Martians, Steven Wells, and the Soul of American Soccer

I don’t want to turn this blog into a running commentary on the Guardian’s coverage of American soccer. But their latest piece on the subject made me think: how do we convey to the world the diversity of soccer in this country? ‘Cos for whatever reason, it’s apparently not at all obvious to journalists from overseas writing about it. Even martians would surely gather more about American soccer culture on their flyover tours of the American soccer landscape than a troop of British journalists manage every four years.

Today, Ed Pilkington, the Guardian’s New York correspondent, reports:

If lack of bunting in the street is any indication, America appears to be living up to its reputation for glorious isolation. While the rest of the globe is already gripped by World Cup fever, here in the US there are scant outward signs of football – or rather soccer – obsession.

There are no Stars and Stripes in the windows beyond the usual patriotic quota, no cars honking horns as goals are scored. Very few papers across the country lived up to the chutzpah of the New York Post, which plastered its post-England game front page with the headline: “USA wins 1-1″.

In the American heartlands excitement levels were decidedly muted by comparison, despite that impressive scoreline. The Houston Chronicle was far more interested in college American football than in the England battle, even though Saturday’s goalscorer Clint Dempsey is a local boy from Nacogdoches in Texas.

But it would be wrong to imply that this country is indifferent to the World Cup. Last Saturday, sports bars across the US were packed with fans, from the 2,000 who watched the game in Studio Square in New York to thousands more who squatted in the home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team to watch the match on its big screen.

About 17 million Americans watched the England game on television – a relatively piddly number compared with the 106m who sat transfixed in February as the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl. But that’s still double the viewing figures during the opening round of the 2006 World Cup, and it even outstrips the popularity of the recent Stanley Cup, the culmination of the 2009-10 season in ice hockey – a game that is considered an American staple.

Yeah, OK, that’s not too bad of a summary on the interest level on Saturday’s game, at least from what I saw. Unlike fellow British columnist Paul Harris, Pilkington doesn’t just visit one New York bar and draw wild conclusions, he at least goes on to speak to a couple of people who know a fair bit about soccer in this country, prolific and experienced soccer bloggers Jason Davis of Match Fit USA and Chris Harris of Florida-based EPL Talk. But the article never strays from trying to tell the whole story of American soccer solely through the lens of that one US Men’s National Team game on one World Cup day: “Evidence of the sport’s halfway house between success and failure can be seen in the coverage the match against England received from the US media. Commentators felt they could only convey the significance of the game by invoking baseball lore; the beautiful game could not be allowed to speak for itself.”

To get back to something true that Pilkington wrote: It would be wrong to imply that this country is indifferent to the World Cup. Yes, indeed. But not to get all Paul Gardner on this, what Pilkington misses in explaining why this is true is in his typically Anglocentric way of believing that the story of soccer in this country can be boiled down to the interest level in the US Men’s National Team during the World Cup.

OK: I live in a house near Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Next door to me, on one side, are a family we call “the Italians”. Quite recently, loud noises emanated from their house in the middle of the afternoon, including inexplicably loud cheering and worryingly noisy groans: yes, they were having a party because the country they support in the World Cup, Italy, were playing. On the other side is a Mexican family. I didn’t hear much cheering today even when Blanco notched a goal in a World Cup finals tournament for the third time, but I wouldn’t be guessing wildly if I had said their primary interest in the World Cup would be in the Mexican national team. In my house, there’s less interest in the World Cup than there might have been because Poland, the country of my wife’s birth, were last seen losing 5-0 to Spain in a humiliating warm-up game that seems to have jinxed the Spanish. Outside our house a Polish flag flies; in a nation of millions of immigrants, in the city of Chicago with a million proud Poles and a million proud Mexicans and a hundred other nationalities in substantial numbers, judging interest in the World Cup as a whole by the number of stars and stripes flying is foolish in the extreme.

AnglocentrismNow, support for the US Men’s National Team is growing in the US. Many of us immigrants like myself will cheer for the US aside from when our country (in my case, England!) is playing them. As Pilkington points out in his piece, there was plenty of patriotic fervor on display at US soccer bars for the USMNT team on Saturday. The US men’s team is growing a substantial, informed, passionate supporters’ base like it’s never had before amongst soccer fans in general, immigrants or not. Brilliant, and an important development for the sport here, for sure.

Yet there’s still a reason why the second highest paid player in Major League Soccer history is not an American, and it’s not a bad thing. It was today’s Mexican hero Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who played for the Chicago Fire from 2007 to 2009. A man worshiped by millions in the United States. But to judge from the Guardian’s article, it’s as if this entire, obsesssive Hispanic soccer culture does not exist in the United States. And hell, the league he played in may as well not exist too: how can, again, an article about the state of soccer in a country not even mention its professional men’s league?

There’s a reason why the biggest television audience for Blanco’s goal today was probably not on ESPN, but on Spanish-language Univision. Univision, not incidentally, paid $325 million for the Spanish-language broadcast rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, the 2007 and 2011 Women’s World Cups, and the 2009 and 2013 Confederations Cups (ESPN/ABC, incidentally, only paid $100m for the English-language rights to the same package). Univision is not messing around here:

The nation’s largest Spanish-language media company plans nearly 900 hours of World Cup programming from South Africa with all 64 matches broadcast live and in high definition as well as live streaming of events on UnivisionFutbol.com , video on demand, a futbol phone app and mobile alerts on everything from points scored to game finals.

A lot is riding on the World Cup for Univision, which has the exclusive Spanish-language broadcast rights in the United States mainland and Puerto Rico for the event.

Not only are Hispanic viewers crazy for soccer, but the World Cup — or the Mundial as it’s known in Spanish — is also regarded as the perfect vehicle to demonstrate the strength and growth of the U.S. Hispanic market.

“This World Cup is extraordinarily important to us,” said Cesar Conde, Miami-based president of Univision Networks.

It’s interesting that these massive $$$ numbers never seem to be printed in British newspaper articles about soccer in the US: the fact the World Cup is a richly valuable media property in both Spanish and English in the United States, but even more in the former language, doesn’t fit the narrative very well. The fact that the current $425 World Cup rights deal represents a four-fold increase in the value of the package from its predecessor suggests capitalist America has figured out the sport has a massively growing popularity and value, across American culture.

Then there’s the small matter that the US Men’s National Team is not the most popular American national team: at least, if we judge by the biggest television audience ever for a soccer match in the United States: that honour remains with the United States Women’s National Team, for the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in 1999, with 18 million tuning in. It’s safe to say that men’s soccer has grown in the US to the point that if a men’s team reached the final, that number would be beaten, but that’s besides the point. Speaking of women’s soccer, it’s so absurd to think the article might even mention the fact the United States currently has a professional women’s league (featuring the majority of the world’s best players) and England is vaguely hoping it might get one next year, that I almost didn’t notice its absence.

The success and the attention paid to the US Men’s National Team is important. But it also isn’t important, because soccer here thrives at youth level, at men’s club level, in women’s professional soccer, in colleges, in parks, in playgrounds, and elsewhere so much aside from that. A men’s national team game not being the Super Bowl does not mean that soccer is still trapped between success and failure as a whole. The Super Bowl is, and Soccer is. The latter is there for you, almost whereever you are, in some form. And maybe it’s better that as much as it grows, it never is the Super Bowl.

The Guardian used to convey both the elite and grassroots diversity of the sport of soccer in the United States to its readers easily, because it employed a man who understood better than most of us how soccer toils and bubbles and thrives and spits just below the surface of the American mainstream of sports, without it really mattering what the mainstream is: the late Steven Wells. So I’ll just leave you with this column from Wells on the Guardian’s site in 2008, and a nugget from it: “A Martian visiting the US for the first time would think soccer has been around forever and is hardwired into the American soul.”  Not a martian posing as an English journalist in New York, sadly.

20 thoughts on “Martians, Steven Wells, and the Soul of American Soccer

  1. Pingback: England’s view of American soccer fans | The Boys From Little Mexico

  2. Micah

    Reading over the excerpts you have provided, Tom, I think it’s safe to say that the British press are saying that Americans in America don’t care much for the game. Anyone that has basic skills as a journalist can easyily find out that immigrents aplenty are watching the World Cup. Either these journalists don’t view these folks as “real” Americans or they are just having fun taking jabs at the United States for not “getting it”.

    No offense it really seems like the English are jaded about soccer in the United States and our national side. They like to rip on us for not being a nation of soccer addicts yet at the same time you know they fear the United States being a soccer power. We would be yet another nation to surpass them in quality and the amount of silver and gold in the cabinets.

    Damned it we do, damned it we don’t.

    Seeing that you obviously possess quality that your fellow journals back home don’t have would you be objected to some digging and see what you can find out about the officials from the matches today. I find it hard to believe that Koman Coulibaly and Alberto Undiano Mallenco were quality officials that both had “bad days” on the biggest stage.

  3. caribou

    You know why they say soccer isn’t popular in the U.S.? Because it ISN’T. Outside of being a sport played by kids (who, like when they drink apple juice when they’re young, grow out of it as they get older) or by South American/Central American/Mexican immigrants, no one here cares for your boring ass sport. And it IS boring. I tried watching a soccer game once. Fell asleep 2 minutes in. I’m amazed I was able to stay awake for as long as I did. Oh, and that Latino fanbase for soccer? As that fanbase matures and has kids, it will assimilate into the mainstream of American culture. Which means they’ll drop soccer like a bad habit for real manly sports, like Football, Basketball, Baseball, and Hockey. Not womanly sports like soccer.

  4. ashleyfmiller

    I appreciate the mention of the US Women’s National Team. They are one of the best in the world, if not the best, and they are incredibly popular, especially for a sport played by girls. I for one am OK with the US being the dominate female footballers, but for some reason that doesn’t count when the US or British press wants to talk about how not into soccer the US is and how we’re really marginal players.

    What they really mean to say is that minorities and women like the sport more than white dudes, so it doesn’t count.

    All of this while FIFA thinks that the US is the most important market and the US pays more for World Cup rights than anyone else in the world. And our soccer audience, and the number of people who play soccer, is close to number one, in number if not by percentage.

    Just because some misogynistic and racist assholes are “bored” by soccer doesn’t mean everyone in the US is, and isn’t that the beauty of choice.

  5. Gordon Sewer

    It seems as if Pilkington’s issue with understanding the degree of interest in soccer in America is that he’s using an English scale. If it doesn’t fill the same niche as soccer in England, then its popularity is suspect. And even if we met the hand-wringing standard, he’d invent a lack of animosity toward rugby and cricket-playing toffs to show that it’s not really fandom. It’s a dressed-up version of the John Bull Anglocentrism one finds in the Sun.

  6. A. Ruiz

    Also……..can you really discount the sport because it’s “just popular with latinos”, when we’re about to break the 50 million population mark in the US and growing. That’s larger than all but the biggest nations in europe. Yes, we will assimilate but at the same we will influence the culture as a whole. Latino kids do pick up the rest of the American sports, but they never really stop following soccer. It’s just too fundamental of the identity of latinos. It’s up there with god and love for your mother.

  7. dw

    The problem is that English journalism shares many qualities with English football. Entertaining to watch for a while, but rushed, underprepared, haphazard, slapdash and ultimately pretty crap. Among the dailies I would exclude only the Financial Times from that assessment.

    For a great example of this, see Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science” blog, especially this entry http://www.badscience.net/2009/03/venal-misleading-pathetic-dangerous-stupid-and-now-busted/

    Basically it shows how all the English papers, and _only_ the English papers in the entire world, managed to report a study into screening for prostate cancer as having precisely the opposite results from its actual conclusions. All the English journalists simply copied a press release rather than reading the actual paper.

  8. Dave Brett

    “Then there’s the small matter that the US Men’s National Team is not the most popular American national team: at least, if we judge by the biggest television audience ever for a soccer match in the United States: that honour remains with the United States Women’s National Team, for the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in 1999″

    Tom, you are judging the popularity of the women’s team now by the audience it had 11 years ago??? Why would the number of people who watched a single match in 1999 have anything to do with how popular the team is now?

    In 1999 women’s soccer was a novelty. People watched the women’s world cup because it was something new and different. But the people who watched the 1999 Final didn’t turn into permanent fans of women’s soccer! Just ask the WUSA.

    Dave

  9. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Dave, the key sentence in that quote is “at least, if we judge by the biggest television audience ever for a soccer match in the United States”.

    I’d be curious to know the ratings for USWNT games in recent years.

  10. Anthony

    A well thought out essay I think. As an American living in London (though for less than a year so far) I think part of the problem is that because we speak the same language (in theory) and exchange much culture, Americans and Britons THINK we understand each other. We don’t. We understand the Hollywood version, but not much else.

    Add to that is the bubble. It seems to me that British jounralists in the US tend to stay inside the NY/DC/LA bubble while American journalists tend to be found in the London, even the West London bubble. And when the leave their bubbles, they tend to be armed not with facts but stereotypes. If a Guardian writer finds himself in Alabama, he will probably be shcoked that the locals can tie their own shoes. If a NY Times writers heads for Liverpol, he will probably be shocked to learn they are not all singing all the time.

    So I think these articles on soccer are indicative of a larger problem.

  11. Dave Brett

    > Dave, the key sentence in that quote is “at least, if we judge by the biggest television audience ever for a soccer match in the United States”.

    Tom, the way you wrote that sentence implies that we should judge it that way.