714, 60: Soccer needs its own American story
In a follow-up piece to our discussion on whether soccer to have more statistics to thrive in the States, Josh Crockett looks at the history of American sports culture and concludes it’s the stories behind the numbers that matter.
[America has] had, after all, a century of the most extraordinary and compelling sporting stories to savor and reflect upon. [And] America possesses a literary culture that has, like no other, risen to the challenge of expressing them — a dual heritage I found condensed in Red Smith’s homage to the “Shot Heard Round the World”…
— David Goldblatt, from the foreword to the American edition of The Ball Is Round
Ask a baseball fan about the numbers 714 and 60. It’s unlikely that the respondent will simply state that they represent the third-most total home runs hit in a career, or just the eighth-most home runs hit in a single season. He or she will describe them as records, despite that they were surpassed thirty-five and nearly fifty years ago respectively. Credit that to the legend of the man who hit them. The numbers are important, but only as pointers to a story. What’s the response to 61? Ambivalence*. 755? Respect for not just skill, but perseverance. 70 and 68, followed soon after by 73 and 762? Perhaps not even recognizable outside the cities in which they were achieved, because many dislike the story behind them. If numbers were central to the value of the sport, that wouldn’t be the case.
Most writers use only baseball to argue that soccer needs statistics to graft itself onto American sporting culture, because baseball is easily the most numbers-heavy of American sports. ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Sprow gets credit for bringing American football and basketball into his argument by consulting Football Outsiders‘s Aaron Schatz and TrueHoop‘s Henry Abbott.
The problem with the gridiron game in particular, though, is that Schatz’s mission is exactly that which Sprow suggests soccer undertake — and Schatz’s new statistics, while useful, still aren’t commonplace in American football discussion. For non-kicking plays from scrimmage, six players out of twenty-two on an American football field can accumulate meaningful individual first-order statistics. Most observers judge the other sixteen qualitatively and collectively. For example, does a cornerback accumulate no interceptions and few tackles because of a lack of skill? Or does the receiver lined up against him lack skill himself? Or is his skill such that opposing coaches refuse to throw the ball near him? Or does the opposing team just pass the ball very rarely in its offensive scheme? Postgame, media and coaches alike will usually grade out his team’s collective defense (or even specifically passing defense) and call individual plays and players out for discussion. The grading system may not be one-to-ten, but soccer fans can certainly recognize this mode of assessment.
In his seminal work Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, Andrei Markovits argues that American sporting preferences were set in the 1920s and 1930s as cultural markers. For the native-born population, baseball and American football were the two clear centerpieces — American-created games that quickly spread nationwide. Immigrant communities, though, pursued three different tracks. Baseball meant Americanization and assimilation. Basketball, particularly in its Northeastern home, offered some ethnic solidarity and identification, but within the context of a game invented in America — a context that offered an entry point to others as well. But soccer pointed explicitly and completely backwards, to the homeland and the past. The story soccer offered, as much as they enjoyed the game, was a story which, overall, that generation of immigrants wanted to leave behind and that their children did leave behind, and that native-born Americans couldn’t access at all. The terms in which the games were discussed — numbers or subjective assessments — didn’t matter. The story behind each sport did, and the story soccer offered was rejected as foreign by one group and eventually abandoned by the other.
In the 1990s, the wall began to crack. Markovits identifies hockey as the exception proving the rule of early American rejection of foreign sports, but that exception only held in a regional heartland that hugs the Canadian border and barely views that country as foreign (thus allowing hockey to “pass”). Once sporting preferences set, top-level hockey outside this area met little but failure until the 1990s — the NASL and hockey’s first Southern efforts in both the NHL and WHA followed a remarkably similar trajectory. Now in the second try, despite some setbacks, hockey has taken root in such varied settings as Dallas-Fort Worth and the Research Triangle of North Carolina. In Texas, hockey’s route toward acceptance has come alongside spectacular growth in youth participation. The Carolina Hurricanes promoted a unique, rowdy fan culture that sprang up once the team moved to its permanent home arena and exploded during the team’s first long playoff run in 2002. Both paths should seem awfully familiar to soccer fans.
In neither place did hockey change its mode of discussion (which is itself not statistically heavy) — what grew was the story behind it, whether that involved ten-year-olds in Dallas aspiring to be like Mike or North Carolinians smoking a whole pig in the parking lot before games. And in the end, that’s where the answer lies for soccer as a spectator sport in the U.S. — not in creating numbers and new evaluative structures that, in the end, only mimic the pointers to the lore of traditionally American sports. Soccer needs its own American story — and fan culture can be a central part.