A reader writes:
Despite being a marvelous game, soccer will never become popular in the US because the sport’s pace and flow does not lend itself to commercial interruption. Baseball is perfect for commercials because of its inning structure, and football and basketball have numerous time-outs. So soccer will never get the huge investments from networks and sponsors that have enabled American football and basketball to prosper. And hard to imagine soccer going that route without destroying the game.
Oddly, I think one of the major things keeping Americans from becoming more invested in soccer is the aesthetics of injury - that is, the way players react to being fouled. I'm an American who has long been a lover of soccer, but there is still something galling about the way footballers react to a hard challenge - the crying, the rolling about in pain, the desperate clutching of extremities - only to get up and be fine 90 seconds later. I know that flopping is not unique to soccer. But it's highly unfortunate that global soccer developed in such a way that a certain brand of histrionic flopping became the norm.
Most of your reader replies have missed the basic point of why soccer has not and will not achieve the success in the US that it has enjoyed elsewhere: Americans need scoring.
I'm an avid fan of football, baseball, and basketball, and while I appreciate the international love for soccer, I'm certainly in the majority of Americans who will never be soccer fans. It wasn't enough that stars like Babe Ruth, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Red Grange, and Jim Thorpe were charismatic; they were the top scorers of their time.
Die-hard fans of any sport enjoy the nuances of fundamentals and defense. But to attract the casual fan, American sports leagues have had to cater to higher scoring. In baseball, they seized on Ruth's popularity as a home run hitter by ending the "dead-ball era," lowered the mound after the late '60s favored the pitcher, and turned a blind eye to performance enhancing drugs in the late '90s when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's home run chases brought back fans that had left after the mid-'90s labor issues. Football has tweaked its rules from the beginning to favor scoring, right up to this day when quarterbacks and wide receivers are protected to an enormous degree by the rules. Similarly, the rough and tough defenses of 1980s basketball have been practically outlawed by the foul-calling of NBA officials to stimulate scoring, and the NBA's first big breakthrough was spurred by the installation of the 24 second shot-clock to pressure players to score more quickly.
The problem with soccer, and the reason it will never be widely accepted by the casual American sports fan, is that it cannot adapt the game to increase scoring - such as shortening its huge friggin' field - without losing legitimacy within the international community.
The best scorer in the American professional soccer league last season was some guy named Jeff Cunningham (I didn't know who he was until I just looked him up, and I watch ESPN every day). He scored 17 goals in 30 games. Landon Donovan, the closest thing to a household name among American soccer players, scored 15. That's just not going to cut it for American sports fans, and American soccer is handcuffed to change it. Indoor soccer was invented to overcome those issues, and achieve greater scoring, but can never attract marquee talent because it has no international legitimacy. Without the fan base soccer enjoys internationally, the best American players, the ones most likely to win over American fans, will continue to play in Europe. It's a Catch-22. And one that cannot be overcome.
(Photo: An England football supporter shows his tattoos in a bar on the Waterfront on June 18, 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa. He is surrounded by fans dressed as Pythonesque medieval knights. Cape Town hosts the match between England and Algeria today in the second of their group stage matches. By Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.)