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Thursday, January 31, 2019

January 31, 2019: Great (Sports) Debates: Soccer in America?

[Sunday, February 3rd is that national holiday known as Super Bowl Sunday. For this year’s Super Bowl series I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of great sports debates—add your opinion into the mix in comments, please!]
On why soccer hasn’t quite taken off in the U.S., and why that question might be the problem.
As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I was (I believe) part of the first generation to play youth soccer en masse. I don’t know exactly what percentage of us played soccer (I know I could try to look it up, but I’m writing this post on Thanksgiving morning and am feeling a bit too lazy to do so), but it felt like the majority of us at least (although I’m sure there were race and class factors, since registration wasn’t cheap and personal transportation to practices and games was a necessity and so on). By the time my sister began playing five or so years later, the sport seemed even more ubiquitous. Flash forward thirty years later, and it feels like literally every kid my preteen sons’ age (or again, at least every one in certain towns and communities) is out there every Saturday all fall and spring chasing that checkered ball (and a sizeable number of their parents are out there trying to herd those cats as volunteer coaches—I see you, my brothers and sisters in arms, or legs!). When I think about how many pictures I see on social media of kids playing soccer, posted by friends from all walks of life, around the country, it feels like the sport has truly become one of the most shared experiences of American childhood.
And yet, despite those four decades of building momentum, by most accounts soccer still hasn’t broken into the upper echelon of American professional sports. I’ve seen all sorts of explanations over the years for that gap, from xenophobic and silly ones about the sport’s “foreign” flavor (more on that nonsense in a second) to practical and understandable ones about how low-scoring the games (warning, that’s a National Review article, just FYI) generally are, among many many others. But to my mind, there’s a simpler explanation for at least one factor in why men’s soccer hasn’t become a dominant professional sport in America (women’s soccer most definitely has, at least at the national team level): our greatest male athletes have too many other options. In many nations, if you’re a superstar or even just talented youth athlete, soccer is the most likely and logical fit, and the best path to potential professional sports stardom (there’s a reason why Neymar joined a professional team’s system at age 11!). But here in the U.S., such young prodigies have their pick of a number of sports paths, and who can really imagine high school phenoms and freaks of athletic nature like LeBron or Zion picking soccer over basketball (to name one exemplary trend)?
So despite all those youth soccer players, the U.S. hasn’t produced a ton of great home-grown professional talents, at least not yet. But honestly, while players are one measure of a sport’s popularity, fans are another—and on that front, to say that soccer isn’t a major sport in the U.S. is to replicate many of the xenophobic narratives I mentioned. For many American communities, especially multi-cultural and immigrant ones, soccer is most definitely the spectator sport of choice; just check out fans of the Mexican national team celebrating their recent performance in the World Cup at a rally in Los Angeles this past June. Hispanic Americans are far from the only American community to exemplify this soccer craze, but they certainly are a prominent one—and any narrative of soccer as less popular nationally that doesn’t acknowledge the sport’s centrality to this sizeable and growing American community is fundamentally myopic and discriminatory. Soccer might not be at the level of American football yet (and to be clear, neither are hockey or baseball any more, and probably not basketball either although it’s closer), but its popularity is only growing, and is one of the most telling 21st century American trends.
Last debate tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other great debates you’d highlight?

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