Soccer Culture in the U.S.

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Photo retrieved from: TopDrawerSoccer.com

By Julianna Miller and Bryan Silverman

Soccer is often considered to be a universal language, spoken around the world.  This “universality” of the “world’s most beautiful game,” however, has somewhat failed to hold in the United States.  In comparison to nations worldwide, the United States lacks the fervor and passion surrounding the world’s most popular sport.  Soccer just simply is not as deeply rooted within the culture as other more “traditionally American” sports, such as baseball, basketball and football.  This, however, does not mean that Americans do not consider it to be the “world’s most beautiful game.” The game still holds an integral part of our culture  and lives as Americans.  Over 13 million Americans play soccer in the United States, making it the “third most played team sport in the United States”.  In addition, there were about 24 million American viewers of the World Cup Final in 2010. [1]  Here, in this blog, we will be looking at why America has been so reluctant to accept this “universal” sport, what soccer culture actually looks like in America, and how it has evolved in recent times.

 

Why such a lack of interest?

Around the world, soccer is ubiquitous; it exists in the streets, in the prisons, in backyards, in dirt and in stadiums.  One could say that this is also true for soccer in the United States as well.  Soccer has become a custom that almost every American family has felt connected to or been a part of in some way or another.  Nonetheless, this omnipresence of soccer in a society and  culture in countries around the world, is not comparable to the soccer culture in the United States.  When you think of the sports culture that exists in our country, you immediately think of basketball, baseball and American football.  These sports have become an integral part of American society’s culture.  College basketball games, the World Series, and the Super Bowl are all social events that family and friends come together to watch regularly.  Fandom is not nearly as fun when this sense of community, popularity, and social nature is lost, as is often seen when watching soccer games and one reason to explain the lack of interest of soccer in America. [2] While there are a massive amount of Americans who play the game, these numbers do not carry over into soccer fandom in the United States.

There are various speculations as to why this is.  Americans have developed a fixation with “purely traditional” American sports, such as football, baseball and basketball.  The United States has immense success with these sports, especially on a global scale.  These traditional sports have become a social aspect in our culture.  Watching Sunday football with family and friends has become the norm for most Americans.  However, this national rally behind a sport does not exist for soccer.  These other sports have been seen as “crowding out” soccer, leaving no more available “sport space” for Americans to undertake. [3]

Unlike the traditional American sports, soccer is often seen as “boring” because of a lack of appreciation for the beauty of the game when it does not coincide with scoring.  Americans rate the success of a game based on goals and scores.  In a soccer match, some of the best plays and true beauty of the sport may be seen in the times not directly resulting in goal.  When this appreciation of the true beauty is missing, there is no doubt that the 90-plus minutes of a low-scoring game will result in some very bored viewers. It is interesting to note, however, that the lack of beauty would be expected if there was a lack of participation in playing at the youth level. However, we do see lots of youth participation, so the beauty that is not appreciated is a bit paradoxical.

Americans also are troubled by various components and logistics of the game, due to unwavering values in American culture: that winning is highly important and that more is better. [4] These two values explain why Americans have trouble with aspects of the game, such as tie games, low scoring, ambiguous calls or rules and abstruse injury time.

In addition, the lack of fandom in the United States is directly related to the lack of media and television coverage of soccer in the United States. Americans’ interests are correlated to what the media presents, while the media also correlates to what the population is interested in.  When one side changes, the other will follow. Therefore, if the media increases coverage of soccer in the United States, the interest in soccer should also increase. One reason, in particular, why the media and Americans are both seemingly uninterested in soccer, could be because of the sport’s lack of “star” players to fixate on. Often times, it is these iconic superstars in sports that Americans love to follow, therefore creating a lot of media coverage of these “stars”.   Nevertheless, the United States have consistently lacked “star” players that have permeated into the hearts of people across America.

 

Youth Soccer in the United States

youth_soccer_hierarchy_chart

Retrieved from:  Quarstad, Brian.  “What is US Club Soccer?”.  IMSoccer News.  April, 23, 2009.  http://www.insidemnsoccer.com/2009/04/23/what-is-us-club-soccer/ 

While there may be a lack of passionate fandom in the United States, in comparison to countries around the world, youth soccer in the United States has the highest participation in the world (about 4 million registered). [5]  This proves that there is no doubt that the interest of the game exists and that it is played vastly throughout the country.  Nonetheless, American youth programs are not followed by appealing pathways for these young players to continue on.  The youth programs foster a competitive environment, but as youth, high school, and college soccer comes to an end, these players’ futures become hazy.  The soccer environment (including salary, quality of professional leagues, etc.) differs greatly from the environment in comparison to the rest of the world. [6]

Youth soccer has become an integral part of numerous American families, but the lack of an exciting and passionate soccer culture in the United States discourages kids from aspiring to play for their national soccer team in future years, for example, and pursuing it as their professional career.   This interest in soccer at such a young age, also does not directly correlate to fandom of the sport.  While many Americans can say they have played soccer at some point, more often than not, most of them would not consider themselves avid soccer fans.

 

MLS with regards to soccer culture

The MLS has withstood a turbulent past, but has seen almost exponential growth and improvement in the past few years.  MLS games were known for leaving stadiums filled with empty seats galore.  One example of many, was the New York Centaurs.  They would typically draw crowds less than 500 people, when the stadium (Downing Stadium) had capacity for 15,000 spectators.  For teams like this, for example, a small group of die-hard fans were established.  While the team folded in 1995, it created a sense of unity among the early New York Empire Supporter’s Club. [7]  This early establishment of hardcore, unified fandom may not have been popular (as illustrated by the few number of spectators who filled the stadiums) during this time  for professional soccer leagues, but it was the roots of the changing MLS culture that was about to come.

Today, MLS soccer culture across the U.S. may not be at the same level as some of the Professional European Leagues, but a fervent culture undoubtedly still exists.  Most notably, the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders have developed a soccer culture that seems to erase all prior conceptions that soccer has failed to “stick” in America.  In 2013, the Portland Timbers drew an average attendance of 20,600 (exceeding their stadium capacity by about 200 people). [8]  These two teams make up one of the biggest and most bitter rivalries in American soccer, and American sports in general.  The fans of the Timbers (the Timbers Army) and the Sounders (the Emerald City Supporters) bring European-style fandom to the United States.  Both of their fervent, tumultuous crowds shake the stadiums with their chants, songs and boos.  When looking at where fandom in the MLS started to where it is today, we can only hope that it continues to grow in this same fashion.

 

Changing culture in the U.S.?

In recent years, soccer culture has been becoming more and more prevalent in the United States.   Although there is an extraordinary amount of people who play soccer in the United States, there had always been some level of disconnect between the participation and fandom.  It is now making the giant “leap from participation sport to television spectacle.” [9]  “Forget Downtown Abbey, the real English drama is coming on August 17th.” [10]  The English Premier League’s breakthrough to one of the big U.S. television networks, NBC, is proof that the culture is in fact changing.  Soccer, in the past, usually was solely considered to be mainstream in America during the short-lived time of the World Cup every four years, but the increasing interest in the game is exemplified by this broadcasting of the English Premier League in the United States.

Recently, between the 2010 Men’s World Cup and the 2011 Women’s World Cup, American spectating statistics have greatly exceeded previous years.  The U.S. Men’s National Team even benefitted from the roaring crowd that came out to watch the USA vs. Mexico qualifying match in Columbus, Ohio. We can only hope that this culture continues to grow through the World Cup 2014 in Brazil and in future years to come.

Click here to return to the USA Soccer and World Cup 2014 main page.

How to cite this page: “Soccer Culture in the U.S.,” Written by Julianna Miller and Bryan Silverman (2013), World Cup 2014, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/world-cup-2014/soccer-culture-in-the-us/ (accessed on (date)).

 


[1] “Soccer in the United States”.  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Dec. 02, 2013.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soccer_in_the_United_States

[2] Silverman, Bryan.  “U.S. Youth Soccer vs. Soccer Fandom in the U.S.”.  Soccer Politics/ the Politics of Football Blog.  Oct, 06, 2013.  https://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/2013/10/06/u-s-youth-soccer-vs-soccer-fandom-in-the-u-s/

[3] Ivan Waddington and Martin Roderick, “American Exceptionalism: Soccer and American Football” The Sports Historian 16 (1996): 49. http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/research-projects/soccermarkets-in-the-u-s/soccer-exceptionalism-in-america/#sthash.gwPiSnlU.dpuf

[4]  Tauer, John.  “Why Aren’t Americans More Interested in Soccer?  Why is the U.S. bad at soccer?”.  Psychology Today, June 26, 2010.  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/goal-posts/201006/why-aren-t-americans-more-interested-in-soccer-why-is-the-us-bad-soccer

[5] Silverman, “U.S. Youth Soccer vs. Soccer Fandom in the U.S.”.

[6] Ziemer, Benjamin,  “Comparing the U.S. Soccer Environment to the World’s Soccer Environment”.  http://www.oregonyouthsoccer.org/assets/coaches/Comparing_the_US_Soccer_Environment_to_the_World.pdf

[7] Doyle, Matthew.  “Supporters Week: The roots of fan culture in MLS”.  MLSsoccer.com.  March, 9, 2011. http://www.mlssoccer.com/news/article/supporters-week-roots-fan-culture-mls

[8] Malliris, Christina.  “Portland’s Unique Place in the NWSL”.  Soccer Politics Blog, Sept. 15, 2013.  https://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/2013/09/15/portlands-unique-place-in-the-nwsl/

[9] Gibson, Owen.  “Premier League is starting to make inroads into American Culture”.  The Guardian, Aug. 16, 2013.  http://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2013/aug/16/premier-league-us

[10] Gibson, “Premier League is starting to make inroads into American Culture”.

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