by Akim Reinhardt
It has been exactly 20 years since the United States hosted a World Cup, and just as long since the debut of Major League Soccer (MLS), the nation's homegrown professional soccer league. Two decades later, American interest in the World Cup continues to grow. Beyond that, however, soccer remains a marginal product in the marketplace of U.S. spectator sports.
There are many obstacles to soccer becoming substantially more prominent in the U.S. marketplace beyond the World Cup. But I believe most of them can be overcome, and the key is better marketing.
Several factors are often cited as major roadblocks to soccer becoming a major spectator sport in the United States. Some of them are indeed daunting, but some are misunderstood and not as obstructionist as commonly perceived. Regardless, they can all be overcome to one degree or another. The key is understanding that soccer, like all spectator sports, is a cultural product. And cultural products demand relevant marketing.
Let me begin by briefly listing the perceived major obstacles to soccer's popularity as a spectator sport.
- The U.S. marketplace for spectator sports is already saturated.
- Soccer is low scoring and Americans hate low scoring sports.
- Most Americans don't really understand soccer.
- Americans are turned off by the dives, fake injuries, and histrionics
- Most Americans won't embrace soccer because they perceive it as “foreign.”
After briefly assessing each of these obstacles, I will make a case that they can be overcome with better marketing to American consumers.
1. The U.S. Marketplace for Spectator Sports Is Already Saturated
This is a very real obstacle to professional soccer becoming more popular in the United States. However, it can be overcome, as recent history shows.
In the United States, professional soccer labors in the shadow of what are effectively six other, well established pro sports leagues. In addition to professional leagues in American football, baseball, basketball, and hockey (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL respectively), there are also two other professional leagues, one football and one basketball, masquerading as “college amateur” athletics. Taken together, these six pro leagues dominate the marketplace in U.S. spectator team sports, with the National Football League by far the most successful of the bunch. And that's not even counting popularity of pro golf, pro tennis, and NASCAR auto racing.
While the World Cup, as an event, is nearing the biennial Olympics in popularity, the year round marketplace for spectator sports in the United States seems saturated; it's difficult to imagine carving out more space in an American sports calendar that is already fairly well full.
But recent history suggests it is possible. First, the advent of cable TV and the internet has greatly expanded the U.S. marketplace for spectator sports during the last quarter-century, which helps to explain why it's so large to begin with. Americans consume far more spectator sports than they did in the 1980s.
Furthermore, it's important to remember that, like any market, the American spectator sports marketplace is dynamic. It changes over time. Products rise and fall. Older products falter and new products displace them. For example, American football shot past baseball in popularity during the 1970s and 1980s. New products can also break through, such as NASCAR auto racing and mixed martial arts leagues, both of which substantially grew their audiences during the last two decades. Meanwhile, horse racing and professional boxing have been diminishing in popularity for years now.
Yes, the U.S. marketplace is crowded. But, with its small foothold already established, professional soccer can grow.
2. Soccer Is Low Scoring and Americans Hate Low Scoring Sports
Although a widely accepted truism, I think this is a phantom obstacle for the most part. This bit of folksy, conventional wisdom is based on an ahistorical understanding of the U.S. marketplace, and I flatly reject the notion that Americans won't embrace soccer simply because it's a low scoring game. Honestly, now. Millions of Americans watch golf. And auto racing. And fishing.
Yes, there are people in this country who watch fishing on TV.
And lest we forget, America's two most popular team sports of the late 20th century were quite low scoring. From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, baseball was a fairly low scoring game, dominated by pitching and defense. And from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, American football was also a relatively low scoring affair; don't be fooled by a touchdown usually producing 7 points. If you counted a TD as 1, the typical NFL game back then was something like 3-1 with a few disappointing field goals sprinkled in.
Scoring has increased in both sports since then, as well as in pro hockey and basketball. However, increased scoring in American professional sports isn't the natural consequence of some Darwinian process. Rather, it is actually the result of marketing. All four U.S. professional sports leagues have changed numerous rules, tinkering with the games to heighten scoring.
That's not to say MLS should change its rules to increase scoring. Rather, I think the inverse is true: Americans have enjoyed low-scoring sports before, and they can do so again. There is nothing inherent in the “American character” that demands high scoring in spectator sports. It's a marketing contrivance that can be countered with better marketing for soccer.
3. Most Americans Don't Really Understand Soccer
This is absolutely true. It is a very real obstacle, but one that can be addressed through, you guessed it, better marketing. After all, delivering a specific, well-crafted message is central to marketing.
4. Americans are Turned Off by the Dives, Fake Injuries, and Histrionics
Make no mistake: Players blatantly faking injuries, and the accompanying histrionics, are a real turnoff to most American consumers of spectator sports.
Spectator sports are a form of theater, and in the theater of American sports, an important recurring theme is American machismo. American fans admire players who play through injuries and don't complain. So faking injuries, much less rolling around like a fucking four year old, is a big problem for many Americans. But this can be overcome with smart marketing, particularly in the MLS.
Soccer players are of course quite tough despite melodrama to the contrary. They endure their share of injuries and many play through pain. The MLS should make a concerted effort to market their players as macho, as strong men who play through pain and overcome obstacles. This is exactly the kind of thing that resonates deeply with the American audience in spectator sports.
For example, consider the recent marketing opportunity offered by Clint Dempsey's broken nose and black eye, sustained in the United States' opening game against Ghana. Not to be too crass about it, but hat's exactly the kind of thing the American media should have played up. Mix in Dempsey's quietly menacing demeanor, and you've got a natural tough guy Americans will admire.
Cracking down on dives and histrionics in MLS would also help, but even if that's not practical, marketing can overcome a lot on this count.
5. Most Americans Won't Embrace Soccer Because They Perceive it as “Foreign”
This concern unfairly panders to stereotypes of American xenophobia while also actually getting at the real heart of the issue. To understand how, it's important to mark the difference between “foreign” and “global.”
Most Americans don't have any problem with the fact that soccer is a global game. I think it should go without saying that Americans generally love international athletic competition. I mean, mostly they love winning, but the mentality is, bring it on, world! That's how many Americans look at global competition. You know. Arrogant chants of “We're #1!” and “U!S!A!”
It's not always pretty, but the point is, if Americans are nonplused about soccer, it's hardly because soccer's a global game. Rather, the main obstacle to the soccer's popularity is that most Americans perceive it as a “foreign” sport, and that's a very different thing than being a “global” sport.
I am most certainly not using “foriegn” as a pejorative, nor to as a referent to American provincialism or xenaphobia. Rather, I'm using the word to indidcate that Americans simply do not see soccer as being part of their culture.
Americans have yet to embrace soccer as their own. They still don't see it as one of their own spectator sports. And so for now, as the World Cup's popoularity rises, most Americans are coming to view soccer as an exotic spectacle rather than a sport that is of and for Americans
If soccer continues to be marketed as foreign exotica, it will never move beyond occasional spectacle, garnering great attention once in a rare while. It will be akin to the many “foreign” sports Americans watch during the Olympics that are not popular here. The nationalistic thrill of international competition gives them a global context and a temporary entrepôt into American culture, but they have no permanent presence in the culture.
The luge? The biathalon? Bobsledding? Speed skating? The decathlon? That thing where horses jump over hedges?
Americans will plop themselves down in front of a TV and watch international athletic competitions every four years. But once it's over, those sports all but disappear from American sporting culture. Without better marketing, soccer will be little more than the most successful version of those sports.
The World Cup may very well keep growing in popularity. But for soccer to become something beyond a quadrennial spectacle, for it to earn a far more permanent and substantial space in the U.S. marketplace, soccer has to stop being “foreign.”
Soccer needs to become “American.” And it's not about invention. Americans didn't invent hockey, tennis, golf, or mixed martial arts, yet all of those sports have established a permanent presence in the U.S. marketplace and been been embraced by American culture.
Just like all of the non-European nations that have embraced soccer as their own, even though they didn't invent the sport.
Better marketing is the key to getting Americans to embrace soccer as part of their culture
Football is a religion. I hear it over and over again. One beer company even put together a clever marketing campaign based on the idea of making football a state recognized religion in Brazil.
I think it's an interesting comparison, but not from the perspective of spectator sports as a well of spiritual sustenance; that's just depressing. Rather, like religion, soccer is a cultural product that can be exported and marketed.
Consider Christianity for a moment. It has well over 2 billion adherents around the world, more than any other religion. And an important key to its success is marketing.
First, its marketing is aggressive. Christianity is a proselytizing religion, perpetually seeking to increase marketshare by chasing converts. And while aggressively marketing a cultural product doesn't assure success, it can help, especially when there is a lot of competition in the marketplace.
But the marketing of soccer in America has always been tepid at best. Aside from the World Cup, it has had a relatively minuscule presence in advertising and other marketing schema. I'm not suggesting FIFA send people to knock on doors and handout pamphlets proclaiming they'll burn in hell if they don't accept Pelé as their Lord and Savior. But soccer could benefit from a more active marketing campaign. There remains a small, loyal audience of American soccer fans, but that's it. More aggressive marketing could help it grow.
But more than marketing aggressively, soccer needs to be marketed smartly. And I dare say, the marketing of soccer as a cultural product to Americans has usually been, and continues to be, quite inept in many ways. As in, you probably couldn't do a worse job. To understand why, let's again consider the marketing of religion.
Christianity, like soccer, is a cultural product. As such, it isn't marketed or even practiced the same way among different ethnic groups and nations. Even right here in America . . . or rather, especially right here in America, there is a vast difference, for example, between the ornate, rigid ritualism of Catholic churches, the intimate, participatory nature of small black AME and Baptist churches, and the stadium-style spectatorship of evangelical mega-churches to name just a few.
Where would Christianity be in America if it were only marketed as The Church of England? Probably in the shitter. And the same elsewhere if not for the countless denominations and theological schisms shaping Christianity around the world.
A big part of Christianity's success as a global cultural product has been its flexibility. To be successful on a large scale, cultural products need to reflect local concerns and interests, at least to some degree. If a foreign cultural product is not integrated into a local culture, it will generally founder. Cultural products must be marketed in ways that appeal to local populations, instead of a rigid one size fits all marketing that is likely to constrict its appeal.
Yet soccer has been and continues to be marketed in America as a foreign cultural product, usually a British one specifically. Just look at the current World Cup.
ESPN and ABC (both owned by Disney), which are broadcasting all of the games in the United States, mostly rely on foreign play-by-play announcers. Non-Americans also fill many of the American color commentator and studio analysts slots, and even some of of the studio host positions.
Don't get me wrong. This is absolutely not about sucking up to American provincialism and xenaphobia, creating jobs for Americans, or some other right wing nonsense. It's not that “Americans hate foreigners.” If you want that interpretation of soccer, go read some Ann Coulter.
Rather, I'm talking about marketing a cultural product to Americans. Most Americans still see soccer as a “foreign” sport. Not in a xenophobic way, but simply as a something that is not for them. It might be nice or interesting, but its detached from the culture to some degree. Like bidets or Tuvan throat music.
But if soccer is going to have greater success in the year round American marketplace, it needs to be presented to the American audience, and accepted by them, as an “American” sport. It has to become part of American culture.
In and of itself, of course there's absolutely nothing wrong with using British announcers for World Cup games. Anglophiles and hardcore soccer fans may love it. And maybe British and other foreign national announcers and commentators are the best in the business.
But good marketing doesn't call for the best announcers. Rather, it requires the best sales people.
The accents, some of them quite thick, are difficult for many Americans to understand. Meanwhile, foreign idioms and cultural gaps, like announcing the temperature in celsius instead of fahrenheit, or the distance run by players in kilometers instead of miles, subtly alienate most Americans. The issue isn't whether or not Americans should learn celsius (they should) or become more fluent in British dialect; it's about making your product appealing to the marketplace.
Furthermore, media need to take the lead on educating American audiences about the workings of soccer. Most Americans really don't understand the sport. Something as basic as the game clock counting up instead of down can be jarring to newbies. And most Americans are in an utter fog about more complex issues like the offsides rules or why some fouls get no card, some get a yellow card, and some get a red card.
Remember, all World Cup games weren't broadcast live in the United States until 1998! That's right. Even when the United States hosted in 1994, not all of the World Cup games were broadcast live here because not enough people cared. It's all still very new to most Americans, and the broad U.S. audience needs to learn the game before it can embrace it.
But the media currently often talk over their audience's head. In fairness to foreign announcers, it's hard for them to realize what he average American understands, and frankly, that's a bit much to ask of them.
But all of this begs the question: Are there not any qualified American soccer announcers who sound like they're from Nebraska? If there are, use them. If not, develop them. Christ, how many tens of millions are ABC and ESPN spending on this tournament?
Actually, the answer is about $50 million. And FOX will pay a combined $425 million for the U.S. rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
With that kind of money on the line, spend a little more and develop some announcers if you need to. And develop them with marketing in mind.
Similarly, nearly all of the American announcers and commentators in broadcast media, and many in print, currently use Brit-speak to discuss soccer. This is, I believe, a huge marketing blunder for the sport.
When the media use British jargon to discuss soccer, they build a wall between themselves and their potential audience. Is there any more effective way to continue defining soccer as a foreign cultural product instead of an American one?
Say “field” instead of “pitch,” “zero” or “nothing” instead of “nil,” “speed” instead of “pace,” “clete” instead of “boot,” and so forth.
This isn't about right or wrong. There's nothing “wrong” with calling the playing surface a “pitch” instead of a “field.” It's just god-awful marketing.
American culture already has a very established sports vocabulary. When the mass media start using it, at least for generic terms, soccer will become more accessible to the American audience. Imposing foreign jargon just maintains barriers.
Taken together, it seems to me that the American media have been going about it all wrong, quite frankly. They've marketed soccer to potential American audiences as a fairly impenetrable and very foreign product. Continuing to define and market soccer as something “foreign” will create obstacles to broad popularity instead of overcoming them.
On the one hand, there is no question that slowly but surely, soccer is gaining some popularity here in the States. The recent nail biter between the U.S. and Portugal was the highest rated soccer game in American television history, ekeing past the Spain-Netherlands World Cup final of fours years ago. No doubt, airing on a Sunday evening helped. Ratings for the more important U.S.-Germany game, held on a Thursday at noon, were half that. And the ratings for the U.S.-Protugal game barely exceed the ratings for a generic, mid-season Sunday night NFL game.
And despite the growth in poplularity, soccer is still a source of complaints and butt of jokes for Americans in a way that established sports are not. Such is just one more sign that it has not yet been fully accepted in the U.S. as an American cultural product.
For Americans, the World Cup is now nearing the Olympics in popularity as a global athletic spectacle. Millions will indeed rally around the U.S. team so long has it has success on the international stage.
But after that, most of them will quickly return to utterly ignoring soccer as a spectator sport for another four years The vast majority of American sports consumers still have little or no interest in soccer beyond the quadrennial spectacle. If that is to change, improved marketing of soccer as a cultural product will be the key.
Akim Reinhardt is depressed about Mexico's loss to the Netherlands yesterday. His website is ThePublicProfessor.com