Social Sports: Why Soccer Isn’t Popular in America

Posted: February 13, 2011 in Baseball, Basketball, Boxing, Fandom, Football, Hockey, Kick-Boxing, MMA, Soccer
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Full disclaimer: I’ve never traveled overseas, unless you count Vancouver, Niagra Falls, Montreal, or Juarez (twice). Other than those trips, I’ve spent my entire existence within the borders of the continental United States. I live in the DC area, though, and besides how diverse our residents are, the World Cup has come here, and I’ve attended it. Why? Because I like soccer. Keep that in mind before chalking this post up to being anti-soccer.

Moving on, soccer is not nearly as popular as football, basketball, baseball, hockey, or martial sports in America. You might think that this is because there’s only so much room for sports in our lives, but that wouldn’t explain why soccer, which predated many of those other sports, wasn’t the one onto which Americas latched in the early 1900’s. There must be a better reason for it’s lack of popularity.

The Problem

Americans view sporting events as much a social event as a competition. From what I’m told by both Americans and non-Americans, non-Americans do not. We (Americans) attend the games not merely to watch them but to bond with our fellow fans, some of whom we might hate in any other context. My fellow sports nuts will absolutely agree with this. Politics, religion, and any other source of social tension is thrown to the side, and we’re all friends for a few hours.

Now let’s consider soccer. It has two characteristics that, taken together, make it nearly impossible for mainstream America to enjoy. It’s 1) low scoring, and 2) has continuous play. As a result, Americans are forced to watch soccer non-stop without taking time to socialize. If they take their eyes off the game, even the boring parts, for just a second, they could miss the only score of the game. That’s too much to take. I also don’t think the commonality of ties helps its cause. Fans want resolution, not sister-kissing. If ties are anything more than an abnormality, it’s going to hurt the sport.

So, let’s examine the other sports to see how this plays out.


Football is probably America’s true pastime at this point. Why? Because it doesn’t suffer from either problem (or from ties). It clearly has lots of stops and starts, and scoring (especially nowadays) is relatively high. Have 3-0 games occurred in its history? Of course. I was at one in which Booomer Esiason led the Jets to a 3-0 win over the Redskins. (I just can’t forget how cold it was that day.) Nevertheless, those are rare occurrences, so rare that they are quickly forgotten by everyone except geeks like me. The same can be said of ties.

So, when you go to a football game, this is what happens: The center snaps the ball to the quarterback. The QB drops back and throws a 20-yard pass to a receiver who’s leveled by the free safety but somehow manages to hold on. While not a score, it’s an exciting play. In any case, the play is over. We now have 45 seconds (more with a time out) to talk about the play to each other. (“That’s what I’m talking about!” or “I would have caught that!” for an incomplete pass.) Thus, the game feeds our need to socialize on all levels. It gives us both the material to discuss and the time to do so.

Martial Sports

Like football, martial sports don’t suffer from either a lack of action or a lack of excitement. There is excitement at virtually every move, and the action stops periodically (when rounds are used), giving us all time to socialize. Observation: Since being regulated by state athletic commissions, the Ultimate Fighting Championship in America used three 5-minute rounds for a non-title bout and five 5-minute rounds for a championship bout with one minute breaks in between. Pride FC in Japan used one 10-minute round and two 5-minute rounds with two minute breaks in between. Apparently the Japanese fans didn’t need to socialize every five minutes, and the shorter breaks for the UFC bouts results in a faster match, which gets spectators more quickly to the point of being able to have longer conversations.

Martial Sports do suffer from one of the three characteristics though: ties. However, a “draw” remains relatively rare (some, along with me, say too rare). Moreover, many fights “go the distance.” The resulting judges’ decisions often have an offensive psychological effect (disclaimer: I’m no shrink!). Decisions with which we disagree actually appear to “steal” a bout from the fighter we thought won. This can be very frustrating, but let’s face it: it gives us more material to talk about when socializing. This actually plays in favor of martial sports.

People who don’t like martial sports because of how “violent” they are are simply ignorant of the statistics that show them to be, when regulated properly, the safest competitive sport. In fact, the most dangerous thing about boxing and kick-boxing is the use of such huge gloves and boots designed to protect the striker’s weapons rather than the opponent’s brain. The less padding, the better, and that’s a concept that the sissies just can’t be expected to get. They’re a lost cause. Martial sports will still be popular without them.


Basketball is not as popular as football, but it’s pretty damn close. It suffers from only one of the problems I’ve identified: continuous play. There are relatively few stops and starts. However, it counters this effect by having so many scores that you can afford to turn your head and socialize while the game continues. It’s also an exciting game, so that even if you miss a really great play, no need to worry. Another will be along shortly.


I’m sure you understand my point, so you should be able to predict how this one will go. Baseball suffers from the problem of low scoring, but you need not fear taking the time to socialize. The time between plays, as well as the predictability of when these breaks occur, results in little danger of missing a score or even an exciting play. Some would say that there are too few exciting plays in baseball, and that the time between plays is too long, but that helps to prove my point. The fact that baseball allows for socializing is why it continues to be so popular despite these perceived defects. Our ability to socialize is the most important factor to the success of all of these sports.


Hockey Fan

Hockey has always been the least popular of all of the sports I listed, and my theory would help to explain that as well. While not suffering from soccer’s characteristics quite as much, hockey has traditionally been a little too close to having all of those characteristics. It’s relatively low scoring, with 1-0 games hardly rare, and the action is closer to soccer than football in terms of its downtime. Moreover, my first hockey game at the Capital Center (IIRC, 1975, age 7) was a 2-2 tie between the Caps and the Minnesota North Stars. Even at that young age, I was an intellectual, so I found the concept of a tie intriguing, but that’s not common amongst Americans.

If you look at every important change hockey has made, it’s been designed to increase scoring and eliminate ties (or eliminate injuries, which is not the subject of this post). By increasing the scoring, hockey becomes less likely to disappoint the average spectator who turns away to talk to his fellow fans. Yes, hockey (and all the other sports) have huge marketing budgets, but that just gets people’s attention. You actually have to provide a good product or people won’t come back. The only exception to this rule is the “celebrity” factor (i.e., getting people to idolize or identify with the players), which is important to marketing, but nevertheless a small part of the story.

What’s Soccer to Do?

As far as a solution is concerned, I have none. Indoor soccer has tried to create a product that’s higher scoring, but it’s been largely a disaster. My guess is that, because it offends the soccer-loving base (“It’s a perversion of soccer!”), it wasn’t able to generate the minimum revenue it needed to properly market itself to the casual fan. Shootouts to eliminate ties were intended to help a bit with the casual fan, but that further offends the base. I suspect that soccer is just going to have to deal with its place in our society: a second-class sport.

This isn’t the end of the world, though, for soccer fans. The latest census report showed our population at over 300 million, and our economy (despite all our complaints) makes attendance at games more affordable, even if you resort to scalping. As a result of our richer, more populous society, even hobbies like skateboarding and snowboarding have become a spectator sport capable of surviving on its fan base, which is tiny when expressed as a percentage. I’m sure soccer will always out draw that.

Follow me on Twitter @MMADork

  1. […] fact, let’s do the same analysis for lacrosse that I did in my second post to this blog. As I pointed out, there are three characteristics that work against a sport gaining mainstream […]

  2. […] love football. It’s no MMA, but it’s pretty damn awesome. It’s the perfect sport for the American culture, which is why it’s surpassed baseball as America’s true pastime. I love watching […]

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s