This weekend, Duke students were treated to an early does of madness, and March is still months away.
Taking the pitch at Koskinen Stadium, the Blue Devil women’s soccer team treated the home fans to back-to-back home wins, including a defensive struggle in an upset of second-seeded Florida and a penalty-kick thriller against Arkansas. With the win, Duke advances to the Elite Eight and a road matchup with top-seeded conference foe Virginia Tech and finds itself peaking at the right time for another deep tournament run.
And although the weekend’s action definitely drubbed up some excitement on campus, it got me thinking why the world’s most popular sport hasn’t really found its niche at the college level. Professional football is one of the largest revenue-generating sports in the world, universities across the United States lose money on its soccer programs each and every year, regardless of whether it’s a winless season or a national championship. Just last week, Michael Reitengen wrote about a number of flaws with the game at the college level—the game is too physical, which is exacerbated by rules that allow for free substitutions. But the real source of the sports struggle at the NCAA level has to do with the culture of soccer itself.
Soccer is a sport that prides itself on professionalism, and professionalism only. Unlike American football or basketball, soccer’s feeder system is not the collegiate system, but rather the academy system, which targets the most talented youth from their teens (and often earlier) and develops them into young soccer machines. Players do not pride themselves on where they went to college, because often times they did not attend college. In Europe, if you are talented enough, you will be signed by a professional team regardless of your age. But the United States and Europe have differing perceptions concerning our education systems.
In America, a college degree is now equivalent to what a high school degree was during our parents’ generation—you aren’t going very far if you don’t have one. Education systems in Europe are often much more career-driven, which can at times make secondary education obsolete—there are fewer stigmas associated with not attending college in Europe than there are in the U.S. Additionally, the MLS has not grown to the point where a professional contract at age 18 outweighs the monetary benefits of even a partial college scholarship for four years plus a degree. After all, 99 percent of the NCAA’s athletes end up going pro in something other than sports.
Because of these fundamental differences, caring about the collegiate game is not engrained in the culture of soccer. Although I have watched a number of incredible athletes take the field for NCAA soccer matches and have been thoroughly entertained by the level of play, it is merely an afterthought in the context of such a monstrous sport.
Even an exciting and high-pressure knockout tournament fails to drum up the attention that basketball players do in March. Another difficulty the NCAA has is soccer’s inherent inability to be monetized from a television perspective. Unlike basketball, there are no commercials every four minutes of gametime. The English Premier League only gets television broadcasts because it is driven by its viewership’s demand, and that is something that collegiate soccer lacks.
Just like any other major collegiate sport, there is triumph and heartbreak, compelling storylines and intense rivalries, but for some reason collegiate soccer just hasn’t caught on.
But I can be sure of one thing. I’d bet that last weekend’s game made a few college soccer fans out of the students in the stands. Even if it was the first college soccer game they’d ever seen, the quality of the matches they saw should give them a reason to come back for more.