Monday, June 30, 2008

Offside: Why Soccer has not Caught on in the U.S.

In honor of the Euro '08 soccer championship, I decided to read a book by Andrei S. Markovits and Steven L. Hellerman that a colleague recommended. It is entitled Offside: Soccer & American Exceptionalism. Markovits and Hellerman attempt to answer the following question: Why is soccer the most popular sport everywhere... everywhere, that is, except in America?

First of all, when they say it is the most "popular" sport, they are speaking in terms of sports culture, not necessarily practice. In fact, more people play soccer in the U.S. than baseball or tennis (and their numbers are from 1997--the gap has surely widened since then in favor of soccer), but it is not a sport frequently discussed around the water cooler or historicized in sports pages. Listening to Sports Center's coverage of this year's Euro, soccer is rather something to joke about. In Europe, South and Central America, Africa, even Asia, it is by far and away the most discussed, most seriously examined and appreciated sport.

Some of the reasons for this "exceptionalism" are historical. Markovits and Hellerman contend (rightly, I believe), that if a sport was not introduced in a society during the period of mass-market emergence (1870-1930), it can not effectively be introduced on a large scale without a cataclysmic socio-political shift in the country. This is partly true because sporting hegemonies build up vast self-reflexive historical networks that validate themselves as points of reference. Who was better: Barry Sanders, James Brown or Red Grange? Which team was better? The Cincinnati Reds of the 70s or the New York Yankees of the 50s? Statistics, records, championships, anecdotes, all form part of a culturally shared memory. Americans simply do not have this kind of history with soccer and it is difficult for the sport to gain traction without commonly shared historical points of reference.

A second reason for America's aversion for the game, they contend, is that by the time soccer became an institutional global force, baseball had already claimed the allegiance of the American working class. Soccer was viewed as a sport from the "old country" and its fans and players were considered foreigners, unwilling to conform to the American melting pot. Recent immigrants, to prove their patriotism, gave up soccer in favor of baseball.

Finally, the authors point out that soccer suffered from a number of institutional problems, not the least of which being that the governing body was European and would not allow American leagues to alter the format of the sport to suit their fans.

One important point the authors fail to sufficiently discuss is simple geography. Soccer depended (and continues to depend) on nationalism for its success in Europe. Casual fans--even non-fans--are attentive watchers when their national team plays. During the key period for the creation of hegemonic sports, America remained largely isolated from other countries and required a sport that was built around regional/urban rivalries. Soccer became popular in Europe in the early 20th century when nationalism was building to the fever pitch that would induce World War I. The soccer model worked for Europeans given that their countries are smaller and close together and given that their national identities may have been more under threat than that of the United States (making them more likely to embrace a national team). This institutional plan was not compatible with the realities of early 20th-century America.

To help explain why soccer failed to take root, Markovits and Hellerman contrast soccer's failed attempts with the development of the "Big Three and One-Half" in the U.S. (baseball, football, basketball, and hockey). They provide excellent historical analyses of these sports, explaining their rise in popularity and offering reasons for their continued appeal.

They also examine the press coverage and viewership of the 1994 World Cup held in the U.S. as well as the American media attention given to the 1998 World Cup (held in France).

In addition, they address questions of how sports cultures are created and maintained. They study issues of professionalization, the creation of a "sacred" sports space, American adaptations of European sports, and the reasons Americans are generally not as good at soccer as their foreign counterparts

Illuminating and well-written, I recommend the book. Especially to all my passport-holding, euro-loving, snail-eating, socialist friends.....


Dan said...

Sounds like a good book.
I have to look into it. I have been looking for a couple new books to read.
Since Euro 08 I have become a enthusiastic soccer fan (dating a soccer player probably also did a little).

Shantal said...

I think it's pretty lame that three European teams moved up to the top 3 spots in the FIFA rankings. Spain, Italy, and Germany are now the Best 3 teams in the world. Somehow, after 20 some years, Brasil is not included in the Top 3. I would bet on Brasil and win all day.
On another note, it's sad that only a handful of countries (5 or 6) nations have ever been ranked #1 in the World over the past 25 years. (PS - this is Derek, not Shantal)

Anonymous said...

your argument for geography seems to negate the, often much fiercer, domestic rivals that occur in european soccer. For example many Rangers fans would happily let Scotland lose to England as long as they could beat Celtic. i would argue that soccer on a domestic level creates such internal conflict that fans feel the need for unity on a national level and hence fore follow the national team with great rigor and passion. rather than simply just saying the countries are closer together so they care more about international sport. surely the bottom of that argument fell out of context with the invention of TV

Corry Cropper said...

I wonder if this varies by degrees from country to country? The Rangers fans are as passionate as they are because they define themselves as resisting the national "English" hegemony. In France, though, while PSG and OM fans hate each other, I get the sense that the national team is of far greater importance (this may have to do with how relatively young this rivalry is compared to the Rangers/Celtic rivalry).

If we make the UK the exception, would soccer have been as popular in Europe were it not for national teams? In France, the first edition of the periodical "football association" (1919) primarily covered "our team," aka the French national team. I'm not as well versed in French soccer history as other sports, but I get the impression from that publication that the national team was a real catalyst for promoting professional football in France. Right?

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