Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Soccer's Place Within American Sport

I have recently been in conversations with folks about David Beckham, the international superstar who is married to Posh Spice (oh yea, he plays soccer too). His much-hyped move to the soccer minor leagues (read: the MLS) has been billed as American soccer’s savior, the moment when the celestial bodies align and soccer-mania spreads in America like the black plague in 17th Century Europe. Some believe that he will be able to breathe life into the ailing American sport, pushing its popularity levels to something close to that of pro football (American football, that is), basketball, and baseball. While the crude formula may seem logical (fringe sport + international star appeal = infinitely greater popularity), it misses more complex issues.

Soccer will not break into the Big 3 anytime in the near future, which is not a knock on soccer as a sport. It's a great sport, both in terms of pure athleticism as well as the level of passion of its (real) fans. Putting aside the fact that Pele, the unquestioned greatest soccer player of all time, attempted and failed to raise soccer’s level of popularity here, you have to understand two things:

1) American sports fans are very territorial, reaching Fox News xenophobic levels. Soccer isn't "our" sport; we didn't invent it, nor did we capitalize on it early enough in our history. Therefore, we generally view soccer as an outsider’s game, played mostly by pansies who are somehow too feminine to understand that a sport isn’t “real” unless hands are used (think Eric LaSalle’s character [Jheri and all] in “Coming To America,” and the scene at the St. John’s basketball game). The average American sports fan could find it within himself (or herself; xenophobia poses no gender bias) to equate becoming a soccer fan to siding with terrorists (or even worse, the French...).

2) There is a weird relationship in this country between the paying (read: white) sports fans who watch (and attend) events and the black and latino athletes who entertain. Football, basketball and baseball, at varying levels, share this trait. Poor, urban, black (or whatever other ontological term you want to use) kids grow up playing these games along with their wealthy, suburban, white (again, choose any ontological term you deem necessary) counterparts. Sports like soccer, hockey (both field and ice) and lacrosse are suburban-only. For some reason, those sports don't register on the American viewing landscape (clearly, I am suspicious of this relationship, which leads to my belief that it has something to do with white folks and their pleasure in being entertained by blacks and latinos. Alas, as always, I digress).

Soccer's best chance to take more of the niche fan (you know, the type of person who thinks they are doing the world good simply by doing the "other," or as Sean Hannity would call them, “Liberals”) is one David Beckham, an international superstar who transcends sport; no other soccer player can claim that. Hockey used to possess this space until their player-initiated strike, and now soccer has the opportunity to fill this void. However, unless one of the Big 3 falls significantly (because of reasons like, oh, I don't know...refs fixing games, federal indictments involving dog fighting, steroid allegations following a player about to break his sports' most hallowed record, or anything else that could NEVER happen), soccer will remain a niche sport at best.

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