A smarter blogger would sit on this one till Monday, but I just want to clear my desktop.
I received an email a couple days ago from someone who just started reading Center Holds It, asking me a question. I banged out a reply and was about to send when it occurred to me that 1) the subject was interesting, and 2) I kinda liked my answer. So I figured, why not just post the thing.
In the future, I’d love to do more Q & A’s but don’t know that I have the expertise or sources to make it worthwhile. It’s nothing I’ve considered on my own, anyway. Still, if anyone out there ever wants to know what I think about just about anything, you are absolutely welcome to drop me a line and ask the question. I will answer it.
Anyway, the question that came my way appears below (a couple others are waiting in the hopper; don’t know if I’ll post those; haven’t really thought them out yet); the answer comes after the jump.
Q (it didn’t occur to me to ask permission to use his name):
I was wondering if you could answer something for me. I think [MLS] great, and clearly you do too, but unfortunately we are in the vast [minority] of Americans. That said, what do you think is the current state of the MLS? And why hasn’t it ever really caught on in the US?
Suffice to say Major League Soccer has exceeded every expectation I originally had for its success. I braced myself for its demise through the first 10 years; I’m still ready for it psychologically, even if I don’t see it happening any time soon (though, I have to say, a recession, or full-blown depression, could kill the league as it did an old, East Coast-centric professional leagues of the 1930s). The slow and steady growth is encouraging, nothing more so than the permanent infrastructure – e.g. the soccer-specific stadiums. You build something like that and you’re somewhat obliged to use it. Given the “soccer-specific” tag, soccer suddenly becomes the first option instead defaulting into some god-forsaken slot between an idle night and monster-truck jams. Also, the number of fans I encounter online who talk about having come to MLS and the U.S. domestic scene only in the past five or fewer years still blows my mind.
But having come of age in the dead years between the NASL and MLS, a nation without soccer feels like the norm to me – even today. Stray items and events old and new keep reinforcing that general impression, from a thoroughly underwhelming guest-appearance by Roberto Baggio at a Seattle Sounders game right after the 1994 World Cup (thought there’d be a mob; nope), or damnably persistent realities like sub-par crowds taking in Olympic qualifying and the U.S. National Team playing as an “away team” every time they play at home. The amount of promotion required for events that, elsewhere, would be automatic, suggests it hasn’t really embedded into the fabric of American pop culture. As a nation, soccer just isn’t what we do on Saturday
All the same, Americans get up for World Cup and there’s enough interest in the Euro leagues to sustain a few soccer-specific channels – something I still find nuts. And, it’s worth pointing out, the interest in the Euro leagues hurts the domestic audience, both in terms of consuming any given individual’s leisure time and by direct comparison in quality.
To offer a big picture (and, frankly, untested) theory, the tricky equation of “any given individual’s leisure time” provides an answer to the larger question of soccer’s fourth-tier (or is it fifth-tier?) status in the sporting scene. I mean no disrespect to fans of other sports when I write this, but the traditional American sports benefit greatly from being easier to find and follow. This drags in all kinds of factors, from immediately having something to talk about with random, “normal” people, to simple reference to the familiar. But I think the element of social conformity – and it’s more subtle than I’m making it out to be – plays the larger role; after all, soccer’s large youth participation means people are familiar with the game and its rules. So, chalk this up more to the comparative ubiquity of Super Bowl parties and March Madness betting pools. People have limited time for entertainment and, when choosing what to do, it makes sense to gravitate toward popular entertainments; it’s what we know, it’s what everyone else is doing – so why not enjoy it?
There is a reason, however, why soccer can succeed now where it hasn’t before: the explosion of available cable channels and technology reducing the expense and complexity of broadcasting met with the Web’s ability to build communities. Basically, I can exist in a self-built niche where the American Big Three (football, baseball, and basketball) don’t really exist. In that world, everyone watches and talks about soccer. This is semi-delusional, sure, but it’s also without precedent. In other words, soccer benefits from the fragmentation of pop culture; the competition to “make it” or be viable isn’t what it was when you had three networks and only the sports section of the morning paper available to cover it. Soccer can compete in this new world – and it is. Even little ol’ MLS. And, fortunately for fans, it’s doing it.
Filed under: Major League Soccer