Why we hate soccer

Will Paul Allen and Drew Carey succeed in establishing Major League Soccer in Seattle? Some suggest they're kicking the ball uphill.
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Actor and comedian Drew Carey, minority owner of Seattle's new Major League Soccer franchise, at the George and Dragon Pub. (Seattle Soccer Group)

Will Paul Allen and Drew Carey succeed in establishing Major League Soccer in Seattle? Some suggest they're kicking the ball uphill.

I used to play a funny foreign sport. As old friends will remember, I went through a phase where I was obsessed with six-wicket international-style croquet. I even played competitively for a while. But I never thought croquet should be America's new national pastime, and I never tried to get other people to watch it. I take that back. Our croquet club used to practice on the old Seahawks practice field at what is now Carillon Point in Kirkland. I once invited friends down to watch a tournament, and midway through they looked at me in disbelief, told me it was as entertaining as watching paint dry, and left. Women's beach volleyball it ain't.

But some people just won't give up being missionary about their sports, like investors Paul Allen and Drew Carey, who want to get us all excited about Major League Soccer in Seattle. America has spent decades trying to brainwash its children into becoming soccer fans. I have many friends who have spent the better part of their middle years shuttling kids to and from endless soccer matches only to see those children grow up to become – baseball fans. Now Seattle may have reached the cosmopolitan tipping point with soccer: We've got enough immigrants from soccer-loving countries to fill the pubs come World Cup time. But why hasn't soccer, the sport of our kids, become a big deal for grown-up Americans?

I stumbled across possible explanations in a book I've been reading, Buffalo Bill in Bologna: The Americanization of the World, 1869-1922 (University of Chicago Press, 2005) by Robert Rydell and Rob Kroes. Rydell is a professor at Montana State University in Bozeman. The book covers the rise of American mass culture and, according to the authors, the McDonaldsization of the world began in the 19th century. Sometimes it was a matter of entrepreneurial salesmanship (Buffalo Bill's touring Wild West shows) and sometimes as a result of all-out government propaganda. Woodrow's Wilson's P.R. machine makes Bush's efforts to sell American values overseas pale by comparison. The emergence of the film industry was another driver of the phenomenon.

One exception to the Americanization of European culture is sports. And it's worked both ways. Europeans have never taken to baseball, and likewise we remain impervious to soccer.

Part of the reason might be timing. Some sports seem eternal, but most major spectator team sports – British and American – were "codified and standardized" in the late 19th century. One theory goes that this was when the British Empire was at its peak, and sports like soccer and cricket spread quickly around the globe because they were embraced by emerging, aspirant colonial elites and middle classes. In some cases, the authors say, the sports had unintended democratizing effects, such as in India, where soccer and cricket challenged traditional class roles. So these new sports not only originated in empire, they also contributed to the shaping of post-colonial national identities.

American sports, long separated from British influence, became entrenched at the same time. They evolved in isolation, so while British influence was shaping world sports tastes, American fans were resistant to foreign influence precisely because it was British and we were the anti-empire – or a competing one. Codifying our own spectator sports was a way to assert our national identity. And if you doubt this, just see how much flag-waving, military marching, and U.S. Army advertising is integrated into the typical NFL game.

Another theory, put forward by cultural historian John Blair, is that Americans like "modular sports," games with quarters, innings, and half times, sports that lend themselves to being televised. Think how much of the Super Bowl is now about the advertising spots and how much is paid for them. These segments have become part of the entertainment. Think how much the beauty of baseball, say its fans, is in the statistics of the game. We like our bursts of action neatly tied up in tight entertainment packages.

On the other hand, Europeans like sports with "a continually unfolding narrative ... flow rather than dramatic spasms." Perhaps that explains while people can riot over a game or experience paroxysms of joy over a 0-0 soccer score. The telling is more important than the plot, the play more important than the scoring.

If these theories are true, it doesn't bode well for traditional soccer in America. It's un-American, a remnant of an empire we rejected and overtook. It's too free-flowing and not industrialized enough.

Of course, Seattle is a little different. The whole inspiration for Starbucks came from Italy, and Ecotopian Seattle has a secessionist strain. One could argue that soccer might succeed here precisely because it is out of the American mainstream. However, our major spectator sports don't much reflect that spirit – the Mariners, Sonics, and Seahawks draw on a mainly suburban constituency.

Perhaps that's why Drew Carey has insisted on a marching band for his Seattle team. That will at least lend a martial air that could appeal to mainstream American fans in the stands.

Cheerleaders wouldn't hurt either, Drew.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.