Along with millions of my fellow Americans and various interested parties throughout the world, I watched the World Cup match this past week in which an overmatched U.S. team stayed with a Belgium side until the inevitable happened:
This is not new territory for an American team. In 1934, we finished 16th. In 1938, we withdrew. In 1950, 10th. We didn’t even qualify from 1954 until 1986. Since then, we have finished 23rd, 14th, 32nd, 8th, 25th, 12th and 15th. Not the kind of record that strikes fear into the hearts of our opponents.
It is also not the kind of record that, despite what a lot of overly emotional pundits said this week, is going to turn the American sporting public away from basketball, baseball, football and, yes, even hockey.
While it may enthrall Brits and Brazilians, Mexicans and Moroccans, it only captures the imagination of Americans once every four years. And while we may love underdogs we are quick to forget losers.
Let’s face it, the big TV ratings and raucous crowds who watched the U.S. in World Cup event were largely motivated by national pride, not a love for the grand old game.
The same thing happens every Olympic year. Americans cheer wildly for swimmers, gymnasts, sprinters, discus throwers, figure skaters, ski jumpers and lugers. Nobody seriously suggests any one of these events would attract a lion’s share of the U.S. sports dollar.
Some of the boosterism is downright silly.
I was amused by a sportswriter for a local downtown paper who bellied up to a bar to watch the U.S.-Belgium match and gleefully noted the ethnic mix of the people in attendance. The implication was that soccer had brought us all together.
But this is Los Angeles, melting pot of the 21st Century. You can find an ethnic mix of United Nations proportions among people waiting for a bus.
To think soccer will somehow unite us conveniently ignores a sport whose existence has been marked by rioting, hooliganism, cheating and bribery scandals for decades.
Look, I’m all for soccer having a seat at the table of America’s favorite pastimes. Its popularity is slowly gaining. A recent Pew Research Poll showed that soccer is now the fourth-most popular sport for high school girls and fifth-most popular one for boys.
The problem is that kids want to see their heroes in action. And they’ll find them on football, basketball, baseball and hockey telecasts which dominate the ratings game.
Sure, there’s the MSL professional league here. But viewership last year was 332,000 on ESPN, ESPN2 and NBC Sports, compared with 205 million for the NFL.
According to the website MLS Attendance, 8 of the 19 MLS teams are averaging fewer fans this season than last. And the 2013 MLS Cup drew a 0.5 television rating, which is probably lower than an “I Love Lucy” rerun.
If our young athletes show considerable talent in soccer, they hone their skills then go off to Europe or South America to play where the money and support is major league.
So we never see them. What we do see is less than world class. That’s no way to build a world class team. That’s no way to build a world class fan base.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not in the camp of Ann Coulter, a writer who is to politics what Vlad the Impaler is to peaceful coexistence. She opined that any spike in interest in soccer is “a sign of the nation’s moral decay.” She added that “in American football, ambulances carry off the wounded. After a soccer game, every player gets a ribbon and a juice box.”
Of course, Ann is more provocateur than professional so we largely ignore her.
But I have serious doubts that soccer mania is sweeping the country.
Consider this perspective offered by a man who knows a thing or two about sports.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, writing in a Time.Com essay, said “To the average American used to the hustle of basketball, the clash of titans in football, the suspense of the curve ball in baseball, or the thrilling crack of the slapshot in hockey, the endless meandering back and forth across the soccer field looks less like strategy and more like random luck.
In America, fans like to see effort rewarded instantaneously with points, he wrote.
“Soccer doesn’t fully express the American ethos as powerfully as our other popular sports. We are a country of pioneers, explorers, and contrarians who only need someone to say it can’t be done to fire us up to prove otherwise.
“As a result, we like to see extraordinary effort rewarded. The low scoring in soccer frustrates this American impulse.”
All of which means we are a long, long way from the victor’s stand at the World Cup.