Soccer at a pop-culture crossroads
Story by Chris Graham
Everything about soccer in the United States would seem to point in the direction of the sport taking on more prominent status in American popular culture.
An estimated 18 million Americans are on an organized youth or adult soccer team – only basketball has more active team participants.
And more fans are watching soccer on television than ever before – the 2005 Major League Soccer championship game outdrew broadcasts of the first two games of the recent National Hockey League Stanley Cup finals, and the U.S. World Cup team’s midweek day-game opener was seen in more than 2 million American households.
But then comes the reality check – the much-hyped World Cup run of the fifth-ranked U.S. team ended rather ingloriously with two losses and a tie, and even though more people than ever were watching, the number there was still a small fraction of what the Big Four sports of NASCAR, football, basketball and baseball get on a regular basis.
“Let’s look at the positive. This World Cup has generated some interest. And if some of that gets translated to people actually watching regular-season stuff, at some point you’ve got to think that all of these kids growing up playing soccer are going to translate into them wanting to watch it as well,” said Bob Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
“So far, we haven’t seen a real strong relationship between those two. We’ve had a generation of kids grow up playing soccer who don’t seem to have been flocking to it on television. There’s every reason to believe that there are things in place that would eventually make a go of this sport that has so much interest worldwide here in the United States. We keep thinking it’s just around the corner – but we’ve been thinking that for a while now,” Thompson told The Augusta Free Press.
The growth of soccer from the participation standpoint can be traced back to the 1970s and 1980s – when the term soccer mom came to be the way that we referred to mothers involved in their children’s extracurricular activities.
“We don’t, after all, call them baseball moms or football moms – we call them soccer moms. There’s the assumption that the generic term for a mother driving her kids to and from things that she’s taking them to soccer. The dominance of soccer in this past generation I think is clear from that term itself,” Thompson said.
It was expected, naturally, that the children of soccer moms would grow up to be soccer spectator fans.
“In previous generations, kids that played a lot of baseball loved to watch baseball on TV – or before that, listen to it on the radio. The same with football. With soccer, there seems to be a disconnect. You have all of this participation going on as a sport that people were actually playing, but it doesn’t seem to translate into a sport that people were watching. Soccer has tried for years to get a foothold in the television-sports universe – and it has never been able to get up to anywhere close to parity with the major sports like basketball, baseball and football,” Thompson said.
Ted Fay, a sports-management professor at State University of New York-Cortland and a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, is leading a study on the topic of the creation of a mainstream soccer-fan culture in the United States. At the outset, he said it is possible that the assumption that we have that participation rates should lead to increased visibility for the sport in pop culture might be off base.
“The question that we have to ask is – what are our ties in terms of a sporting culture, not just as something that we participate in and play at a certain age, or attempt to move up the so-called performance ladder with our fantasy of wanting to be a pro or national-team athlete, but in fact, what do we stay connected to? What do we follow in the papers? What do we watch on television? What do we go to in terms of in person as far as a game?” Fay told the AFP.
The way soccer is structured as a participation sport, particularly at the youth level, doesn’t exactly engender that kind of sense of long-term connectivity, to hear Fay tell it.
“Kids are going to drop out of playing in structured environments – whether it’s youth-level sports, whether it’s school-related sports when they’re cut from a team or they become interested in something else. Sport is a very discriminating social construct in terms of you have to have a certain amount of luck in terms of time and place and ability in order to be selected to play – and in our society, more and more and more, you actually have to have the ability and pocket change to pay to play to get access to the game,” Fay said.
“The consequences of this are that we have a relatively disconnected step process from where do all those millions of kids who we hear are playing soccer between the ages of 5 and 12 to where do they go?” Fay said.
David Andrews, a sports-sociology professor at the University of Maryland, doesn’t see the answer to that question being soccer.
“That’s what everybody is expecting to happen. I think the suburban middle class took up the game in huge numbers because it was viewed as the ideal sport for their children,” Andrews told the AFP.
“But to some degree, despite the fact that it’s hugely popular – and I think the level of play is outstanding, boys and girls, up to about the age of 18 – you get beyond that, and the game almost culturally peters out. It becomes segmented from being a central part of these kids’ lives – and they grow up and find that their world is dominated by these other sports,” Andrews said.
“I don’t think personally that soccer is ever going to threaten the major sports in America. It’s going to be a second-tier sport – but still, second-tier sport in America still means something. It still means the Chicago Fire can build a 20,000-seat stadium and do quite nicely. But I don’t think the sport is going to insert itself into the national psyche or national experience like other games have,” Andrews said.
“The sports market here is so saturated – where is the place for another high-profile sport? If you go to England, you go to any shop, you go to any supermarket, people’s cars are festooned with England paraphernalia. Football is everywhere. It’s too much, to be quite honest. Here, you’ve got too much competing with it,” Andrews said.