If you listen to traditional media channels, you may be surprised to learn that soccer is actually a pretty big deal in the United States. Take for instance, Stephen Dubner’s usually engaging and informative Freakonomics radio, who trotted out a tired canard about how unpopular soccer is in the United States. The story starts with the ludicrous notion that the World Cup is unpopular because it isn’t American football.
It’s no secret that soccer continues to lag behind other U.S. sports in viewership and enthusiasm. For instance, 111.5 million Americans sat down to watch Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014. Meanwhile, only 24.3 million watched the 2010 World Cup Final.
I believe this is known as a “straw man” argument. Soccer is not as popular as American football? Nothing is as popular as American football! The 24.3. million people tuned in to the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup (a 41 percent increase over the 2006 cup, by the Way) is comparable to Game 7 of the 2013 NBA finals which captured 26 million viewers and more than the final game of the 2013 World Series which captured 19.2 million viewers. By contrast, it is much great than the 8.2 million that watched the last game of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Finals. By Dubner’s ludicrous standard, no sport is popular in the United States because it isn’t American football.
Later on, Dubner cites a Harris poll noting that only three percent of Americans cite soccer as their favorite sport compared to 30 percent who cite Pro Football and 11 percent who cite College Football. More straw man. That same poll reports that only 4 percent cite hockey as their favorite sport and 7 percent cite basketball. Not to mention that this was an online poll conducted in English.. but we’ll get to that.
This is why a more interesting conversation about soccer in the United States has shifted from “soccer isn’t popular” to “soccer is only popular every four years.” Political Scientist Andrei Markovitz talks of the Olypianization of soccer, whereby Americans tune in to the big event (World Cup) every four years and ignore the sport in the interim (kinda like American politics.. sorry couldn’t resist). But even that isn’t true… the landscape is shifting rapidly, only it’s a little hard to tell because soccer is so fragmented.
First, soccer is a global game so it’s played all over the world. Second, the way soccer works is that there are really two leagues, one based on clubs and one based on country. The biggest event for countries is this month’s World Cup, but national teams play in tournaments between World Cups. There are regional tournaments aside from qualification for the World Cup itself. In the Central American, Caribbean and North American region — CONCACAF, there’s a tournament called the Gold Cup. In South American it’s called Copa
Libertadores America, in Africa it’s the African Cup of Nations, and so on… In the US, these tournaments do pretty well. The CONCACAF gold cup does respectable, if not spectacular, ratings on TV in the United States. In 2013, 4.9 million people watched the final between the US and Panama. The 2012 Euro Cup averaged over 1 million viewers on ESPN, double that of 2008.
The other type of competition in world soccer is league competitions. Here, soccer is gaining ground as well. If you compare the TV ratings of any one soccer league to traditional US sports, they don’t fare well. In the 2012 regular season, the NBA average a rating of 3.3 (roughly between 3-4 million US households). That’s a pretty strong compared to the ratings of our domestic soccer league (Major League Soccer – MLS’s). MLS’s meager ratings of between 100,000 and 300,000 households seems small. But the soccer space in the US is divided between a number of leagues. So to be fair, you add MLS’ 200,000 viewers to the 500,000 to 700,000 that watch the English Premiere League on Saturday mornings and the 800,000 to 1,000,000 that watch the Mexican League (LIGA MX) and soccer on a regular basis begins to approach the NBA in magnitude.
So why the view that the sport is irrelevant, even among people who should know better? The perception that soccer is “small time” in the US sports landscape is driven by two key factors. One, its popularity is fragmented as I’ve already discussed, so there’s not one league to focus on, bur rather a multitude of “foreign” leagues to discuss. But I think the other explanation is more pernicious, its perception comes for society’s sustained marginalization of “foreigners,” particularly Mexican immigrants in the United States. It is a means of drawing boundaries of “Americanness” around sports. Unwittingly, it is a way of identifying based on identity groups that suggest race and ethnic categorization, but do not explicitly state it.
Most telling in the Freakonomics radio piece is this throwaway line where Dubner’s doubts the prospect of soccer becoming as popular as American football.. as if that were the standard:
let’s be honest, it probably won’t. Many of the people who are most fanatical about the sport in the US have some kind of tie to Europe or South America or Africa.
This is intended to suggest that only those with close ties to “foreigners” appreciate the game.. a fallacy that need it’s own unpacking. But let’s take this at face value. Does he realize how many people he is talking about? There are roughly 50 million Latinos in the United States, many of whom “have strong ties” to soccer loving countries, primarily Mexico. I’m sure a smart guy like Dubner knows that Mexico is actually in North America so the exclusion of Mexico must be because it doesn’t fit the narrative they are trying to tell about the unpopularity of the sport.
Here’s the problem: Soccer is enjoyed by people who inhabit the United States, but because many of those people may be first or second generation immigrants, and in many cases many not speak English or have English as a primary language, it’s not culturally relevant to include in debates about the popularity of sport. Close to 5 million people in the US watched the Liga MX (Mexican soccer league) final between Leon and Pachuca, a number that compares favorably with the ratings for MLB playoff games, but it’s irrelevant because either it was watched in Spanish or watched by Spanish-speakers, I’m not sure which.
Sports media constantly refer to a “big four” American sports (Football, Basketball, Baseball and Hockey). Soccer when mentioned is still talked about as a foreign entity. A few days ago ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon opined that US National Soccer Team coach Jurgen Klinsman to “get the hell out of America” because he suggested Kobe Bryant should not be given a contract extension based on past performance. The inference was that this foreigner shouldn’t be commenting on American games.
So if a person on US soil watches a game in Spanish, are they a foreigner? Are they tuning in to a sport broadcast in a foreign language and that’s what makes it foreign? This narrative of a “big four” underscores a troubling assumption. A sport is only truly “popular” in the United States if English-speaking, native born people follow it. When they do, then we can call it an “American sport.” I’d argue that there is a deep cultural marginalization going on when the preferred sport of the largest-minority ethnic group in the United States is viewed as marginal because it’s not viewed by “the wrong people.” To say people don’t follow soccer in the United States is a veiled way of saying that it’s not viewed by people that matter.
The sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has a great term for what I think is going on: white habitus. This is the idea that the “separate residential and culture life” (103) of Whites creates a:
“racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ racial taste, perceptions, feelings, and emotions and their views on racial matters” (104)
A habitus that reinforces notions of what cultural norms and tastes are “American” and which are “foreign” is reinforced by this social and cultural isolation. To personally not like the game isn’t evidence of cultural bias, but arguing that the sport isn’t popular even when there is evidence to the contrary, suggests an ignorance derived from cultural isolation. Commentators on traditional media outlets (ESPN and FOX, for instance) as a space of cultural life reinforces the idea that to be American means to follow some sports and not others. Mike Wilbon is paid to “act a fool” for lack of a better term, but that doesn’t mean that he’s being culturally arrogant when he claims to know what constitutes an “American” sport. Things are changing however and I suspect that if four year’s time, when the 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia, I won’t be compelled to write a post like this.