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Football vs. Futbol

Colleague and blogger Tyler Cowen has some interesting thoughts over at Marginal Revolution on why soccer is not more popular in the United States. Tyler’s armchair thought is that Americans like sports where we’re the best in the world.

My armchair thought is a different one. I played soccer in high school and I enjoy watching it on TV or live. But soccer (and hockey) suffer from a kind of unsatisfying lack of justice that’s unappealing. In both games, extraordinary performances by a team or an individual are rarely rewarded. A soccer team can make a set of brilliant passes and advance down the field yet most forays result in nothing. The same is true in hockey. The ability of a tenacious defense and a skilled goalie frustrate numerous good sequences. The same thing does happen in football. A team can get inside the 20 and fumble or miss a fieldgoal. But if that was the usual result of marching down the field it would greatly reduce the appeal of football. And even when you fumble on the five, the other team has a long way to go. It’s not that hard to get the ball down to the other hand.

So my claim is that soccer and hockey have a certain lack of justice that offends our sensibilities. Another example of this is the power play in hockey. Shouldn’t a 6 on 5 attack be pretty decisive? Yet power play success is usually in the 15-20% range. So most of the time that you cheat the cost is zero. The same thing happens in soccer when a player gets a red card and is ejected. There’s no substitution. Here the team gives up a 10% disadvantage and usually, again, it’s not decisive.

The rest of the world probably finds these aspects of the game frustrating as well, but they’ve invested in soccer so it’s going to take a while for them to come around.

That having been said, I love to watch Brazil play soccer. And I love Olympic hockey. The real problem with hockey and soccer is that the game has evolved into a much more defensive and thuggish sport than it could be. The real puzzle is why the owners have allowed this to happen. The standard answer in hockey is that people like fights. Some people do, certainly. But the boxing interrupted by hockey isn’t exactly selling like hotcakes.

A standard explanation for why soccer and hockey aren’t popular in America is because there isn’t enough scoring. My observation above is not quite the same. There’s a benefit to low scoring. When a goal is scored, it’s a big rush. It’s like rooting for the Red Sox. True, we suffer a lot. But if we ever win, the dopamine rush will be incredible. As David Spack of Brooklyn observed, a Red Sox World Series celebration will make the Yankees celebration look like a day at the DMV. (Warning: Clicking on that last link will make Red Sox fans relive some of the anguish of last October. Lots of humor in the pain, though.)

Finally, as wealth grows around the world and more people get TVs, American sports seem to grow in popularity. Will soccer be the most popular sport in the world in 2024? Or will it be basketball? Or football? Or even baseball?


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