July 1, 2014

FROM THE ARCHIVES: THERE ARE PLENTY OF NICHES IN A COUNTRY OF 500 MILLION:

Soccer's groundswell is already here in the U.S.: U.S. national team's silver-medal finish helps, but it's at the grass-roots level of youth play, boosted and shaped by Latino immigration, that the game continues its steady march. (Kurt Streeter, June 30, 2009, LA Times)

For most American sports fans, come next week it'll be back to the old standbys: fireworks and baseball, NASCAR and apple pie. Those fans I heard at Dodger Stadium on Sunday -- the ones gushing about American goalkeeper Tim Howard as the Dodgers played the Mariners -- will pay scant attention to the world's most popular game until next year's World Cup.

But fans of futbol, have no fear. Your game is going to be just fine on these shores. All the frenzied speculation over whether this latest run will finally vault soccer to big league status? Wasted frenzy.

Big league, I mean consistently big league in performance, hoopla and status? It's not going to happen. Not for a while. And that's absolutely OK. For one thing, at the grass-roots level of youth play, boosted and shaped by Latino immigration, the game continues its steady march.

While this has yet to translate into mammoth increases in TV ratings and gate receipts, or into deep and palpable sizzle, it's a groundswell that eventually will pervade.

The world is a different place than it was even four years back: flat and connected and biting at the status quo. Just as it blindsided political observers in the presidential election, grass-roots momentum will eventually have a big effect on what sports we love and why we love them.

There's more. To pit soccer against football, baseball and basketball is to lack perspective, to starve ourselves of nuance. Does a sport absolutely have to launch itself into the realm of the big three to be a success? Why? Who says? And what are we missing by thinking it does?


Miami Likes Soccer (Steve Goff, 6/29/09, Washington Post)
According to the overnight figures from major TV markets, the USA-Brazil match on ESPN yesterday earned a 2.74 rating. The complete numbers will be available tomorrow, but this game seems certain to join World Cup games against Germany (2002), Ghana (2006) and Colombia (1994) in the top four for all-time viewership for a USA game. So if I understand the system correctly, around 3 million households were tuned into the USA-Brazil match on ESPN. [...]

These figures are for ESPN only and do not include Univision, which usually attracts a big audience for major international matches.




We've explained often enough the structural factors that will prevent soccer from ever becoming anything like as popular in America as it is in other parts of the world, but an interesting thing is happening to the game: it is being Americanized to the point where it can become tolerable here. Properly understood, Globalization is, in the main, the process whereby the pressures to compete with the Anglosphere in economic and geo-political terms forces every country to become more like us. In turn, we import those nations' peoples, products, and cultures and in the process of assimilation make them our own. For example, what's more American than Taco Bell?

The effect America was going to have on Soccer was apparent thirty years ago, when the NY Cosmos brought together an international group of players--Brits, Germans, Italians, Brazilians, Slavs, etc.--and put them together on the same team. This was unheard of at the time but has become the norm for sides throughout Europe. The Cosmos basically served as the Jackie Robinson of the soccer world, laying the groundwork for integration globally. There's a scene in the very funny British tv-film, Eleven Men Against Eleven, where the local yobs start beating a black guy in an attempt to provoke a race war but then realize that it's the serendipitously named Leo Walcott, star of their team. As they help him to Hospital they explain that he isn't really black, he's one of "our blacks." Here is the quandry that Robinson, Larry Doby, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, etc., forced on earlier generations of sports fans: how can you love the other on the field and hate him off? Imagine the poor confused Liverpool fan of today who can recall traveling to Spain in the 80s to engage in hooliganism but now roots for Fernando Torres Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso, Albert Riera, etc. on a team coached by Rafa Benitez. Nevermind Yossi Benayoun. Today, every team is cosmopolitan.

The other American import that has really influenced at least English soccer is the corporatization of the stadiums. No, not the signage all over the place, but the replacement of benches with seats and luxury boxes and the drastic hike in ticket prices. The worst elements among the teams' followers have been priced right out of the parks. The New York Yankees have caught a lot of heat about the cost for tickets at their new stadium, but no one who attended a bat day in the 1970s will be overly sorry that the cheap seats are a thing of the past. And that was random violence, whereas the hooliganism of soccer crowds was systematic (see Bill Buford's phenomenal account in Among the Thugs). Thus, the crowding out has been more significant to saving the sport. When there are instances of violent and/or racist fan behavior now, they just look at the CCTV, check who was in the seat, and then ban them from attending. Other than the dental work, scarfs, singing and chants, EPL games are pretty much indistinguishable from NFL games at least in the stands.

So much for how we're influencing them, there are also numerous ways "they" are influencing us. The most important was captured in the desirability of winning the "Soccer Mom" demographic a few years ago. Youth soccer is massive in America for many of the same reasons the eventual appeal of the game is bound to be limited. The biggest is that the game is very easy to learn and to play. Every parent will tell you a story about how painful it is to watch Little League baseball, especially when the kids start pitching. The skills required to play game even just adequately simply elude most of us for our whole careers and nearly every child. Throw down a soccer ball, on the other hand, and few and far between are the kids so spastic they can't participate without embarrassing themselves. Sure, they tend to all chase the ball at first, but it's a heck of a lot easier to teach them to stay in their positions than to read the path of a batted ball or throw a curve.

And since all you really need is a ball and some cones to mark the goals, the cost of the game is so low that it's attractive to rec departments, camps, and colleges. Add in the Title IX factor, which works against expensive male sports programs like football and baseball, and you can easily see why the future of mens' college soccer is going to be big.

The next ingredient is our massive level of immigration, which has flattened temporarily but will explode again after this next immigration reform (amnesty). We're importing tens of millions of people who care about just two sports: baseball and soccer. We can make them like football once they get here, but we aren't likely to make them forget their first loves. That's why any measure of the soccer audience for tv has to include the Spanish stations. Soccer is just huge on those networks.

Television generally is another factor driving the growth of soccer. Turn on one of the ESPNs at any random hour and the likelihood is that they're televising some crap like Texas Hold-'em or a logging competition. They're desperate for programming to fill their 24 hour/7 day schedules and soccer offers a ready-made product. The tilting point is pretty low at which it will make sense for them to but up rights to and televise every league they can get their hands on. And since broadcast here won't have any impact on attendance there, it makes sense for the leagues to sell.

Finally, all of these trends come together with a synergy that has given us one of the top 10 national teams in a sport that is easily understood, a growing number of our own fellow Americans care about, the rest of the world follows passionately, and broadcasters have abundant reason to promote to us. Ready or not, soccer has arrived in America.

This was all driven home for me late last summer. I've been as dubious about the appeal of the game as anyone and, since Chinaglia killed the Cosmos, had generally only checked in at World Cup time and only if America was playing. But our youngest did a PlaySoccer camp last August and part of the deal is that local families house the young British "coaches" during the week they're in town. The Wife had periodically mentioned the poissibility of getting an exchange student, so when the rec center mentioned that we'd get the week of camp free if we took a coach it seemed like a good test. We got a sweet Polish kid, studying at the University of Southampton, who proceeded to eat everything that wasn't stapled down. One of the other coaches came over frequently and they'd watch any soccer they could find on American television. We even watched the Galaxy play one night. And, of course, after a week of soccer camp the boy wanted to play every night on the front lawn. So we alternate that and throwing a baseball now. Meanwhile, he plays soccer every school day at lunchtime and recess. Like I said, all you need is a ball and everyone can join in.

Then a neighbor asked a couple of us to come over and watch the finals of the European Cup, with Torres's Spain in fine form. Ours is a neighborhood built by Dartmouth College and populated by academics, with no small number of immigrants. One quickly realizes that their taste in sports is not the same as what you grew up with.


Topping it all off, I'd been using the website, The Box, to download British mysteries and the occasional cricket test, so when they started posting Match of the Day the thought occurred that I could try following one season of the English Premiere League and see if we really are missing anything. I watched every episode until baseball started again this Spring, then missed a few. I watched some full matches, both from the Box and the ones they show on our cable system. There are plenty of RSS feeds you can subscribe to--The Guardian, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Times, etc. and they'll bring the news right to you. I bought a few magazines, but they're so expensive and have so little useful analysis I didn't repeat the experiment. I read a number of books, though their quality is very uneven too. Podcasts, on the other hand, turned out to be quite amusing: World Soccer Daily, BBC's 5 Live, Guardian Football Weekly, and the ESPN SoccerNet podcast are all pretty good. Jim in Bingo, the Other Brother, and I even did a fantasy football league, EPL version.

All of these are things the League has going for it. There's a built-in infrastructure that American fans will recognize from the sports they already follow and because the play of game itself is so easy to comprehend it takes only a week or two to get up to speed. As an outsider, you get to come to the sport without emotional attachments and, I believe, you're likely to understand the strengths and weaknesses better than those who've been immersed in it their whole lives.

As with any sport, you have to have some rooting interest and in the EPL the only real rule is that you can't root for Manchester United--it's like rooting for the Yankees. You have to choose one top 4 team, because they're the only ones who win, so I took Liverpool, because they resemble the pre-04 Red Sox right now. Then you pick a good non-contender or two--I pulled for Fulham and Aston Villa because of their American ties. Then you spot a few others to like as the season progresses--Everton (because of their coach); Hull (because they seemed so hopeless before the season, then surprisingly good, then fought just to stay alive); West Ham (because of their coach); and Stoke because they play like an American team.

After a full--or nearly full--season of paying attention, I'd offer the following impressions:

As for this season:

Liverpool was pretty clearly the best team, so long as Torres and Gerrard were healthy, but settled for draws too often to win a league that has no playoff. If the EPL had a Super Bowl, they'd have been favored over Manchester United by three goals. On the other hand, this may have been Sir Alex Ferguson's greatest year as coach of Man U precisely because they won despite an obvious decline. He deserves blame for the side he was fielding, which depended almost entirely on reputation in order to win. An absurd proportion of their offense was generated by free and penalty kicks awarded when their star Christiano Ronaldo fell down and refs automatically blew their whistles. Later in the year, after Rafa's Rant, officials started cracking down and Ronaldo ended up having to flee the league after the season. No fouls, no goals. He just doesn't generate scoring opportunities for himself in the run of play and is an ineffective passer. Their best player is really Wayne Rooney, who needs to play both striker and the modified midfield role that Steven Gerrard and Chelsea's Frank Lampard fill. He's the only one who can pass to a scorer and the best scorer. His work rate even matches Tevez's, making him Gerrard, Torres and Kuyt all rolled into one. But since Ferguson seldom put jhim on the field with players who complemented any one of these styles he was less dominant than he should have been. The "loss" of Ronaldo is a blessing to the club, though tyey should have kept Tevez and dumped Berbatov. Meanwhile, his center backs--Vidic and Ferdinand--were able to foul opponents in the box with impunity, making them appear a good defensive unit when they weren't. Compare their play to that of Onyewu and Demerit for the US side and you see the difference between the way the Detroit Pistons "defended," by hacking, and the way a Michael Jordan did, by superior skill.

Just as disappointing as the results at the top were the failures of the best second tier clubs--Everton, Aston Villa, West Ham, etc.--to sustain stretches of great play over the course of the entire season and break up the top 4. Such clubs just aren't deep enough to remain competitive over the long haul. At one point Everton was put in a position where they had no healthy striker. And while their ability to score goals anyway showed that the position is wildly over-rated, it also showed how thin teams that don't have the money of the big clubs are. It's like when the Yankees and Red Sox just go out and add a Damaso Marte or Eric Gagne for the heck of it while others struggle to find arms. The moves don't necessarily work, but if they don't they can afford to try another. The 5-12 teams in the EPL can't afford mistakes and can't afford deep benches. It has to be frustrating for their fans, but it's also bad for the League that only four teams have any shot at winning every year.

As regards the League overall:

First, they need to change the offsides rule to make it more like hockey. Set a blue line and require the ball to precede the offense over that line, but once it's in everything is fair game. Concurrently you could allow the goalie a crease into which offensive guys can't stray. As is, the calls are too arbitrary and game determining because goal disallowing.

Second, they need to move the penalty spot back. It's nearly impossible not to score so there's no drama and a huge incentive to dive.

Third, penalize diving much more severely. If an offensive player goes down and appeals for a call but isn't given one, he should generally be given a card himself.

Fourth, clarify the tackling rule. If the tackler wins the ball away it shouldn't ever be a card, even if a foul.

Fifth, eliminate ties and play an NHL/NASL style shootout after a sudden-death period.

Sixth, install video review for every goal. Teams spend so much time celebrating it wouldn't even slow the game.

Seventh, impose a salary cap and revenue sharing. The EPL plays a full season to determine only two things: the order of finish among the 4 big teams and which three of the others gets sent down. There is no possibility of the other 16 teams winning the league. Ever. It's too uncompetitive to be compelling.

There were a few things I found interesting, particularly as regards core positions and basic skills.

The goaltending is generally awful, even on the big teams. Though that may be a function of one generation of former standouts all getting old at the same time. But that points out another disturbing thing about the game. Coaches, probably correctly, figure they're better off letting an older former standout hurt them than play a youngster who'll experience some growing pains. Personnel decisions are driven by the attendant press and fan reaction to a degree you never, or rarely, see in major sports here.

[An aside: The reluctance to use younger players and what would appear to be an underestimation of American players--despite the brilliant play of Clint Dempsey all season--means that a talented player like Jozy Altidore can't even get playing time on a second division club in Europe when he could have gotten Everton into the top 4 when they ran out of strikers.]

The central defense is also horrific. There are at most a handful of shutdown fullbacks and the skills required for that aren't terribly complex. It's more a matter of commitment, like rebounding in basketball. Where are the defensive Dennis Rodmans?

One of the things that the former players who do commentary often complain about is that tackling isn't allowed the way it once was. But the quality of the tackles is so bad you can see why the league would cut down on it. Tacklers so rarely get even a part of the ball that they're just creating a needless risk of injury.

Certainly the most shocking thing about the game is the degree to which the quality of play is influenced by the psychological fragility of players and teams. Guys and teams who think they are playing well do. If they think they're going badly they do. It's damn peculiar.

The one thing that made the season tolerable is the off-field stuff. I like how passionate the fans are about their teams, how feisty the punditry is, and how obsessed everyone is generally, though I do think that the coaches often make their decisions out of fear of the fans and media.

I think it would be of benefit to some of the poorer teams in the EPL and/or in the 2nd division to come to working agreements with MSL teams. Suppose, for example, a team like Stoke or Bolton or any of those who have a hard time staying up and competing monetarily sent their youngsters to play with the Revolution or the Red Bulls or whoever and got the right to call up players from those teams to their sides as needed. Sure it would be an acknowledgment on the part of American Soccer that it is minor league, but it would provide a pipeline to top level soccer for American players, improve the quality of the players in MSL games, and build US fan bases for English sides. Eventually, you could have a few EPL games played here every year. If Fulham played at Foxboro they'd have a shot at almost 70,000 fans instead of 25,000. Or put Pompey in Giants Stadium once or twice a year and they can sell 77,000 tickets--a la Pele--instead of 20,000. And you have to think you could make the games sufficient events that American networks would show them. You'd have a significant revenue opportunity for teams that badly need the cash to stay mildly competitive.

And the MSL and ESPN should go to school on the EPL and Match of the Day. Every game should be played on the same day, maybe even at the same time, then the network could choose the most competitive match and show a longer highlight/shorter version, followed by highlights--such as there are--of the rest. If a team can get a local broadcast contract, good for them, but as British commentators, coaches, fans and players openly acknowledge, many games are excruciating and unwatchable, so a broadcast schedule that locks you into showing actual games in their entirety is a greasefire waiting to happen. No, wait, a fire is at least exciting.

Obviously ESPN or ABC or whoever, will want to show entire games in the World Cup, at least those we play in and the final rounds, but for earlier rounds they should likewise adopt an MotD approach and they could start getting ready for it by doing the same with the qualifiers, where there are many games being played on the same night right now.

None of this is going to make soccer competitive with the NFL on television, but none of the other major sports are either and the many minor ones--NHL, NASCAR, golf--occupy corners of the market quite happily and more or less healthily. If we'll watch guys turn left for 500 miles we'll learn to watch guys play a glorified sort of kickball. And if our national team can regularly beat or be competitive against countries where they're psychotic about the game, we'll be lured in just by our patriotism.


[originally posted: 6/30/09]

Posted by at July 1, 2014 1:38 PM
  
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