds.)

The future of soccer could end up resembling a Budweiser spoof from a few years ago, in which the game is remade into "soccertainment," complete with monster truck rallies and extra balls for extra time. "You do the football," the tag line read. "We’ll do the beer." Soccer aficionados would prefer America keep it that way.

Read the previous installment of the Butterfly Effect: The Bacon Uprising: How China's Top-Secret Strategic Pork Reserve Is Burning Down The Amazon

[Images: Top: Flickr user JMRosenfeld; Middle: Flickr user jjandames; Bottom: Flickr user jasonwhat]

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  • adam kruvand

    Americans only like soccer when the US is doing well in the World Cup.  Men or Women.  Fortunately for soccer players and fans in America the immigrant soccer population is reaching critical mass.

  • Diego P

    I don't mean for this to be offensive but in terms of skills the US are far off from winning a World Cup. Maybe some of these comments have it right in that the US focuses on other sports, really it makes sense and you can't be good at everything, so nothing wrong there. But the fact is that it is lacking and won't reach a global level for a while.
    Now, I also thought the article came off as arrogant ("when do we take over?"), mainly because of some ignorant comments as remarked by others but also because it states that the US is "the first truly global, post-geographic ones". This is ridiculous, and you're being either cocky or naive. Do you know how many smaller poorer countries have been having a go at soccer at a global level before the US even had made a Cup appearance? You think people in these countries have local teams to look up to?
    In general, even in South America, definitely in Africa, and maybe in Asia (I really can't say), it is common to support an European team and follow European soccer (both because so many players end up playing there and because local soccer is weak). So it's not like the US is the first to break this geographical barrier. Besides, even in Brazil, where some regions have poorly developed regional leagues, people don't support local teams and instead look to Rio or Sao Paulo.
    For the US to improve at a global level, I agree that there exists a paradox like you mention, but seriously you should have lower expectations and easier to achieve goals. Such as national achievements, and like somebody said below, soccer has been marketed wrong, so first this must be changed and then fandom will grow, and second, focus needs to shift to talent, both creating and acquiring, which is all obvious, sure, but I'm trying to show how it's got to be slow, one step at a time.
    So it will be a long time before you can dream of World Domination (although the women's team is far ahead). Which makes me wonder, could it be because women have more focus on this sport and not as many other options as men? I wouldn't know first hand but if anyone could chip in...

  • Tom B

    "football, basketball, baseball and hockey in America’s major league pantheon. From there, would it be just a short time before the U.S. became as dominant at soccer as it is at the other major sports?"

    Wow. It's comments like that, and comments like that only, that would lead to America not being welcome in the world of "soccer". Is it only a matter of time before you rename the MLS champions as "world champions"? Perhaps that would help in your world domination (well, that and the rest of the "world" not playing the sport).

    Ok, ignorant comments like that aside, I think America and the MLS is making great strides. My team, West Brom, played against Portland Timbers recently and the atmosphere was supposedly electric. The quality of the Timbers play was also very good (although we weren't at our best).

    However, as others have noted, there is a mountain to climb and it would take many generations for soccer to sit alongside the great American past times that have been mentioned above. A consistently successful national team (quarter finals and above) and an improving MLS will help.

    Regarding the development of the best athletes, I think soccer should only really be competing with baseball. I played soccer at a top 25 Div 1 college in the States and most football and basketball players were not suited to soccer. Interestingly, in the summer we had a competition whereby each team put forward their two best athletes for a contest. There were various tasks from sprints and endurance running, agility tests, strength based tasks etc. The two baseball players finished top followed by the two soccer players (not me!). Now I know soccer requires a more rounded athleticism but I still found this quite surprising. I'd fancy the average soccer player to be more athletic than the average football/basketball player, but not the selected two. I certainly didn't expect baseball to finish top.

  • George Bush

    The immigrant population of the US will fuel the growth of soccer as a competitive national sport in the US.  It's also important that the US succeeds at international competitions to gain foothold.  Lastly, agree that Americans want to see the best players and teams play.  MLS doesn't provide this opportunity, hence, a lot of people are supporting teams like Man U, Barcelona, especially with companies like Nike promoting them over the MLS.

  • Dave Cyra

    Sadly I don't think it's around the corner... unless the corner you speak of is 50+ years in the future. We're finally learning that the high school and college games are stunting player growth based on geography and competition. Although, that does somewhat open us up to selling around our children as commodities (ala Cam Newton) and having it be completely legal. And soccer is not like basketball or football where their bodies need to completely develop before jumping to the pro game. Even if US domination does occur, it still won't be a major sport in the US. There's a pretty big stigma to overcome.

    Oh and the divers are c/o the big money thrown at the game. If they weren't getting paid like they are, they wouldn't have the "win at any cost" mentality. Act out the fall and get the penalty kick or free kick for your team to win.

  • nadav

    no way ... the teams that dominate world football, are mainly built of groups of players that come from countries with a long football tradition ... look at FC Barcelona, CL winner, its a club of more than 100 years history, main players are Spanish, Argentinian, Brazilian and French - all ex world champions!

    usa? maybe in 50 years!

  • Scott Davis

    While I do like soccer I don't believe it will become a major sport in America in my lifetime due to it's 'lack of sport'.  The European/South American practice of diving is an absolute joke.  Just look at the recent act put on by Brazil versus the US women.  It's the only game I watched in a year and diving is still alive and well in soccer!  It is not a 'sport'.  It is an act.  I brought my friends over to my house to watch a soccer game and we all ended up laughing at the diving going on.  An Italian player dived so badly that he acted like he got his faced ripped off when replays clearly showed HE WASN'T EVEN TOUCHED!  My only complaint is that European players have brought this practice into the NBA and we now see this in our sports and we can't stand it.  It is a joke to see  a Professional player reduced to an actor.  I was told that clubs are taught how to dive by professional divers, whatever that is!  No thanks, soccer, you can keep your 'sport', I mean acting.  In America, we have a term for sports like this, it's called wrestling!

  • Josh D

    You're disregard and dismissal of the Henry and Beckham affect, coupled with homegrown talent is shocking journalism. Beckham's coming did more for MLS and US soccer than any moment since MLS started. He broke the barrier for European players to play here, he single handily helped smash previous attendance records, he has brought MLS into popular culture, he brought MLS to other countries, and has increased revenue throughout the league. While Henry and Beckham might be "past their prime" for the top tier leagues in Europe, Henry is the league's leading scorer and Beckham's assists are helping LA to the top of the league.

    The homegrown initiatives brought on by the league have created youth academies where younger players are given a chance to train with world class players which will better develop the "American Hero", it has created a reserve league which enables teams to increase their rosters, it gives players an alternative to the college game which has been a respectable stop-gap but when our players are just starting their professional career at age 20/22 they are already 5 years later than the world's best youth, and it has created a system for developing new talent cheaper than going out and buying players. I don't know what more you could want from those two programs: More money, better players, more attendance, more recognition.

    What soccer has messed up is in marketing. When MLS first came, the marketing focus was on it being a "family affair" and promoted itself to "soccer moms". MLS will never take that branding position away from MLB, the King of cheap, family entertainment. The newer, successful clubs that come to MLS (Philly, Toronto, Vancouver, Portland, Seattle) have all focused their marketing campaigns on the team representing the area. Each of those teams have marketed their team as not "a soccer team" but as a reflection of the city. The game of soccer is so popular around the world, not merely because of the sport but because of what it means to people. It's why immigrants to this country and even their children still support their clubs back in their original country. It represents them. Whereas MLB, NFL, and the NBA focuses on the team as entertainment, MLS needs to focus on the team as a representation of their city. The "team" isn't playing every Saturday, your city is playing. Teams have to build community pride through marketing, public events, and PR.

    Another side affect of poor branding as a "family affair" is that it originally alienated the hard core European and South American fans who are used to soccer being about passion. In MLB, you might get the odd shout by a fan, but in soccer you have whole stadiums filled with flares, team colors, confetti, chants, movements, music, and finally in MLS you are starting to see these cultural movements. Not only does it help build unity as a club, but also creates a spectacle for would-be fans. It's participation in the game, not just spectatorship.

    MLS is doing exactly what it needs to do. Steady growth through importing world class players and developing homegrown players, a larger emphasis on the club as a representation of the city, increasing the salary cap to bring in better players, building soccer specific stadiums to ensure money stays in the league, promoting youth soccer because it will be them who grow up wanting to follow the sport, and working with ESPN and other media outlets to increase mass media coverage. MLS has not built its business model on a wonder spark, tipping point. It has set long term goals to ensure the league's foundation is here to stay.

    And those points don't even begin to touch the affect of the NASL on MLS decisions, biased US sports journalism found even in ESPN's ranks, a lack of well thought out programs to attract the rising South and Central American population, poor televised quality for league games, a centralized league where power is in the hands of owners not players, European poaching of our best talent, the US mentality when it comes to actual sports that compete on a global scale, etc. But as a fan of MLS since its inception and as someone who has followed soccer for as long as he can remember, I am proud of what both the league and national team has done. And I'm extremely proud to see an increase in fans and support. Nothing beat being in South Africa for the World Cup and seeing our support there, then coming home to watch the rest of the tournament in packed, standing room-only bars during lunch with everyone screaming for the US.

    PS Man U is a derogatory term amongst Man United fans and is seen as a lack of respect.

  • jflorez

    Josh, you hit all the points I would have in indicating the positive traction the MLS has made in growing support here in the US for the Beautiful Game.  I'd also emphasize that continuing to use the college development model to bring up players (and coaches for that matter) as has historically and successfully been done with basketball, football, and baseball will not work with soccer - specifically if we want to develop players to the International skill level.  Sure, there are and will be exceptions - individual exceptions. But in order to promote a National level league on par with the EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga, etc., will mean discarding the notion that athletes must go to college to have a chance at being recruited to the professional level.

    With a 14yr old son who plays competitive soccer year-round in the SF Bay Area, I've begun to see the, albeit slow, change to Academy style programs that work to develop a child at an early age and provide year-round competitive leagues (US Club Soccer sanctioned league's for example) through, and as an alternative to seasonal-only H.S. and college league's. The key issue though remains the high cost associated with competitive youth travel teams.  With annual costs as high as 5k per year (year round league, coaches, tournament travel and registration), it remains exclusive and limits exposure to those who probably have the means and grades to go to college anyway. This, however, excludes a large number of kids simply on the basis of family income.  In this model, a potential Messi would never make it here in America simply because his family couldn't afford the high cost of youth sports, and therefore attain national exposure to the limited college recruiters and scholarships available through them.

    Progress is definitely being made and I look forward to our being more competitive on an International level, though I hate the idea of changing soccer to the level of a Super Bowl half-time show.  If Man United can be successful on the field and profitable off with the beautiful game as it is, then there is no reason to change it.

    On that last note, thank you for pointing out the ignorant habit to abbreviate Man United to "Man U". I heard the ESPN commentators make that mistake recently, and as a Red Devil supporter it killed me! They should know better! Glory, Glory Man United! And the Red's Go Marching On, and On and On!