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Has Soccer Finally Captured American Hearts?

tim-howard-belgium

Americans were really interested in following Team USA in the World Cup. How much? Only two college football games last year attracted more viewers.

AL.com (“U.S-Belgium World Cup TV ratings better than all but two 2013 college football games“):

ESPN’s World Cup soccer game between the United States and Belgium on Tuesday averaged an overnight Nielsen rating of 9.6, making it the network’s highest-ever rating for a World Cup game, according to Variety.com.

That eclipsed ESPN’s previous record of 9.1, set by the United States’ 2-2 tie with Portugal during the opening round. The United States’ loss to Ghana in the second round of the 2010 World Cup also drew a 9.1 rating, but that was an ABC broadcast.

The Neilsen ratings include only in-home viewers, according to Variety, so those watching in bars or at work weren’t counted.

What may be even more interesting is that Tuesday’s game, which Belgium won 2-1 in extra time to eliminate the U.S., also outdrew all but two college football games from the 2013 season.

The BCS championship game between Florida State and Auburn was the top-drawing college football game of the season at 14.8, according to sportsmediawatch.com. The only other 2013 college football game with a better rating that U.S.-Belgium was the Rose Bowl game between Stanford and Michigan State (10.2).

Now, granted, this is not quite a fair comparison. This is a once-every-four-years event featuring the national team, not one of many weekly games interesting mostly to fans of the two schools participating. Then again, the game was on during the workday on a Tuesday.

After every World Cup—going back at least to the 1994 tournament, hosted on US soil and where the American women won the whole shebang—there is talk that this time it will be different. Enthusiasm for Team USA playing soccer in the world’s most important tournament would translate into wild population for American soccer. Thus far, it has failed to materialize.

Major League Soccer, the latest American professional association, launched in 1996 on the heels of the 1994 Cup and has at least had staying power. But it’s widely regarded as a minor league. Indeed, most of Team USA’s top stars play elsewhere, in one of the top European leagues. And almost all of America’s top athletes are still going into the sports traditionally popular here: football, basketball, and baseball.

For a generation now, the promise has been that scads of American kids grow up playing soccer. Alas, they still watch football and basketball and aspire to glory in those sports.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. The World Cup benefited this year from being in a country where game times were roughly compatible with American time zones. Yesterday’s game, for example, was perfectly timed for an early trip to the bar on the East Coast and a late lunch on the West Coast.

    In 2018, though, the World Cup will in Russia. Much as with the Olympics, games will likely be played at times far less convenient for Americans. One wonders what that will mean for ratings.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: A good point. I watched all of the USA matches last year, too, and the games were in South Africa. They’re 6 hours ahead. Moscow is only 2 hours further ahead but, yeah, a 2 pm game there would be at 10 pm here.

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  3. @James Joyner:

    I recall that several of the games the US played in the 2010 World Cup were scheduled on weekends, or at times that would have been roughly okay in the US.

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  4. Jim Henley says:

    I haven’t watched any of the Cup games and in decades past have been anti-soccer and even an anti-soccer troll. I do think it’s different. It’s not just the reaction to the Cup, which is unprecedented here. It’s that surprising numbers of my co-workers, including the US-born, anglophone ones, turned out to follow one or more of the Premiere leagues and care – and have opinions on them. That phenomenon, which I noticed particularly over the last year, is also unprecedented.

    I think an interesting telltale in 2018 will be if American fans get ticked off by an early exit rather than being proud the national team gets into the elimination rounds. But yeah, soccer really is becoming a big-time sport here.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @Jim Henley: I’ve noted the phenomenon of people following the big European leagues of late, too–although I wonder whether that’s just a function of following a lot of East Coast elites on Twitter and associating with same in my professional circles. I don’t know that Middle America is doing that.

    As Doug noted on this question four years ago, aside from the talent question, is the fact that our sports calendar is already pretty well packed. It strikes me that the most likely avenue for soccer to elbow its way in is for football’s popularity to decline in the wake of the concussion crisis. But there’s no evidence yet that that’s happening.

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  6. al-Ameda says:

    Doug, you’re definitely right about the time-zones difference and marshalling viewers.

    I like soccer a lot, however I see this as similar to the Olympics – every 4 years Americans watch the spectacle. We’ve probably turned some kind of corner with respect to the number of people interested in soccer, however I do not see it as a sea change.

    The fact is, the very best American players go to Europe to advance their careers – Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard are good examples of that. Another whom Americans liked much – Landon Donovan – had trouble getting starting playing time in Germany, and played more in Britain. If our league isn’t good enough to keep our best, we will not get to the next level of interest and respect.

    My opinion is that generally, in America soccer will continue to be a strong second tier sport, well behind football (pro and college) MLB, NBA, and even the NHL.

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  7. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    “As Doug noted on this question four years ago, aside from the talent question, is the fact that our sports calendar is already pretty well packed.”

    Except the World’s Cup fell during a relatively open time in the calendar. The NBA and NHL finals were over after the first game or two, no football until training camp starts in a few weeks, and baseball is in mid-season doldrums where the games don’t mean much (and even less if your team is effectively out of the running, like my Phils).

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  8. Jim Henley says:

    @James Joyner: I don’t give so-called Middle America any special deference in defining national enthusiasms since, for one thing, there aren’t that many of them compared to us coastal elites*. But my old office wasn’t a journalism or policy shop, and the people I’m thinking of were corporate accountants and project managers with otherwise conventional middle-aged white-person views of the world, from what I could tell.

    *As John Rogers once wrote, This country has more World of Warcraft players than farmers.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @Moosebreath: Right. I think the answer is clear with regard to the World Cup: Americans genuinely care, at least as long as our boys are competitive. But I don’t see how MLS surpasses the NHL, much less MLB, given the packed calendar.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    @Jim Henley: Fair points all. I figure for a sports league to thrive, it has to draw enthusiastic support around the country. But, heck, Houston, Columbus, and even Salt Lake City have dominated MLS of late. I don’t know their level of fan enthusiasm, though.

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  11. Jim Henley says:

    @James Joyner: Aren’t you changing the question, though? The answer to “Has soccer captured America’s hearts?” and “Is MLS gonna be big now?” don’t at all have to be the same. The answer to the former doesn’t have to depend on the latter.

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  12. Neil Hudelson says:

    @James Joyner:

    I can’t speak for all of middle America, but I can speak for the Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinatti- corridor (suck it, Louisville). There’s been a huge surge in popularity, one that is inexplicable, in my circles. Here in Indianapolis, a minor-league soccer team was formed this year, and has thus far sold out every match, often putting up numbers that beat established MLS teams.

    Here was the crowd during the Belgian match. In Indianapolis. The Indianapolis that historically has given not one fvck about soccer. http://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/d4eea4dc3a86e3a6e8d086f3e75bf1c2d9675c8f/c=240-0-1680-1080&r=x404&c=534×401/local/-/media/Indianapolis/2014/07/01/indycrowd2.jpg

    It’s only anecdotal, but there people seem to give a crap this time.

    Now, I don’t think that means we’ll see a wild surge in popularity. I think those predictions are always silly. Instead, we are seeing a very slow build between 1994 and now become a slow or even medium paced build. Soccer won’t be as popular as the major 4 sports in the next decade, or probably even the next 2, but it will slowly continue to gain.

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  13. Rob in CT says:

    Short answer, reacting just to your headline:

    No. Because there is never such a clear before/after moment. I do think soccer is steadily growing and someday before I die I think we’ll acheive world-class status. This requires either: 1) more US players in top foreign leagues; and/or 2) that MLS takes things up a notch. Neither is easy, and neither is going to happen because people watched the World Cup that one year, yadda yadda.

    MLS has a bit of a catch-22 problem that I imagine lots of sports leagues have at some point: MLS has a solid but unspectacular level of play. The top Euro leagues are a cut above. MLS is like AAA. That makes it hard to bring in enough revenue such that they can buy top talent, which in turn makes hit hard to bring in more revenue… etc. Which is why progress is slow.

    The USA national team isn’t bad or anything, but in order to go head to head with the juggernaughts, more player development is needed, and that likely comes from investment from MLS (or, less plausibly, foreign leagues looking to scrounge up talent).

    Also, regarding the loss to Belgium, I enjoyed the way the team never gave up, but it’s also clear they were dominated. They were lucky not to lose in regulation (though some of that “luck” was absolutely incredible goalkeeping).

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  14. Matt Bernius says:

    @Neil Hudelson:
    I think what you’re describing is similar for a number of minor league cities. Here in Rochester, our AAA team (one of the first when the league started) has historically had great attendance (even in off years).

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  15. Ron Beasley says:

    One of the problems for soccer in the US is TV coverage – there are few if any commercial breaks. The NFL builds commercial breaks into it’s game. The MSL team here in Portland always sells out – 20,000+. I love soccer and both of my sons played it but then I did live in Europe for several years.

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  16. DrDaveT says:

    World Cup soccer captured my heart in 1982, with Paolo Rossi’s absurd heroics for Italy (including a hat trick against Brazil). I watched the games late at night on PBS feeds of BBC coverage, and dragged my sleep-deprived ass through the following days at work. The 1990 Cup sealed the deal, with Roger Milla going crazy for cinderella team Cameroon, getting them to the Quarter Final.

    My cable network makes it possible for me to get English Premier League broadcasts, and I’ve seen Champions’ League games advertised as well. I’m not sure what it costs (if anything), but the availability of top quality play with knowledgeable English-language commentary can’t hurt. I have colleagues at work who converse knowledgeably about the various European leagues and top players, even in years when there are no Olympics or World Cup.

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  17. Ron Beasley says:

    BTW great defense can be just as enjoyable to watch as offense. A 0-0 tie can be a great game.

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  18. SKI says:

    Don’t sell short that the Premier League is now on NBC. That both speaks to the general popularity of soccer in the US from the NBC executives’ perspective and helps spread the gospel more broadly.

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  19. Rob in CT says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    I’m a fan of the game, but… look, this can be true. But oftentimes it’s not true. There really is such a thing as a desultory nil-nil draw. But then there are bad 10-7 NFL games.

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  20. al-Ameda says:

    @DrDaveT:

    World Cup soccer captured my heart in 1982,

    I loved the 1982 World Cup. The Cameroon goalkeeper, Tomas N’Kono was incredible. And the semi-final match between Germany and France was a flat out, stone cold classic. France was unlucky to not have won it all with their classic mid-field of Platini, Tigana and Giresse.

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  21. Jim Henley says:

    @James Joyner: James, the more I think about it, the more I think your conflating the soccer/MLS question is inadvertently touching a larger issue, the one inspiring the Coulteresque reaction. Assume people have two drives with sports: they want to watch “our guys,” but they also want to watch the best. With baseball, basketball, hockey and gridiron football, these drives don’t come into conflict for potential American fans. For things like association football, bicycle racing and cricket they do.

    On this perspective, the growing US interest in soccer is even more unprecedented. EPL and ECL are the best and that’s what more and more Americans are watching, even though it’s not “our guys.” This is a genuine social phenomenon: globalization, cosmopolitanism, whatever – very much at odds with the nationalist, jingoist parts of American conservatism. Americans getting into soccer means people acknowledging that at least some things are done better elsewhere but can still be pretty cool.

    Other countries are used to this: they watch NBA games and send their best hockey players to the NHL. 100,000 people will come to London to watch an NFL game while they could barely draw 10K for a Claymores-Monarchs matchup when the WLAF/NFLE was a thing. Soccer enthusiasm really is a case of attenuating American exceptionalism then. Of course that freaks out WND.

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  22. @Jim Henley:

    As John Rogers once wrote, This country has more World of Warcraft players than farmers.

    Well yeah, most of the World of Warcraft farmers are in China.

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  23. James Joyner says:

    @Jim Henley: That’s an interesting perspective. I’ve seen criticism this World Cup–and to a certain extent for years with the Olympics—complaints that players on the US team aren’t “really” Americans and ditto the foreigners on other national teams. (Indeed, the two goals scored against USA by Belgiums were from Congolese players.) But nobody complains that few members of the Dallas Cowboys are from Dallas, or, indeed, Texas.

    I’ve come to root for sports teams parochially. I”m a Cowboys fan because I was living in Texas when I started caring about pro football and the Cowboys happened also to be very good. I started caring about baseball after the Atlanta Braves—my folks were living in Alabama—went to the World Series. And I started following Alabama football as an expatriate living in Germany—and that intensified after I started grad school there during the 1992 national championship drive.

    Oddly, the NBA—where I’ve been only a casual fan since Michael Jordan’s second retirement—has been different for me. I’ve never had a local team to root for and, indeed, tend to root for great players, shifting allegiances depending on who’s playing rather than what uniform they’re wearing. So, I suppose it’s possible that I could follow that model with association football should I be inclined to start watching.

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  24. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Major League Soccer’s attendance per game is now competitive with both the NHL and the NBA.

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  25. James Joyner says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: That’s interesting but a reflection of an era that’s been gone for decades. The NFL and NBA are predominately television sports nowadays. That’s where the revenue is.

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  26. Bennett says:

    Anecdotal, but I manage a bar here in Nashville, and attendance for the US games has been crazy. I mean over fire code, we had to turn people away crazy. It wasn’t like that 8 or even 4 years ago at other places I have worked. We had African immigrants come out with bongo drums, frat boys, middle aged women and people I would consider old salt-of-the earth Southerners turning out to cheer for the red white and blue. Even the non-US games have been attended better than I would have thought. And this in Tennessee. So maybe we have turned a corner.

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  27. Andre Kenji says:

    @al-Ameda: Yes. The Brazilian squad of 1982 is more popular among Brazilians than the squads that won the World Cup in 1994 and in 2002.

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  28. Andre Kenji says:

    The problem of the MLS is that they don´t have any soccer academies. The only way to create solid players is to have soccer academies where you teach children to play since when they are extremely young. The draft is good thing for balance, but you need soccer academies to get really competitive players.

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  29. Anonomouse says:

    I don’t think that NHL-level TV audience is out of reach for MLS, either

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  30. @Jim Henley: @James Joyner: I think that there is a difference between “soccer is getting more popular in the US” and “the MLS is about to become a major draw”–it seems empirically the case that soccer is getting more popular. The “it’s patriotism” thesis doesn’t make full sense because a) the WC this year is more popular than four years ago (which was, again, more popular than the one prior). Plus, non-US games are pulling good numbers as well.

    I do think that if soccer is is going to make TV headway it is going to be via foreign leagues, because the quality of soccer there is simply better than the MLS.

    Still, the fact that the MLS has persevered and has a niche in the US means that soccer is certainly more popular in the US now than it was when I was a kid (or even a young adult).

    My sons and their friends are all World Cup crazy, even the ones who don’t play, but I didn’t even know what the World Cup was at their age.

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  31. @James Joyner:

    I think the answer is clear with regard to the World Cup: Americans genuinely care, at least as long as our boys are competitive.

    An interesting question along these lines is: what will the numbers look like for the WC now that the US is out?

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  32. Franklin says:

    @Anonomouse: Am I mistaken? I thought the MLS already passed the NHL in either attendance or TV ratings or something. Don’t really care to look it up.

    As for the question posed in the headline: I grew up in the Midwest. A large percentage of the boys played baseball. A few played hockey. A couple played soccer.

    I’m within 50 miles of where I grew up. Soccer dominates baseball by far now. The kids are growing up playing soccer. That will definitely translate into more viewership.

    My own opinion: I’m basically following the scores and am interested in the things like “what does team X have to do to advance beyond the group stage”. But watching the games … christ is that boring.

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  33. Franklin says:

    One more thing: I am of the opinion that most sports’ popularity is based on knowing the personalities. Once the U.S. soccer players really gain household recognition, then we know it has captured American hearts.

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  34. Jim Henley says:

    @Franklin: The numbers show MLS per-game attendance topping NHL and NBA – the further surprise being that rapid growth in the NHL audience means it slightly edged the NBA in the most recent per-game data. But, since MLS has fewer teams (19 vs. 30) and plays fewer games each season, MLS’s league-wide total attendance per season is less than a third of NHL or NBA total attendance. It’s just over a third of NFL total per-season attendance.

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  35. bill says:

    @Jim Henley: it’s a start- soccer matches are played in football sized arenas so there’s more seats- but it’s still something.
    Americans really have a hard time with the game as;
    1) it’s low scoring, way too low scoring
    2) there’s really no clock to watch, the one we see isn’t accurate.
    3) the rules are tough to catch on to, and the perpetual flopping get’s annoying after a while.
    4) it is kinda boring to watch these guys run up and down the field all day and never score.

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  36. Mr. Coffee says:

    For a generation now, the promise has been that scads of American kids grow up playing soccer.

    I was in grade school in the 1950′s. My gym teacher, Coach Cobb as I remember, had us playing soccer in the 4th grade and on up. “When you guys are out of high school in 1966 there won’t be any more baseball or football or basketball. The whole country will be soccer fans!”
    Him and Paul Ehrlich.*
    Any game that can end in a 0-0 tie is against god or something. It is blatantly
    UN American!
    If the first round rules are changed so that a 0-0 tie results in immediate ejection from the games for BOTH teams the whole thing would be over sooner and then the USA could get back to the far superior excercise that is following Johnny Manziel on Twitter…or something.

    *Back in 1968, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich flatly predicted in his doomy screed The Population Bomb that the “battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
    http://reason.com/blog/2013/09/16/overpopulation-is-sooo-over-explains-bio

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  37. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    An interesting question along these lines is: what will the numbers look like for the WC now that the US is out?

    Agreed. We’ll know that Americans love soccer when they tune in by the millions to watch an Argentina-Netherlands final…

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  38. Nightrider says:

    The US showing on and off the field, er pitch, transforms FIFA’s rigged decision to award the 2022 Cup to Qatar over the US from a head-scratcher to a missed opportunity of debacle proportions. They could have had packed 80K+ stadiums and surging interest in the world’s largest TV market for a month. Instead they’ll have play in to winter to avoid unbearable heat, and play game after game in basically the same place since the whole country has fewer people than Kansas City. The host team will automatically qualify and get waxed three games in a row. There is talk of a revote now that it is clear that Qatar bribed FIFA voters, but it seems unlikely. Facepalm

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  39. James Joyner says:

    @Bennett: Well, Nashville is much more cosmopolitan than is generally recognized. I visit friends there frequently and the number of high end bars and restaurants, especially along the M Street corridor, is ridiculous.

    @Steven L. Taylor: That’s interesting. I’m not sure when I became aware of the World Cup, since the Pele phenomenon existed when I was a kid, but probably didn’t truly understand what it was until 1990 when I was living in Germany and Die Mannschaft won the whole thing. The 1994 US Cup was the first I watched myself, and I’ve watched them all since, but I’m still just watching USA matches.

    @Franklin: I saw a report this morning that the USA-Belgium match outdrew the NBA Finals.

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  40. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @James Joyner: You make good point, particularly since playoffs in the “big” sports seem to last as long as the Dark Ages. It’s absurd to have the NBA finals drag on through the middle of June, or to play the Super Bowl in February.

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  41. James Joyner says:

    @SC_Birdflyte: I think the NFL gets it about right: 16 regular season games, only 12/32 teams making the playoffs, and a single elimination postseason. Even if your teams makes the Super Bowl, games that count go from September to early February, meaning six months of the year is spent wishing for more football. The NBA and NHL are the worst: absurdly long seasons only to eliminate hardly any teams, who then play mini-seasons for each playoff round.

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  42. Tyrell says:

    I watched some of these games, but they seem very long.It seems that soccer popularity seems to run in cycles in this country. I remember soccer became popular back in the ’80′s, with some cities forming a league, which later folded. This sport does well with children since size is not a factor and equipment is simple. But by high school interest has faded and around here the high schools have trouble filling a roster. Watching this sport on tv, however, compares to the boredom and tedious drone of a tennis match. The games are too long, the field looks like it is a mile long so play is hard to see, and the typical score is 2-1. They could change a few things to liven it up:
    smaller field, larger goal, pull goalkeeper (as in ice hockey), no ties – have a shoot out, have a better time keeping method – no guessing games about when the game will be over. Until then, I will stick to MLB, NHL, and NASCAR.

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  43. @bill:

    1) it’s low scoring, way too low scoring

    Indeed. Because you know what Americans hate? a 1-0 baseball game when one side is throwing a no-hitter….

    2) there’s really no clock to watch, the one we see isn’t accurate.

    Actually, you know when a soccer game is going to end far better than any other sport (and the added time is not that much of a mystery once you understand what is going on.

    And, I would note, there is NO clock at in baseball.

    3) the rules are tough to catch on to, and the perpetual flopping get’s annoying after a while.

    Like any game, it takes a while to learn the rules, but our favorite game, American football, has far, far more complex and arcane rules.

    I agree that the flopping is annoying (but one sees that, although not as bad, in basketball)

    4) it is kinda boring to watch these guys run up and down the field all day and never score.

    On the one hand, I can understand this POV. However, once you start to appreciate what is going on, it isn’t boring (again: someone who doesn’t understand the NFL thinks that watching them run into the line for 2 yards, or run a pass pattern only to have an incompletion is pretty boring, too).

    The US-Belgium match was 0-0 for most of the game, and was quite exciting.

    I would say this: I fully understand why people might not like soccer (I didn’t for many years, although I was never hostile towards it). What I find annoying is when people act like it is somehow truly worse than other sports–all sports are confusing, and even boring, to those who don’t understand them or don’t like them.

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  44. @Tyrell:

    The games are too long,

    Regulation play is 90 minutes plus stoppage time (which is usually 1-5 minutes per half). So, barring overtime, the games are shorter than any other major sports. If there is no over-time, you should be able to watch a match in about 2 hours (versus 3+ for a football game or a baseball game)

    the field looks like it is a mile long so play is hard to see,

    The field is roughly the same size as a football field.

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  45. @James Joyner: I agree, the NFL gets it right in terms of season length.

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  46. Jim Henley says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: It’s actually shorter than a CFL field*.

    *Remember, kids, always count the end zones when measuring the length of a football gridiron.

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  47. Jim Henley says:

    @James Joyner: Yes to everything re the NFL. How I wish that brilliant game hadn’t proven morally insupportable.

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  48. Jim Henley says:

    @Tyrell: If you think making a field smaller would, ceteris paribus, increase scoring, you don’t understand sports well enough to opine on these things. A bigger field of play – particularly a wider one – always means more scoring, taken by itself.

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  49. Moosebreath says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    “Like any game, it takes a while to learn the rules, but our favorite game, American football, has far, far more complex and arcane rules.”

    My problem with soccer’s rules is not that they are arcane, but often that they are just silly:

    1. the substitution rules prize endurance over skill, both by making people who leave the game unable to come back, and by limiting the total number of substitutions in a game. A player who is very good at scoring goals, but can only keep the pace up for 30 minutes at a time is at best a bench player. A change to the rule from the early days of American football, where the player cannot return until the start of the next period and with unlimited substitutions based on that, would help here.

    2. the penalty for an illegal tackle outside the box is change of possession, which is a small penalty. The penalty for an illegal tackle inside the box is a penalty shot, which is very likely a goal. That simply too great a difference for moving the foul by a few feet.

    3. the idea of the final game being decided by penalty shots is the equivalent of the seventh game of the NBA finals being resolved by a free throw contest. I know hockey does it for regular season games (and I don’t think they should), but at least playoff games keep going until someone scores.

    4. finally, there’s the off-sides rule, which is IMHO the single dumbest rule in organized sports, where a person standing still can go from being on-sides to off-sides based upon the actions of the other team (and some teams intentionally play defense that way). A rule like in hockey, where the ball must precede the player into the zone, would help.

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  50. @Moosebreath: I am not going to argue one way or another on those, and understand your basic points. However, there is no sport where one couldn’t make similar statements about the rules.

    Indeed, this is my basic point: almost every criticism that is leveled against soccer comes across as if the criticism is uniquely true about soccer, and not about other games. However, this is not true.

    *Too low scoring? Baseball and hockey are low scoring. And, as I noted above, the best baseball games, especially to purists, are very low scoring affairs.

    *Too much running up and down, passing the ball? Basketball has this (although the 24 second clock forces their hands). Hockey most certainly has this (hockey and soccer are not that dissimilar in basic structure).

    *Games are too long! Baseball games can go on forever. Football games take 3-4 hours (especially college football).

    *Flopping! You see it in the NBA as well–and for the same reason; to get the ref to call a foul. (Although yes, it reaches ridiculous levels in soccer)

    *The tie-breaker rules make no sense! Try figuring out who makes the wildcard slot in football at the end of the season.

    etc.

    The bottom line is: we tend to forgive these things for sports we like/are familiar with.

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  51. James Joyner says:

    @Jim Henley: I’m not quite there yet. The NFL has adopted the latest safety equipment over the years but our understanding of brain injuries lagged absurdly. It’s quite possible that modern helmets, in particular, make concussions and traumatic brain injury more likely.

    Additionally, I don’t think anyone was figuring on players getting bigger and faster this rapidly. The delta just in the 35 years I’ve been paying serious attention is staggering. Many quarterbacks now are bigger than linebackers were then, linemen seem to be 50 pounds bigger, and defensive ends and linebackers are as fast as running backs were then. It’s a dangerous combo.

    Where the NFL failed morally was in being denialist when the truth was finally emerging from some quarters of medical science. And, relatedly, I think they haven’t done enough to save macho players from their own gladitorial instincts.

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  52. Rob in CT says:

    1. the substitution rules prize endurance over skill, both by making people who leave the game unable to come back, and by limiting the total number of substitutions in a game. A player who is very good at scoring goals, but can only keep the pace up for 30 minutes at a time is at best a bench player. A change to the rule from the early days of American football, where the player cannot return until the start of the next period and with unlimited substitutions based on that, would help here.

    Funny, I see this as a major point in soccer’s favor. I think the minute specialization in football (and even moreso in my favorite sport – baseball!) is overdone. It gets ridiculous. Soccer requires both skill and endurance, and this is a good thing.

    2. the penalty for an illegal tackle outside the box is change of possession, which is a small penalty. The penalty for an illegal tackle inside the box is a penalty shot, which is very likely a goal. That simply too great a difference for moving the foul by a few feet.

    This I pretty much agree with, though there are differences in the “small penalty” option: direct vs. indirect free kicks. However, the larger point – that the penalty shot is a *massive* upgrade – is a good one. I’m not sure what the best change would be though.

    3. the idea of the final game being decided by penalty shots is the equivalent of the seventh game of the NBA finals being resolved by a free throw contest. I know hockey does it for regular season games (and I don’t think they should), but at least playoff games keep going until someone scores.

    I too dislike penalty shootouts, but the problem is that after having played for 120 minutes (plus some stoppage time), the players are basically exhausted. I know, this dovetails with your point #1. The solution might be to allow a lot more substitutions and play another overtime. I’m not sure that’s great either, but I’d like it better.

    4. finally, there’s the off-sides rule, which is IMHO the single dumbest rule in organized sports, where a person standing still can go from being on-sides to off-sides based upon the actions of the other team (and some teams intentionally play defense that way). A rule like in hockey, where the ball must precede the player into the zone, would help.

    I go back and forth on this. For what it’s worth, there were a grand total of 2 off-sides calls in the USA-Belgium game (which of course went 120+ minutes). Not sure on stats for the entire WC. I wouldn’t mind loosening the O.S. rules a bit, but I think some form of it must be in.

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  53. Moosebreath says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I’ve been making the same points in blog comments since the 2006 World Cup, and this is the first time anyone’s actually responded.

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  54. Matt Bernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    And, relatedly, I think [the NFL] haven’t done enough to save macho players from their own gladitorial instincts.

    Not to mention the crowd’s desire to see gladiatorial action. The challenge is that the marketing of entire sport has been built around said conflict for years. I mean look no further than the brilliant NFL film productions that captured and presented that conflict in beautiful slow motion.

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  55. Jim Henley says:

    @Rob in CT: @Steven L. Taylor: For hockey and soccer both, I like the idea of sudden death overtime combined with pulling one player on each side every 10 minutes. This functionally opens up the field while still being recognizable play. I doubt you’d get through many 3-on-3 (plus goalie) phases in a hockey overtime without a score. Soccer I know less well, but it seems worth a shot.

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  56. Jim Henley says:

    @James Joyner: Yeah, the line is going to be in different places for everybody. My concern is that, while we talk a lot about today’s unprecedented combination of size and speed, the CTE phenomenon famously starts with Mike Webster, who dates from the older era of smaller, slower players. I do also worry about knees and shoulders and other crippling, non-brain chronic injuries.

    It saddens me because I genuinely believe American gridiron football is the greatest game. The title of one of the better books on the topic – Football: The Violent Chess Match – probably best captures its appeal. But the game drove the evolution of a cohort of players who can’t survive it.

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  57. Jim Henley says:

    Ironically one thing that might save the health of gridiron football players is substitution restrictions. Players who had to play two ways might better pace themselves and favor endurance/recovery in their training relative to explosive power. It…would not be the same game. Free substitution means at any given moment you’re seeing the players best suited to do that particular thing right there. Restricted substitution means solving for general cases.

    Still, Sammy Baugh once held Washington team records for most touchdown passes thrown and most interceptions made in a season. That’s pretty darn cool.

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  58. James Joyner says:

    @Jim Henley: I think we just know so damned little about all this stuff. Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman, for example, both had an absurd number of concussions and yet seemed to have developed no long term issues. Others, like Junior Seau, did so at a very young age.

    @Jim Henley: The NFLPA, often its own worst enemy*, would never stand for it. But, yeah, I could see it changing the game; see soccer.

    *They always fight for maximizing today’s dollar vs. long-term good for the players. So, while I feel very sympathetic to the players who retired in the 1970s and before and are dead broke, etc., the modern guys have only themselves to blame. They always fight for today’s money rather than for good pensions, health benefits—and even guaranteed contracts.

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  59. Tyrell says:

    @Jim Henley: Sammy Baugh record: isn’t that kind of like the hitter in baseball who leads the season in homeruns and also strikeouts ? I know Babe Ruth struck out a lot.

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  60. @Tyrell: He means TDs thrown and passes intercepted on defense (because he played both ways back in the day)–not most INTs thrown.

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  61. Jim Henley says:

    @Tyrell: Sure! I actually love the idea of the two-way game. But I love the intricacy of the modern platoon system. The question is how much you lose there.

    @James Joyner: I believe you. In the immediate case I can see where the NFLPA is coming from. If you didn’t couple a two-way-player rule with doubling the league size you could lose up to half your jobs overnight. And the owners would hate the idea because quality of play would fall apart during the shakeout period. We don’t really know what the new equilibrium game would even look like: would the NFL become a running league again, or has passing technology progressed to the point where even less specialized players can run a recognizably modern attack against – less specialized defenders!

    Worst of all, we don’t really know if my idea would even reduce injuries. It may well be that the NFL is simply in the late stages of a Red Queen’s race it can’t reverse out of.

    These uncertainties beset most of the radical ideas for ameliorating the NFL’s injury problem, of which the two most popular seem to be: 1) Get rid of the helmets and pads (or tone them way down); 2) Set weight limits. (I don’t think the latter works at all. 220-pound safeties are probably responsible for more head and knee trauma than 320-pound guards. And nobody’s going to set weight limits below 220 pounds…)

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  62. Jim Henley says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I thought Tyrell was referring to the fact that Ruth started out as a pitcher?

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  63. @Jim Henley: I read the comment as looking at Ruth as a hitter only.

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  64. Jim Henley says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: The only way to settle this definitively is for you and I to speculate back and forth ad nauseam while Tyrell silently reads the thread. :D

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  65. @Jim Henley: Sounds awesome!

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  66. DrDaveT says:

    @Moosebreath:

    4. finally, there’s the off-sides rule, which is IMHO the single dumbest rule in organized sports

    I couldn’t disagree more. Without the offside rule, the game would be simplistic and stupid beyond belief. I think the offside rule in soccer is the best, most creative, most awesome rule in any sport. (Or it would be if the Referee’s Assistants actually got it right…)

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  67. Jim Henley says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Rereading Tyrell’s response, I believe you had the right of it. The mention of Babe Ruth, quondam pitcher, threw me off. So yeah, I didn’t make myself clear enough the first time that Sammy Baugh led the team in touchdown passes as QB while leading in interceptions that he made playing defensive back in the same games.

    I just think that makes Sammy Baugh the coolest player in the history of the NFL.

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  68. ernieyeball says:

    @Mr. Coffee: Any game that can end in a 0-0 tie is against god or something. It is blatantly UN American!

    You dope. NFL games can end tied if no one scores in the overtime.

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