Mack vs. Pat: How to Truly Promote and Popularize Soccer in the United States.


Mack: Yesterday, Patrick wrote an extremely important article in which he addresses soccer’s potential to gain greater popularity in the United States. Like he said, the world’s favorite game is soccer (i.e. football), but for some reason, America hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon.

I agree that there are certainly ways to make soccer more appealing to the American viewing public than it currently is, but I have a hard time believing that better advertising and/or marketing of the sport alone will solve everything.

Patrick emphasizes that promoting soccer’s uniqueness (from America’s major sports) will allow it to find a niche in the U.S. I agree that this type of promotion is a good start, but again, something key is missing.

I was eager to respond to Patrick’s article because 1) I would love for our country (myself included) to gain a deeper liking and appreciation for soccer and 2) I believe some type of rule changes must be implemented in order to attract the American viewer (whether a sports fanatic or not).

I know for soccer purists what I'm suggesting may sound like blasphemy, but clearly something has to change in order for soccer to grab people’s attention.

Patrick, one of those purists, wishes to keep the game as is. My question to you, Patrick, is do you think that changing the rules of soccer could boost its popularity in America? Are rule changes worth seriously considering?

Pat: To answer your first question, yes, changing the rules would of course make the game more popular, but I would argue that it would no longer be good old Football. It would be American Football at that point, and that raises several issues hahaha!

To answer your second question: No way!! Hahaha but that's what any purist would say.

To elaborate, I feel uncomfortable changing the rules of soccer to fit the U.S. audience for several reasons.

Firstly, changing the rules would simply disrespect the game itself. Why do we laugh at North Korean basketball? Because they've totally changed all the rules! Same with the Harlem Globetrotters. The reasons why their gags make us all laugh is because they are so unlike the real game. So again, if you changed the rules, you wouldn't be helping soccer come to the U.S., you'd be creating a new sport, with pros and cons all its own.

Also the MLS already has a different interpretation of league rules for soccer, and there's a debate to be had as to whether that's holding the game back in the U.S.

Secondly, I have a deeper concern about the U.S. changing soccer for its own benefit. To me, it would be another instance of the stereotypical American behavior of co-opting other cultures and making it our own. Soccer is a truly international game, played all around the world, so why assume that we must change it to enjoy it? It just makes me uncomfortable to think that American culture will win out over everything, and that we need to have a sort of impenetrable wall around our sports. I think we can learn a lot from the international community on this issue, and we have to resist the natural tendency to "Americanize" everything.

Photo Credit: www.theqarena.com

Mack: So you do concede to the fact that changing the rules of soccer would make it more popular in America? I'm not trying to “Skip Bayless you” here or anything, but I think it's interesting you say that. Popularity is the name of the game, or at least what you titled your previous article, so we should hold onto that notion.

We can't forget, many of America's top sports have turned to rule changes in order to make their product more appealing. Basketball got rid of hand-checking to promote more scoring and clean up the game. Before that, the three-point line was added to increase scoring. Even before that, the twenty-four second shot clock was introduced so that teams couldn't hold onto the ball forever! I'd say at least two out of three of those changes not only bettered the game, but also increased its popularity.

North Korea is a different story. Kim Jong Un, who's obviously not the most sane person in the world, made some totally ridiculous and outlandish changes (most notably, every shot being worth eight points with under three seconds remaining in the game). Obviously, the rule changes I'd suggest wouldn't be so drastic. They'd hopefully be a little more normal haha.

While I agree with you that there are always dangers when it comes to co-opting other cultures, I think there is something inherent about the game of soccer that Americans just can’t connect with. I don’t claim to know what those things are exactly, but I feel like they could be related to the following: the game is too low-scoring, which is a major a no-no for American sports fans; it appears slow to the naked eye, perhaps given the enormous field size; and there’s not much physicality, at least compared to football, basketball, and hockey.

Do you see an inherent inability for the majority of Americans to fully embrace soccer as is? Or is that just ridiculous and pessimistic?

Pat: You raise very good points my friend, but I shall push back nonetheless!!

And if you are donning the role of Skip Bayless, I will happily play the role of Stephen A.!

Dude, are you serious right now?! Skip, let me tell you one thing, you're completely wrong! (hahaha this is fun, but hard to keep up).

Yes, I did concede that changing the rules would increase popularity, but I also said that if you changed the rules then it would be a new game. And just because something becomes more popular doesn't make it right or better (cough the Kardashians, ads on YouTube, and Iggy Azalea, cough).

And I would challenge your first point about American sports changing for the better. That's almost the whole point, the rules were American to begin with and American afterwards. Soccer as we know it was created in Britain, so the sport is fundamentally different from the start.

And as you say, those things opened the game up, and modified rules that were already in place. But to change the rules of soccer in order to make the game more appealing just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The sport wasn't ours to begin with, so why would our changes be improvements? What would England change about basketball if it wasn't already such a huge sport that is backed by the U.S.? Do we get away with being a "super-power" in the world, and therefore we get to change things as we like?

For your second point, all those faults that you listed, are they with the sport or the fans? I would argue that it's unreasonable for U.S. fans to always demand a high-scoring affair. We are a young country. The game of soccer pre-dates our country!! Peruse the football Wikipedia page for a moment.

It claims that the basis for the sport dates back to 300 BC! Now tell me, what right do we as U.S. fans have to say that soccer should conform to us? It represents a sort of arrogance and laziness that I believe has become a part of American culture through the political rhetoric of the past century, with the emergence of the U.S. as a "global power for good" (I think that's the Navy's slogan or something like that).

And that's why I think it comes down to how you sell soccer to the American people. If you can get them to buy in, then they will find the game enjoyable. Because once they understand the importance of a draw in soccer, they might not be so upset with a 0-0 game. And if they understood the strategy behind the game, then they could understand the excitement of soccer.

We've become spoiled in this country because excitement has been linked to big hits (bat to ball or body to body), high jumps, and "physical contact". Soccer players take a pounding too. My favorite player, Eden Hazard, has been fouled so many times (that is, tackled or pushed over because his dribbling skills are so good) that he's requested better padding! I'll give you the quote that stands out to me from the article:

“Eden has asked me to speak with some friends of mine who make carbon shin-pads. He wants one that covers the whole leg. Like a horse," said Mourinho (his manager).

So again, simply getting people to watch is the hard part. Once they start to watch and appreciate the games, they'll discover what is already exciting about the sport.

What do you have to say for yourself, Skip?

Photo Credit: www.dailymail.co.uk

Mack: Okay, first of all, I regret my decision to bring up Skip Bayless because now I have to live with you calling me that for a while haha. I'm literally reading your arguments right now, and I hear Stephen A. Smith yelling in my ears.

You bring up some very valid points, Stephen A, but I'm still wary about a few things.

Let me clarify, I'm not arguing that Americans aren't at some kind of fault for not embracing the game fully, but I'm also not blaming them. Nor am I blaming the soccer for Americans finding it difficult to embrace. I just think that, as you said, the viewing public is so accustomed and hungry for points, goals, and spectacular plays, that soccer can't satisfy as well as football, for instance.

Also, going back to another point of yours, we must remember the question at hand. We're addressing popularity, not betterment. If soccer were as popular as the Kardashians, that would be an enormous win for the sport in the U.S. If that means slightly adjusting a few rules, so be it. I think making the goals larger, decreasing the amount of players on the pitch, and shrinking the field itself would add more scoring opportunities without compromising the sanctity and integrity of the game.

Turning to my personal relationship with soccer for a moment, I wouldn't consider myself a fan—although the U.S. Women's National Team's recent championship run got me really pumped.

I think my disinterest lies partially in the fact that I don’t know soccer strategy at all. Plays that would be considered great to an avid soccer fan (that aren’t goals or saves) don’t really do much for me.

With basketball and football, you don’t need to understand strategy to enjoy the game. You see exciting plays—like dunks, three-pointers, touchdowns, big tackles, and acrobatic plays all the time. Or at least, that's what we come to expect. In soccer, you don’t. Therefore, it’d be harder for the casual passer by or young child (or even someone trying to give the sport a chance) to become enthralled with soccer instead of basketball.

The question I really want to hammer home is how exactly, if we don't change the rules, will soccer become more popular in the United States? Does a huge part of it rest in teaching kids at a young age the rules and/or strategies of soccer in P.E. class? Does the re-branding of U.S. soccer have to be geared toward youngsters?

And more than that, how can you advertise and market effectively to get people of ALL ages to buy in? I'm not so sure only explaining why soccer is different and/or better than other American sports will do the trick.

Your concluding thoughts, Steph... I mean Patrick?

Pat: I guess I should address your first point because it also directly relates to the article I wrote. I do not want to advocate popularity over everything. That was definitely not what I intended. I want to make the sport more popular so that it can rival the quality and competition of European soccer.

I find it frustrating that the top American clubs are nowhere near the European clubs. We have to field a team of "MLS All-stars" just to play one European club. So I guess my aspiration was to have the U.S. get behind soccer to the point where it becomes one of the major sports so that we have top quality players coming from the U.S., not to it.

And I think in terms of appreciating soccer, it's like any sport. It's difficult for you and I to say what people can and cannot find entertaining, but I was wondering more about why someone isn't trying to sell people on the game. I mean honestly, if Nike and Adidas tried hard enough, they could change the perception of the sport. It's just that there is no motivation there because they just assume it can't be done.

And I love this debate we’re having because your points tie in really nicely. Yes, one way to encourage more fandom of the sport is to teach it to kids so that they naturally grow up with a following and love for the sport. However, I don't think that's really the problem. It's not that our coaches and P.E. teachers aren't passionate enough (I don't think you or I would ever, EVER, question Mr. Warren Salandy's passion for the game!), but it's because there is a definite ceiling to soccer in the U.S. If you are an aspiring player, you go to Europe to play because that's where you can have a future. That's the opposite for American sports. Kids go play in China, Japan, or Europe when they have no future here.

So overall, I think the perception of soccer has to change, from being a "boring" sport, to just another one of the major sports that has it's pros and cons.

I mean I could debate anyone until my face turns blue about "which sport is best" or "why basketball is so much better than football". But in my opinion, soccer doesn't even have a chance to sit at the table with the other top sports in the U.S., through no fault of it's own. And hey, maybe soccer will never work in the U.S. or maybe it will never reach the level of competition of Europe. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try! Where's that old washed-up narrative of the American Dream when you need it?? Let's pull soccer up by it's bootstraps (do boots have straps anymore?) and give it the ole' American try. We have the resources to make this a soccer Mecca of the world, but the desire isn't there. I look at kids and there is definitely a palpable desire for more. But there are higher up powers—advertisers, media outlets, and politicians—that aren't even considering this change. And that's where I’m really stumped.