Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Do Americans Like Soccer?

I'm home all this week, a sudden combination of poverty and mild illness combining to obviate any thoughts of travel, so I've been watching the World Cup on ESPN. (Admittedly, I'm a guy, so I would probably find a way to watch ESPN on top of Mount Kilimanjaro, but I digress.)(To be fair, I do nothing but digress a lot of the time.) (But, again, I digress.)

It is often remarked that soccer (which the rest of the world calls football) ( but I will keep calling it soccer both to distinguish it from American (NFL) football and because, well, that's what I call it) is wildly popular around the world, yet not popular here in the good old US of A. Paradoxically, art (if you can call it that) produced here (TV and movies) is wildly popular around the world.

I'm not a soccer guy-I never played it. I've read about it, which is my usual response to almost anything-starting with Nick Hornby's "Fever Pitch" and moving on from there. So, coming at it as a neophyte, I have found the World Cup to be marvelously entertaining and fun. The announcers, as far as I know English announcers from the Premier League, along with the occasional American like John Harkes, have been informative, and also critical in a way that US sports announcers never are.

I know the commentary is probably dumbed down, but I appreciate that. It drives me crazy as a baseball fan to hear, every October, Tim McCarver explaining again that it's important to throw strikes-but if that's all the baseball that you watch, you need to hear that from an otherwise intelligent man like McCarver. Soccer moves right along, too-as Bill Simmons points out, if you see the clock on a soccer game say "80:00", you're pretty sure that, 15 minutes from now at the most, you're done.

It's taken as a given that Americans don't like soccer. There are several childish reasons given-it's somehow gay, or Communist, or unnatural to not pick up the ball with your hands, or some other nonsense. ("Nothing happens" is another argument. Well, look at any other sport. Scoring plays in basketball take fractions of a second. I'll bet 80% of NFL football possessions go by without scoring. A perfect game, the summit of baseball perfection, is the very definition of nothing happening.)

There is pro men's soccer in the US-the oddly run (salaries set by the league) but slowly growing Major League Soccer. My general impression of it, world quality wise, is that it is roughly equal to AA baseball-the very best players in MLS (like Landon Donovan) can play at the top level, but the majority are either bench players or would not make a Premier League roster.

My contention is that Americans could, and would, like soccer, if it were presented to us properly. If ESPN had a three hour block, let's say, every Thursday, where they ran an hour of highlights and news, interspersed with little rule demos like they do on the MLB Network, followed by a tape delayed Game of the Week, with overlaid English "soccer for dummies" commentary, from the Bundesliga or Serie A or the Premier League. If it were presented well, and easy to find, Americans would enjoy it, I think.

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