USA Versus Brazil – - Good TV Yesterday

I had the opportunity to watch yesterday’s USA/Brazil soccer game in the presence of two avid and knowledgeable soccer fans – - parents of a collegiate level player. When Clint Dempsey scored to put the US up 1-0, we agreed that would not be enough for the US to win; when Landon Donovan then made the score 2-0 and when the US defense seemed capable of thwarting the swarming offense that Brazil threw at them, we thought that if the US could hold that lead until halftime, they had a real shot to win the game.

However, when Brazil scored its first goal inside the first minute of the second half, the mood in the room darkened significantly. Then, when there was a 10 or 12-minute span of play where the ball was constantly in the US defensive end of the field, we kinda sorta knew that it was going to take a few miracle saves by the US goalkeeper to hold onto this lead. By then, we had pretty much given up the thought that the US was going to go on offense sufficiently to add a third goal. The US goalkeeper, Tim Howard, indeed made a couple of miraculous saves but even those were not sufficient. The result from yesterday showed that the US men’s soccer team is a good one and indeed may be on the verge of joining other traditional soccer nations as a “tough out” in any international competition.

The US team will face an interesting challenge in early August when they travel to Mexico for a CONCACAF game. The US beat Mexico earlier this year here in the US. The men’s soccer team has – to put it mildly – not had great success playing in Mexico; their cumulative record there is zero wins in twenty-three games. But a team capable of beating Spain and playing Brazil as tough as they did away from home should be considered capable of a road win in Mexico – - no?

Having said all of the above, I am not ready to pronounce the sport of soccer as “having burst onto the US sporting scene”. I do not think it has done that; frankly, I don’t think it is about to do that. Call me jaded; call me a nattering nabob of negativity; call me anything except late for dinner; even a US victory over Brazil yesterday would not have made soccer a top shelf sport in the US in 2009.

I was here and interested in soccer when Pele came to the US to take the North American Soccer League to the top of US sports. Courtesy of an old friend who worked for the NASL, I got to see a championship game from midfield seats in the upper deck of RFK Stadium. I was here when the orgasmic prose came from the soccer poets about how more kids were playing soccer than baseball in the US and how when they grew up soccer would dominate the scene. As I recall, those odes were rather common back in the early 1980s. Few if any of the soccer poets have recast those odes as the elegies they should have been in the first place. I was here when the US Women’s soccer team won the World Cup and Brandi Chastain’s sports bra became the sports bra seen round the world. I was here for the David Beckham scam – a con of such a proportion that you would have thought P.T. Barnum had been reincarnated.

Soccer remains a niche sport in the US. That is not a bad thing nor is it a good thing. It is reality. According to reports, all of the MLS teams playing in soccer-only venues instead of hugely expensive and cavernous football stadiums are operating in the black. There continue to be millions of kids who play youth soccer. More people are watching soccer on TV – particularly the international matches involving the lead up to next year’s World Cup. That is the state of soccer in the US and it is not a bad state to be sure. What US soccer does not need is another outpouring of baseless praise and rosy scenario projections suggesting that the NFL will be overwhelmed here in the US by soccer interest sometime in the next decade. To anyone poised to pen such nonsense, I have three words for you:

    Not … Gonna … Happen!

While watching yesterday’s Confederations Cup Final, I kept marveling at how good soccer is as a TV watching experience. There are no commercial interruptions; there are few if any annoying on-screen graphics; there is a judicious use of replay so most of what you are seeing is the live action of the game. As a viewer-from-the-couch, soccer is “good TV” – - and that got me to thinking about sports that are “bad TV”. And that brought to mind immediately the sport of golf.

It takes PGA Tour players almost 4 hours to complete a round; in those 4 hours, their ball is actually in play – - moving relative to the earth – - for about 2.5 minutes. That is not riveting TV and so I began to think about how golf could make a rule change here and there to make it more interesting on TV. Please note, I don’t think any or all of these rule changes would make golf a better game; I think they would make it better on TV…

    First of all, there needs to be a shot clock for golf. Hey, it works for the NBA and for college basketball. So, give each golfer 24 seconds from the time he walks within 15 feet of his ball to hit the ball or lose a stroke. It is not compelling TV to watch Tiger Woods take more than two minutes to line up a putt. Hit the damned ball…

    Taking a lead from the NHL, maybe golf should allow fighting – - with the stipulation of course that no clubs can be used in the altercations lest that appear far too unseemly and ungentlemanly.

    The PGA needs to outlaw caddies. If these guys are the best golfers in the world, let them figure out the distances to the pin for themselves and let them line up their own puts – - in 24 seconds or less of course. If these finely honed athletes cannot carry their own bags, let them pull them on a carrier. It would please me no end to see the golfers use golf carts but the golf goofs still cannot bring themselves to think about that after Casey Martin publicly cleaned their clocks over that issue…

    Here is a rule most TV viewers would vote for. The PGA should ban for life from any tournament gallery any person who yells “You da man…” or “Get in the hole…” as soon as a ball is struck. These folks have to be among the most annoying assclowns on the planet. Here is Scott Ostler of the SF Chronicle on the subject:

    “About that annoying gallery guy who follows Tiger Woods. When that guy dies and they’re about to lower the coffin, will someone shout, ‘Get in the hole!’?”

    I also think that spectator cheering should be allowed during the matches. After all, the ball is sitting perfectly still for the best players in the world to strike. It isn’t like a baseball player trying to hit a 100 mph slider. Think of all the productive man-hours that would be generated if the PGA did not require volunteers to come out to hold up “Silence” signs at every hole for every player. And the good news here is that the basic rules of golf would preclude any goofs from showing up with a “D” and a “Fence” to start a chant of “Dee- Fence…”

    Finally, the PGA needs to hire fashion consultants – - or wardrobe mavens. Some of the players look like clowns on TV. Once again, allow me to offer a comment by Scott Ostler to make my point:

    “The white belt will never make a comeback, but you have to admire the courage of PGA golfers for trying.”

Finally, since I have cribbed liberally from Scott Ostler’s observations today, let me close with one more of his observations about a sport that might need some changes of its own:

“If you’re a spectator at a NASCAR race and a driver lands in your lap, do you have to throw him back? Carl Edwards didn’t quite make it into the cheap seats at Talladega, but the radio account of Edwards’ oopsie probably went like this: ‘And there’s a souvenir transmission for some lucky fan!’ “

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…

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Comments

  • JJC  On June 29, 2009 at 11:18 am

    I’m going to slightly disagree with the shot clock on putting. Putting the players on carts, removing the protracted walking, will provide enough speed improvements that a slight slowdown at the green won’t matter too much. The other minor reason is that a basketball hoop is in the same place in relation to the court no matter where you are playing. Pin placement changes from round to round, course to course and hole to hole. So a put clock might need up to a minute to be relatively fair.

    I’m also going to strongly disagree with the ban for life shouters of nonsense. My response is just one word – taser. Ban them for life and they really haven’t learned anything and there are too many ways around it.

  • Peter  On June 29, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Immigration might be the one thing that gets soccer out of niche status in America and finally makes it into a major sport. Immigrants are flocking into America these days, and a good chunk of them come from places where soccer’s the real deal.

    On the other hand, as immigrants become more accustomed to life in America and more familiar with English, they just might drop soccer like a hot potato and go for the NFL and NASCAR.

  • Ed  On June 29, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Sports Curmudgeon, I agree with most of what you wrote about soccer in the above comment. However, I do have two questions. First, you wrote: “Having said all of the above, I am not ready to pronounce the sport of soccer as ‘having burst onto the US sporting scene.’”

    What do you mean by “having burst onto the US sporting scene?” In terms of the way the phrase “burst on to the scene” is often used in my linguistic community, soccer burst onto the US sporting scene in the 1970s, when the New York Cosmos were getting over 70,000 people at some of their games. The phrase “burst on the scene” suggests that a thing goes from not being particularly noticed to being at least fairly widely noticed. And that is what happened with the NASL in the 1970s.

    Second, you wrote: “Soccer remains a niche sport in the US.”

    What do you mean by “niche sport?” Soccer is much less popular as a spectator sport in the U.S. than is American football. Soccer also is less popular as a spectator sport in the U.S. than is baseball or basketball. But I am unable to determine whether your claim that “soccer remains a niche sport in the US” is more plausible than not without further elaboration on what you mean by “niche sport.” For example, is NASCAR a “niche sport” in the U.S.?

    It is interesting to note that a February 2009 World Cup qualifier between the U.S. and Mexico played in Columbus, Ohio attracted 1.2 million viewers on ESPN2 and 10.7 million viewers on Univision, the Spanish-language network. That is more people than watched Game 5 of the 2009 NBA Finals. It is also important to note that there are 40 million Latinos living in the U.S. One in every eight residents of the U.S. is Latino. Moreover, soccer probably is, overall, the most popular spectator sport among Latinos living in the U.S. For example, 6.3 million people watched on Univision the second half or the 2007 Gold Cup final between the U.S. and Mexico. That number is more than twice as high as the number of people who watched the decisive game of the Stanley Cup final in 2005. Also, a March 18, 2007 regular season match between two Mexican teams (Club America and Chivas) drew 4.3 million U.S. TV viewers on one of the U.S.’s Spanish-language channels, higher than all but one hockey match shown in the U.S. from 2005 to 2007.

  • Ed  On June 29, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    (different Ed)

    Even more for the “quiet, please” than golf, may I submit tennis? They actually get a rent reduction if too many airplanes fly over the tennis stadium at the US Open unless rerouted for safety reasons. While it does move very fast, this is playing with a hollow rubber ball. In between that stadium and the airport is the baseball park. This is a game played with what is also called a “hardball”, where two of the members of the hall of fame had their careers ended by being hit with the ball, another began it replacing a man KILLED by being hit with the ball, and a minor league coach was killed by a batter ball only last year, I believe. If they can concentrate, why can’t the tennis players? they are even closer to the runways, you can tell if the home team is up or in the field on approach to LGA, even if you wear glasses (home whites vs. road grays).

    Peter, I know some immigrants who did exactly that. They came over, and left soccer behind for the NFL. Especially the ones who assimilated into US culture. I note 90% of the viewers for the above cited WC game watched the Spanish station.

  • The Sports Curmudgeon  On June 30, 2009 at 9:54 am

    JJC:

    Tasering would be OK with me…

    Peter:

    Increased numbers of immigrants will surely not hurt the growth of interest in soccer in the US. I think the main challenge for the soccer mavens is to take that source of increased interest and to translate that to “the masses” of sports fans who are already here but who have not yet taken to soccer as a sport.

    Ed:

    NASL soccer did burst on the scene in the 70s when Pele and Beckenbauer and Cruyff came here to play at the end of their careers. Then soccer faded/disappeared from the scene.

    It sort of became noticeable again in the early 90s when the US national team started to be something other than a pushover. Then it faded again as MLS went through severe credibility problems as it started up – - one owner for about half the teams in the league creates credibility problems.

    When the US women won the World Cup, interest spiked again – - until that women’s league featuring those same World Cup players crashed and burned. Did it last even three years? I don’t recall…

    What I mean by a sport “bursting onto the sporting scene” is that it generates interest and maintains that interest without fading away. Soccer is close; I don’t think it’s there yet.

    A “niche sport” is one that has a loyal and passionate following – - but it isn’t a huge following. NASCAR had so many fans at one point, it became a major sport; NASCAR began as a niche sport; it seems as if NASCAR interest has peaked but it still has a very large following in the US. My suspicion is that in Sri Lanka, no one gives a fig about NASCAR.

    The NHL is close to being a niche sport. My sense is that it is a bit bigger than merely a niche sport, but it is close.

    Major international soccer games draw sizeable TV audiences in the US. Indeed, those audiences can exceed Stanley Cup TV audiences. But the more proper comparison is between the Stanley Cup Finals and the MLS Finals or the Stanley Cup playoff games and the MLS playoff games. In those cases, soccer still has some growing to do in the US to climb out of “niche sport” status.

    Hope that helps…

    Ed (different Ed):

    Tennis too can use some changes to their “silence only” rules. Consider that as soon as the ball is served in a women’s match the shrieking by the players themselves is so loud. If silence is necessary for proper and fair play in tennis, then why is the shrieking/grunting not designated as some kind of unfair advantage for the shrieker/grunter?

  • Rich  On June 30, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Speaking of shrieking and grunting women’s tennis players makes me wonder what my first wife is up to lately.

  • The Sports Curmudgeon  On July 1, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Rich:

    Is that why she is your “first wife” and not your “incumbent wife”? Just asking…

  • Rich  On July 1, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    She would be my dearly departed wife; not dead, just departed. I believe she is currently a free agent. The imcumbent wife has the lifetime contract with a no trade clause.

  • Ed  On July 1, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    Sports Curmudgeon, thanks for your reply.

    1. Sports Curmudgeon wrote: “What I mean by a sport ‘bursting onto the sporting scene’ is that it generates interest and maintains that interest without fading away. Soccer is close; I don’t think it’s there yet.”

    You are not using the phrase “bursting on the sporting scene” the way I thought initially. For example, when people say that breakdancing burst onto the scene in the 1980s, they generally don’t mean that breakdancing became popular at a particular moment in time in the U.S. and remained popular in the U.S. forever.

    Moreover, given what you mean by “bursting onto the sporting scene,” it’s clear that, as a participation sport, soccer has “burst onto the sporting scene” in the U.S. For example, according to the Soccer Industry Council of America, soccer is the fourth most popular participation sport in the U.S. for all those younger than 18 and second only to basketball as a participation sport for those younger than 12. In addition, 4.2 million adults now play soccer, up 20 percent since 1992.

    In addition, given what you mean by “bursting on the sporting scene,” I suppose it is possible that soccer as a spectator sport did not “burst onto the sporting scene” in the U.S. between 1970 until 1994. By “burst onto the sporting scene” you include “maintaining interest without fading away” after the initial interest is generated. Perhaps soccer became less popular as a spectator sport in the U.S. from 1981 until 1994 than it was from 1972 until 1981. For example, the NASL folded in 1984.

    However, I tend to doubt that, in the U.S., soccer was less popular as a spectator sport in the U.S. from 1981 until 1994 than it was from 1972 until 1981. First, immigration to the U.S., especially from Latin American countries, increased significantly from 1981 until 1994. And many of these immigrants to the U.S. love soccer and watched a lot of soccer, for example, the Mexican league and matches involving the national teams from their countries of origin.

    Second, women’s soccer became much more popular in the U.S. as a spectator sport from 1981 until 1994. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team played its first match ever in 1985.

    Third, it’s likely that the number of U.S. citizens per year who watched and enjoyed soccer matches from 1981 until 1994 was higher than it was from 1972 until 1981. During the 1980s and early 1990s the number of U.S. kids who played youth soccer increased significantly. And many parents attended their kids’ matches during this time. Although watching youth soccer is not watching professional soccer, it is still watching soccer as a spectator sport. And your original claim was: “Having said all of the above, I am not ready to pronounce the sport of soccer as ‘having burst onto the US sporting scene.’”

    Finally, the 1978 World Cup was not even shown on U.S. television. In contrast, the 1982 and 1986 World Cups were shown on both English-language and Spanish-language television in the U.S. And every game of the 1990 World Cup was shown on both Spanish-language and English language television. Thus, given what you mean by “bursting on the sporting scene,” I think you can make a strong case that soccer “burst onto the sporting scene” in the U.S. in the 1970s, for there is good reason to believe that, overall, soccer did not become a less popular spectator sport in the U.S. from 1981 until 1994. Remember, the number of people who watch and enjoy watching the U.S.’s top men’s domestic professional soccer league is not identical with the number of people who watch and enjoying watching soccer in the U.S.

    In addition, given what you mean by “bursting on the sporting scene,” soccer “burst onto the sporting scene” in the U.S. as a spectator sport in 1994 up until today. In terms of what you mean by “bursting on the scene,” it is necessary for the thing to (1) “generate interest” and (2) “maintain interest without fading away.” Moreover, soccer generated interest in 1994 with the 1994 World Cup, which was held in the U.S. It was a highly attended World Cup. And it got good TV ratings in the U.S. Moreover, soccer’s popularity as a spectator sport hasn’t decreased any since the mid 1990s.

    First, TV ratings and attendance for the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams has increased almost every year since the mid 1990s.

    Second, combined, the English and Spanish-language telecasts of the 2006 World Cup Championship Final (between Italy and France) attracted an estimated 16.9 million American viewers, comparable to the average viewership of the 2005 World Series of Major League Baseball.

    Third, TV ratings for the Mexican league have increased over that period of time.

    Fourth, attendance for exhibition matches involving top European clubs and/or top Latin American clubs has, overall, increased since 1994. For instance, F.C. Barcelona sold out Giants Stadium in an exhibition against the New York Red Bulls in 2006.

    Fifth, TV ratings for European Champions League matches have increased.

    Sixth, now all the key games of the European Champions League are shown on U.S. television.

    Seventh, ESPN just bought the rights to the English Premier League and the Spanish Premier League.

    Eighth, there are now two soccer only cable channels in the U.S., namely Fox Soccer Channel and Gol TV.

    Ninth, MLS’s popularity is at least as good now as it was in 1996, its first year of existence. 3.5 million people attended MLS matches in 2008; 2.7 million attended MLS matches in 1996. Moreover, MLS had 10 teams in 1996; now it has 15. And it will be adding four more (Philadelphia, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal) over the next three years or so. Moreover, in 2009, MLS is averaging about 15,000 fans per game over a 30-game regular season.

    Tenth, the 1999 Women’s World Cup, which was held in the U.S., got good TV ratings and sold out large U.S. stadiums. The final match between the U.S. and China, which was played in the Rose Bowl, drew over 90,000 fans.

    Eleventh, the Women’s Professional Soccer League started this year.

    Twelfth, when the El Salvador or Mexican national teams play in the U.S., large U.S. stadiums often are sold out.

    Thirteenth, overall, attendance for U.S. college soccer has increased, for example, at the University of Maryland.

    Fourteenth, according to a Harris Poll conducted prior to the 2006 World Cup, nearly half of respondents expressed some interest in watching a game in the 2006 World Cup.

    Finally, there has been no drop off as far as people attending youth soccer games or amateur soccer games in immigrant leagues.

    Although MLS’s attendance has never reached what it was in its inaugural season (17,406 fans per game), its attendance last season attendance was 16,460. Moreover, as said earlier, it is important to note that interest in MLS among residents of the U.S. is not identical to interest in soccer as a whole in the U.S. as a spectator sport. For instance, there are millions of soccer fans in the U.S. who are not MLS fans. Many of them are Latino. A challenge that MLS faces is to convert more of the soccer fans in the U.S. to fans of the league MLS.

    2. Sports Curmudgeon wrote: “A ‘niche sport’ is one that has a loyal and passionate following — but it isn’t a huge following. NASCAR had so many fans at one point, it became a major sport; NASCAR began as a niche sport; it seems as if NASCAR interest has peaked but it still has a very large following in the US.”

    What would count as a “huge following?” A large number of people follow soccer in the U.S., a country of over 300 million people, including 40 million Latinos.

    Maybe you would claim that less than 15 percent of all U.S. residents consistently watch and enjoy watching soccer. And that’s possible. And maybe you also would claim that if less than 15 percent of all of the residents of country X consistently watch and enjoy watching sport Y, then sport Y is a niche sport in country X. However, if this condition were sufficient for a sport being a niche sport in a given country, then basketball may be a niche sport in the U.S. For instance, according to a Pew poll that came out in 2006, only 46 percent of all the adults in the U.S. say they follow sports news closely or somewhat closely. Moreover, out of a country of over 300 million people, only 15.6 million U.S. residents watched any of the 2009 NCAA Final between North Carolina and Villanova. In addition, the average viewership for the 2009 NBA Finals was about 14 million. Moreover, I don’t think you want to say that basketball is a niche sport in the U.S. So, I would like to get a better idea of what criteria you are using to determine whether something is a “niche sport.”

    Moreover, if NASCAR is a “niche sport” in the U.S. as a spectator sport, then it seems that one could make the case that basketball would be a “niche sport” in the U.S. as a spectator sport, because my understanding is that about as many people in the U.S. watch NASCAR as watch basketball — factoring in attendance and TV ratings. For instance, my understanding is that most of the 20 most attended sporting events in the U.S. in 2008 were NASCAR races. And, on average, the TV ratings on Fox for NASCAR in 2009 were more than double what they were for regular season NBA basketball on ABC and 46 percent higher than they were for NBA playoff basketball on ABC. And my understanding is that, on average, the number of people who watched a NASCAR race on Fox in 2009 (8.5 million) is almost the same as the average number of people who watched an NCAA Tournament basketball game in 2009 (8.7 million). Moreover, I don’t think you would want to say that basketball is a “niche sport” in the U.S.

    3. Sports Curmudgeon wrote: “My suspicion is that in Sri Lanka, no one gives a fig about NASCAR.”

    I suspect that at least one person in Sri Lanka gives a fig about NASCAR. However, I’m sure that a small percentage of the people living in Sri Lanka give a fig about NASCAR. However, I’m not suggesting that NASCAR is not a “niche sport” in Sri Lanka. I’m wondering if NASCAR is what you mean by a “niche sport” in the U.S.

    4. SC wrote: “The NHL is close to being a niche sport. My sense is that it is a bit bigger than merely a niche sport, but it is close.”

    Not to quibble, but the NHL is a league, not a sport. Moreover, one might argue that the league Major League Soccer is a “niche league.” However, it is more questionable that the sport soccer is a “niche sport” in the U.S. as a spectator sport. For instance, as I mentioned in my first post, a March 18, 2007 regular season match between two Mexican teams (Club America and Chivas) drew 4.3 million U.S. TV viewers on one of the U.S.’s Spanish-language channels, higher than all but one hockey match shown in the U.S. from 2005 to 2007. Moreover, many soccer fans in the U.S. that don’t follow MLS are African. Many others are from the Middle East. Many others are from China, South Korea and Vietnam. In addition, many U.S. born soccer fans are what I call “soccer snobs” — people who only watch the top European leagues and view MLS’s product as so inferior as to not be worth their time.

    5. SC wrote: “Major international soccer games draw sizeable TV audiences in the US. Indeed, those audiences can exceed Stanley Cup TV audiences. But the more proper comparison is between the Stanley Cup Finals and the MLS Finals or the Stanley Cup playoff games and the MLS playoff games. In those cases, soccer still has some growing to do in the US to climb out of ‘niche sport’ status.”

    Why is the more proper comparison between the Stanley Cup Finals and the MLS Finals or the Stanley Cup playoff games and the MLS playoff games? Your original claim is not that MLS is a niche league but that soccer is a niche sport. Moreover, in terms of what you mean by “niche sport,” the number and percentage of people in a country who watch a sport is important in terms of determining whether the sport is a “niche sport.” So, for example, if 150 million people in the U.S. were to watch the English Premier League on television every week, it would be problematic to say that soccer is a niche sport in the U.S. as a spectator sport, even if MLS’s attendance and TV ratings were to be significantly lower than what they are now.

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