Numbers or Lore? Soccer and Statistics in the U.S.

I was recently asked by ESPN the Magazine writer Chris Sprow whether I paid much attention to statistics in football. My answer was pretty abrupt, and didn’t exactly highlight me as a scholar of the statistical side of the game. “I honestly hardly ever look at stats,” I told him, and he quoted me with that in this look at statistics and the appeal of soccer in the States.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter whether I look at statistics or not. I loved soccer before I knew what a statistic even was. But interestingly, Sprow believes that the dearth of popular usage of statistics in soccer relative to the way baseball or basketball can be broken down limits the appeal of the game to the American fan.

But if soccer could ever aspire to gain the cultural hold on America that it desires — this from a former college player who watches a ton of soccer and plays to this day — the solution is easy: Give us more numbers. Make ‘em the type we can really use.

Is this true, that American sports fans need more numbers to get a grip on soccer?

I see the importance of numbers in American sports culture. It permeates almost every discussion on baseball, and fantasy sports are a phenomenon unto themselves; undeniably addictive, with your average office worker spending more time crunching numbers for their fantasy team than on the spreadsheets they’re being paid to work on. Serious baseball fans purchase Baseball Prospectus every year, and immerse themselves in the minutiae of PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm).

But is the lack of the same common analysis of soccer a serious factor in the sport’s failure to gain a stronger cultural foothold in the States? (Of course, there is considerable statistical analysis of soccer, but it has no way near the grip on popular discussion of the sport that numbers do in America’s big three sports)

I’d suggest that the common experience of any American sports fan was the same as mine growing up in England: that the love of the sport came from watching and playing the game myself from an early age, and being able to relate that to the surrounding culture of the sport (in my case soccer). The love of the game comes before the love of statistics. How that is nurtured and ensures that initial play turns into a lifetime of addiction to the sport has an awful lot more to do with the cultural romance of the game than the available numbers to crunch, I’d suggest. The numbers come later and become important (and some numbers come to have an almost mystical appeal that goes beyond the mere statistic), but they are an ancillary part of the whole experience.

baseball

I don’t remember seeing Kevin Costner crunching numbers in a Field of Dreams.

People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn into the driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. ‘Of course we won’t mind if you have a look around,’ you’ll say. ‘It’s only twenty dollars per person.’ They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it; for it is money they have, and peace they lack.

They’ll walk up to the bleachers and sit in shirt-sleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they had dipped themselves in magic waters; the memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.

“People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers; it has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and raised again. Baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and could be again. Oh, people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

- Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), Field of Dreams (1989)

Isn’t the appeal of any sport, at the heart of it, down to its romance, history and drama in a given culture’s shared memory banks?

Perhaps confusingly, in today’s globalising sports culture, I’d suggest this is one reason so many American soccer fans disdain MLS and prefer to support British teams: attaching oneself to the evident 100 year plus heritage of Liverpool FC, even from thousands of miles away, has more appeal to many than the meaningless franchise of Red Bull New York, renamed after a sugared soft drink in the very recent past. But this growing knowledge of the global game is the starting point for a stronger attachment to soccer in the U.S., and a few MLS teams have figured out how to tap into this enthusiasm locally.

What America needs to love soccer like the rest of the world isn’t more numbers: it’s more lore. What is needed is a cultural inheritance of the sport, so kids that play soccer have a broader popular and historical sense of the game’s significance to attach their love of kicking a ball to, just as American kids have traditionally attached their love of hitting a ball with a stick to baseball’s storied lore.

Photo credit: cruelshoes on Flickr.

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