Saturday, December 13, 2008

Hegemonic Sports and the Future of Soccer

Towards the end of Andrei Markovits's lecture Thursday at BYU, he expressed a hope that soccer might one day, in his lifetime, join the ranks of the 3 or 4 "hegemonic" sports in the US (lecture available below). Synthesizing his remarks with those of Frank Foer from last month, for soccer to rival the NFL, MLB, NBA and, maybe, NHL, it would necessarily have to tap into new social demographics. (According to Foer, soccer's appeal is only truly prevalent amongst Latino-American men and the 25-35-year-old Caucasian, suburban, male population--or "gringos" imitating Latin antics at MLS matches.) Both agree that it is unlikely that this change will come about with the MLS. (Markovits recounts a humorous anecdote about being unable to find a sports bar in which to watch the New York Red Bulls play for the MLS Championship—even in Manhattan. In one of the same bars he had visited, they had, however, screened the Chelsea match earlier that morning.) Quoting Markovits: “Americans have grown accustomed to seeing the best.” The MLS is not the best. So, how do we get the best? It is not in buying Beckham or Thierry Henry and soccer is far from becoming an NCAA stronghold (in fact, college lacrosse gets better ratings)—it is making the best (ie European leagues) available in the US.

World Cup ratings have improved substantially in the US over the past sixteen years (or 4 cups). With the new satellite/cable packages that feature soccer channels, the average Joe now has access to European and South American soccer that was formerly—as Foer indicates in his book—only sparsely available on PBS. And, these channels are doing very well, mind you. Again, this is only true within the same social demographics given above.

With my new responsibilities as a recent husband, father and first-year professor, I have become an junkie. To keep myself apprised on what is going on in sports, I count on (and the LA Times for my Lakers and Dodgers)—as it becomes increasingly harder to invest four hours into watching a game. Anyway, to show how this all ties in to my discussion of soccer, I have been fascinated by the sports blog of rap artist Lil’ Wayne that is featured on While I could not name a single song by Wayne nor do I claim to be a hip hop fan, he really is an interesting voice for sports and his comments have opened my eyes to the potential of soccer in America. In a recent post he wrote:

“I was watching Manchester United play soccer against Villareal yesterday […]. A lot of Americans don't really watch soccer, which is a shame, because it's really exciting and once you get into it it's pretty easy to stay with it.” (See Wayne’s entire post HERE.)

Lil’ Wayne, a 26-year-old African-American from New Orleans, also informedly talks about ManU and Christiano Ronaldo in his post. In order for soccer to fulfill Andrei Markovits’s wish of cultural hegemony, Lil’ Wayne’s demographic—one who both loves and is invested in sports—needs to be targeted and become more involved. Besides young, African-American males, women are another group that could be marketed for soccer. Not only is soccer a sport in which women traditionally excel (or, in Markovitsian "sports language," has come to embody a female semiotics in the US), male soccer players are generally the most physically fit of professional athletes, which provides marketable sex appeal (even beyond Beckham’s celebrity). Then, there is the youth market, who could mutalistically benefit from the fitness aspect of soccer, while being exposed to new cultures. While it is doubtful soccer will ever pull the Joe Six-Pack (or Joe the Plumber) demographic away from their red meat and Monday Night Football, if marketed correctly, it could catch on like wild fire in the US.

What does it boil down to: the first network that takes the chance on INTERNATIONAL league soccer (beginning with England, Italy or Spain) and does so in the wake of a World Cup, presenting it to the right demographics with Nike, Adidas, Gatorade, etc. as sponsors, looks to gain a TON of money. Then, you have the UEFA cup, Eurorean Cup, International competitions, etc. It can happen. It won’t be with the MLS; but, using a George Steinbrenner YankeesNet approach to soccer, it could become the fifth American hegemon—even the first “global” hegemon in sport.


Corry Cropper said...

There are still some barriers that will have to be worked out: time zone issues (games air live in the morning or at very early in the afternoon here); a lack of American players in European leagues; and I think it's hard to get into soccer without being able to feel part of a community of fans, and nothing is better than going to a match to foster that kind of connection. Bob, next year, Real Salt Lake, here we come. It's a lot of fun. But you're right, I don't see it become a major cultural "hegemonic" sport in the near future. But RSL can do better by not scheduling matches on Sunday afternoon during the NFL season. They need to be a little more creative....

Robert J. Hudson said...

I'm there, Corry. Let's make sure it's when the Galaxy comes to town because I have an adidas Beckham shirt to wear for the occasion. (No, I'm not kidding.)