Soccer has an estimated 4 billion fans around the world, while American football doesn’t even crack the top 10 most popular sports worldwide. There are 234 international soccer teams (207 are recognized by FIFA), while there are only approximately 60 professional teams worldwide that play American football. The numbers are clear: soccer is the most popular sport in the world.
Yet, since the World Cup began nearly 3 weeks ago, nary a friend or family member in the U.S. has mentioned a World Cup match to me. Instead, the local buzz is about LeBron James going to Los Angeles. But, it’s not just my social circle that has not tuned in. I haven’t noticed any crowds at local sports bars watching the matches on weekends. Indeed, World Cup soccer matches are televised in the U.S. this year at 10am and 2pm Eastern Time when many people are at work during the week, and the West Coast is largely still sleep on the weekend. Even the U.S. national television networks don’t want to bump their evening programming to air World Cup matches. Since it only occurs once every 4 years, why hasn’t the World Cup made it to prime time in the U.S.?
My theory on why soccer has still not become a major sport of prime time status in the U.S. is because it is a relatively low-scoring, defensive game. While good defense is valued, my observation is that American sports crowds prefer strong offense. For example, the average winning full-term score of the winning team during the 2014 World Cup series was 2.4 points, and the first 8 matches of the 2018 series (as of this writing) is 2.4, excluding penalty kicks for tied games. Yes, I realize that the footwork and defensive skill of soccer players are apparently exciting to those who grew up enjoying the sport. But for the would-be American convert, the scoring is where the action is, and there just isn’t much scoring in soccer. (Though, bravo to France who scored a 4 to 3 victory over Argentina.)
Meanwhile, the average winning score of an American Super Bowl game is 30 points. If we assume that each touchdown is worth 7 points, then converting the average winning Super Bowl score to a comparable soccer score still has American Super Bowl victors scoring an average of 4.3 points – nearly doubled what we see in a typical World Cup match. And of course, basketball has scoring throughout the game. American baseball is a relatively low scoring game, which is why I’ve heard many people say they like going to baseball games, but generally do not watch them on television unless it’s a playoff or World Series game. So, my theory still holds so far.
I personally tried to adopt an interest in soccer while living in France, but I struggled to enjoy a match that reached the end with a 0 to 0 score, only to be decided by a penalty-kick shootout: five guys against 1 defender. It just seems like a crazy way to end a game. Before I make any avid soccer fans cringe at these words, please recognize that I simply don’t have the history and tradition of soccer, and so probably just don’t get its nuances. But apparently, I’m far from the only American with this perception; otherwise, we would see soccer in prime time.
What would prime time look like? Matches would be aired in the evenings on major network channels to provide easy viewing access. There would be World Cup viewing parties at the sports bars where we normally go to watch football, basketball, baseball, and hockey championship games. We would probably be discussing the matches in day-to-day conversations.
It is quite possible that soccer will eventually make it to the U.S. mainstream. With youth leagues growing in popularity in the U.S., the youths of today may make soccer more prominent in the U.S. sports scene. Secondly, should the U.S. team ever win a major championship, that could galvanize interest among Americans.
Meanwhile, though I may not be absorbed by the soccer part of the game, what I find most interesting about soccer is the human-interest stories and the country rivals. For example, I was happy for Mo Salah that he made it to the World Cup, but was sad for him and Egypt that their World Cup experience turned out as it did. For the remainder of this World Cup series, I’ll listen out for some good news about a player or team overcoming major obstacles to ultimately achieve the glorious victory they strived for – on an international stage with 4 “B”illion soccer fans taking notice. It’s quite possible I’ll get teary-eyed in my happiness for the human spirit they showed. But it likely won’t be because I thought the sport itself was so interesting.