Day 78 of 98 – The Soccer Part 2a: It’s our differences that make us different.

7 Dec

North Americans are often times perplexed by soccer. I’ve done some analysis and I think there are three main areas of confusion:

  1. We know soccer is popular but we find it dull (I know this is pretty rich originating from a continent full of baseball fans – more on that later).
  2. There seems to be an incredible amount of unfairness surrounding the game.
  3. The fervor of some soccer fans at almost every match reaches an intensity that in North America we save mostly for the playoffs. Combined with point number one, this only increases our bewilderment.

Before I start on this, I should say I’m not going to even attempt to explain why soccer became popular and some other sport didn’t. It’s not important. It is number one, let’s go from there.

Popular but Dull?

Soccer’s popularity with respect to its perceived dullness is not a huge mystery to me. It’s actually pretty simple – people tend to like the things they grew up around. Sports, language, food, religion, politics – the intensity of ones affinity for all of these things is likely more related to geography than anything else. Why else would people from Ottawa cheer for the Senators? Because they’re the best? Riiiight.

If you don’t believe me, grab an atlas and look up the section on world languages and religion. You should see a distinct geographical pattern related to their distribution. If you can find a similar map for sports, I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that you’ll see an almost identical pattern (sports popularity relating to geopolitical boundaries). This also kind of explains baseball and maybe cricket.

So there you have it, the first mystery solved in two paragraphs: most of the world loves soccer because it’s the popular sport in the countries where it is a popular sport.

But I don’t think many Canadians and Americans would find this a very satisfying answer for the second or third mysteries.

The Unfairness?

North Americans have an expectation that there will be a level playing field in professional team sports. We know that’s not always the case, but a concerted effort has been made to make sure every team has a fair shot at winning. And some leagues do it better than others: the NFL is probably the best with Major League Baseball the worst. Hockey and basketball are in the middle.

But soccer takes things to a whole new level. Let’s start with payroll.

All of the major team sports in North America have instituted some sort of salary cap. The goal of which is to keep costs down and to ensure parity between the different teams. Nothing like this exists in European soccer.

The NFL has a very elaborate revenue sharing structure. Again the goal is to ensure that smaller markets (Green Bay) can compete with the larger teams (Dallas). And it appears that it kind of works – the Packers won the Super Bowl last season and the Cowboys did not. Contrast that with what you find in the UK Premiership. You have Manchester United with revenues of € 349 000 000 playing in the same league as something called the West Ham United. They had about € 87 600 000 in revenue last year. Hardly seems fair to me.

But don't worry, I read on Wikipedia that West Ham was bought in 2006 by "an Icelandic consortium". I'm sure their financial troubles are behind them.

Next there’s the distribution of new talent between the various teams. NFL-NHL-MLB-NBA all have a draft. Soccer it’s a free-for-all. I originally thought this was a joke, until I watched this. The kid can play.

Back in the “real” world, ESPN reports that Real Madrid signed a seven-year-old. I have a feeling this trend is going to get worse before it gets better.

Sign that kid!

I could go on for days about the diving that takes place in soccer. Don’t worry, I won’t. I will say that diving used to be a problem in ice hockey but the league really clamped down on the practice. Also, in the NHL you can get a penalty for diving, said penalty can actually affect the result of the game, and the officiators actually enforce the rule. Seems fair to me.

Related to diving, video replay is used in the National Hockey League, National Football League, Canadian Football League, National Basketball Association, and Major League Baseball. It helps correct inaccurate officiating decisions. The technology has been around for decades and if any sport could benefit from it, it’s soccer – which has only one referee, twenty-two players and a playing surface that’s the size of a soccer field.

And… I think now is a good time to come clean: North Americans really only pay attention to soccer every four years during the World Cup.

This is relevant because I think we have this naive expectation that in the four years between tournaments they will have fixed all the problems that were encountered previous time. As we’re picking our teams for the pool, we go online and look up the rules. We’re surprised to find that ties are decided by a coin toss (I’m not making this up) and there’s still only one referee with no video replay.

People tend to focus on the obvious unfairness (the poor officiating, the cheating, the lack of video replay), but what I think is probably more frustrating for North American sports fans, is the inability (or unwillingness) of the governing bodies to fix the problems. Soccer remains broken in spite of the fact that there are simple solutions that have been successfully implemented elsewhere.

In North America, conscious (albeit imperfect) efforts have been made to improve our sports to make them better and more fair. It’s something the fans have come to expect but there is little indication that soccer has any desire to improve. I think if this were to change, it would go a long way towards increasing acceptance of the sport in Canada and the United States.

One Response to “Day 78 of 98 – The Soccer Part 2a: It’s our differences that make us different.”

  1. Lottabot December 7, 2011 at 19:06 #

    Soccer is pretty good for checking out cute guys. Although the field is a bit too big for one to get a good view (unless you bring binoculars).

    Hockey is terrible for this because the gear is hiding all potential cuteness and in order to be considered cute I think a guy should have a full set of teeth.

    Basketball is great for this reason because basketball players are usually tall and handsome and the field is not ridiculously big like in soccer so it’s easier to see the players. My girlfriends and I went to a lot of basketball games as teenagers just cuz we thought the players were so good looking.

    I’ve never been to a baseball game so I don’t have any opinions about that. Nor have I been to a football game. American football confuses me. The guys are just wrestling/hugging all the time, which causes as many interruptions to the game as the injury-faking in soccer. And helmets are clearly a minus if you just want to check out the guys.

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