Every few years the World Cup generates a blip on the radar screen of American sport. The blip beeps louder if either the men’s or women’s team makes a run in the tournament. Then the conversation often turns to why the most popular sport in the world does not have the following in America that the “Big Three” of football, basketball and baseball enjoy?
Lack of scoring, confusion and ignorance of the rules, the players positions and purpose, the time clock (referees are allowed to extend or shorten the game at their discretion), matches ending in a tie (we Americans are all about winners and losers), and most offensive to soccer purists, “it’s boring.”
This last complaint no doubt linked to the others.
But there is one other reason: Money.
Let’s start with the men. Our best adult male athletes do not usually play soccer. Why?
Sure, millions of kids fourteen and under play in recreational and competitive leagues. But many also play football, basketball and baseball. Once they hit junior high and high school many focus on a specific sport and soccer is often a casualty, especially for the most talented athletes.
If a kid is an elite athlete with legitimate prospects of playing professionally, where should he allocate the most precious resource any of us have, his time? To a sport like soccer that pays little compared to the “Big Three” and receives scant attention from the American media and the general public with a corresponding lack of endorsement dollars? A sport, that should they try to play overseas, is filled with outstanding players from hundreds of countries vying for the same roster spot? Certainly MLB and the NBA have more international players than ever, but for an American player, thanks to the foreign leagues, this cuts both ways The NFL, of course, is almost exclusively American.
Look at it this way. An above average Division I U.S. college basketball player who has no chance of making the NBA can find a spot in an overseas league, with an apartment, car allowance and a decent salary. Baseball players not ready for the majors go into the minor leagues or play in Mexico, Central America, or Asia. Football players who miss out on the NFL, have the CFL and Arena ball.
An above average Division I U.S. college soccer player is going to have a difficult time finding such gigs.
So what about the women? Why do they excel in the World Cup, winning two titles and finishing second this year. How do we explain that?
Or lack thereof.
Other than tennis, auto racing, and beach volleyball, I cannot think of many sports that pay the top women as much as they do their male counterparts. WNBA, no way. Golf? LPGA is constantly struggling for sponsors. Perhaps track and field, maybe the X Game sports. But the bottom line is most women’s sports do not have the TV deals or advertising support that men enjoy, particularly the “Big Three.”
As the saying goes, when you got nothin’ you got nothin’ to lose, so why not play the sport you love the most? The best women athletes in the U.S. do not need to walk away from soccer in junior high and high school to focus on the “Big Three” because, as of now, they are off-limits to them. Perhaps some day there may be a mixing, but it is difficult to visualize such a scenario any time soon.
Another consideration for men and women is the availability of college scholarships. There are 310 Division I colleges who offer soccer scholarships to women. For men it’s 197, far fewer than basketball or baseball. While there are fewer Division I football teams, each offers up to 63 scholarships. So even if a young woman is not a future world-class player, a free ride to college in soccer is more of a possibility for her than a man. Considering college can be a six-figure expense, we are back to where we started.
All this may be why, in combination with Title IX in the seventies and the explosion of youth soccer, America has produced great women soccer players and teams. Unlike the men, our best female athletes are on the field.
But even the success of the women’s teams has not translated into wide-spread enthusiasm among Americans for soccer. As long as the “Big Three” reign supreme, it never will. Why?
I think you can hazard a guess.