Why don’t Americans play, or watch, soccer? Yes, I know perfectly well that soccer is indeed a thing in America. In fact, if you look closer, it turns out that it always has been, to some extent. But hyperbole aside, soccer is not a major sport in America (and speaking of hyperbole, the name “Major League Soccer” is best interpreted as aspirational rather than descriptive).
Why, for that matter, does the rest of the world play and watch soccer? This too is somewhat hyperbolic. There are parts of the world where soccer is not that big a deal. Indeed, there are some pretty important parts. I’m not talking just about Antarctica. But again, hyperbole aside, soccer is the most popular team spectator sport in the world. While this might seem to be simply the natural order of things, it is just as legitimate to ask why the rest of the world plays this game as it is to ask why America does not.
The complement to both these questions is to note that instead of soccer, America has American football: a game which is played nowhere else. Even Canada has its own variant. (And yes, I know that there is an audience for American football outside the US. But I also note the lack of success of NFL Europe.)
These questions are the centerpiece of American exceptionalism (sports edition). There are other distinctive features of American sporting culture, but they pale in comparison. We play baseball while much of the world plays cricket, but other part of the world play baseball too, and cricket is nothing like so widespread as soccer. So America and baseball isn’t an example of exceptionalism: basketball and (ice) hockey even less so. Football stands out.
This is a big topic: far too big for a single blog post. I am currently projecting this to run at least five parts. We’ll see. This first installment is the throat-clearing part. Please bear with me.
First some housekeeping. Vocabulary has the potential to distract. The word “football” is claimed by multiple parties, and they can be protective of it. The word is widespread because premodern football spun off multiple variants and subvariants. The version played worldwide, a/k/a the beautiful game, is the version codified by the Football Association, founded in 1863. “Soccer” is a late 19th century English nickname for it, derived from the common abbreviation “Assoc.” (Compare this with “ruggers” for Rugby football.) This was just a random bit of slang, but it was enthusiastically adopted in America to distinguish Association football from “American football.” In American English “soccer” is the standard term, with no derogatory, or even informal, connotations, and Americans who object to the usage are widely (and correctly) dismissed as pretentious twits. I will be using it in this series because, well, American English is my dialect, and while I may be a pretentious twit, I express this in other ways.
It wouldn’t do to therefore assign “football” to the version played by the NFL. This would be fine for a lot of discussions, but when the different football versions played through time and space are discussed a simple “football” would introduce ambiguity. So what to call it? There isn’t really a great answer. Some non-Americans call it “gridiron” but this is mostly perplexing to Americans. We sometimes refer to the playing field as the gridiron, but never the game. (Even for the field this usage is mysterious. The explanation is that for a period in the early 20th century there were lines running lengthwise, as well as the familiar crosswise lines every five yards). So I will settle for the clunky but unambiguous (until some smart aleck says “But isn’t Canada part of America”?) “American football.”
Next is the matter of what sort of answer I will be giving. Sports culture is a part of broader culture, so a sports culture question should be examined in the broader cultural context. But there are blind alleys to avoid. There is a long tradition of discussions along the lines of “baseball is better suited to the American character than is cricket because Americans are an energetic people, and demand a faster game than cricket.” Or it could go the other way, explaining how the English prefer cricket due to some superior national characteristic. Either way, this is twaddle: a classic example of a technique that explains everything, and therefore explains nothing; and is invariably made to flatter one’s prejudices.
My approach is straightforwardly historical. The NFL of 2016 is more popular than MLS of 2016 because the NFL of 2015 was more popular than MLS of 2015. Repeat for 2015 and 2014. And so on. People watch and play what they are used to watching and playing, and they pass these habits on to the next generation. The question “Why do Americans prefer American football over soccer?” is really a historical question, “Why, at an early date, did the one version become established over the other?”
To bring this home, we need an additional concept: team sports seasonal niches. There are, in a temperate climates, three niches for team sports: for summer, fall, and winter.
A summer sport tends to be comparatively leisurely. Running around for three hours in July is a good way to get heat stroke. Better to have a game where you get a chance to sit down and drink. Baseball and cricket are the notable examples.
The fall is more suited to a game with lots of constant movement, making cool fall weather bracing rather than frigid. You might get lucky, but baseball and cricket in October are poor bets for being fun. You are likely to find yourself standing exposed to the elements wishing the ordeal would simply end. Football, in its innumerable variants, is the classic fall sport. Another is the hurling/shinny/hockey family.
Summer and fall team sports have been around forever. The winter niche is newer. It has two sub-niches: outdoors and indoors. The outdoors variety arose in the mid-19th century, combining a general trend for team sports and a fad for ice skating. Ice baseball was a genuine thing for several decades. Outdoor winter team sports really took off when some Canadian boy genius tried playing hockey on ice skates. (OK, that is vastly oversimplified, but then again exactly what happened and when is unclear, at least to me.) The indoor version of winter sports came a bit later. Once you have large indoor spaces and good artificial lighting you can create team sports designed to be played indoors. They inevitably tried to adapt baseball. Indoor baseball was a genuine thing for a few decades until it moved back outdoors and evolved into modern softball. The two indoor games that stuck were basketball and volleyball.
Why no spring niche? Because spring, in the relevant climes, is an unpredictable alternation of winter and, well, not winter. You can have a beautiful spring day, where it would be criminal to spend it indoors, and then the next day get a foot of snow. It’s hard to plan around this. In practice spring is given to summer sports, getting games in when the weather allows.
At this point the seasonal niches are mostly due to habit. We could build indoor ballparks and play baseball in Canada in January, if we really wanted to. We do in fact play ice hockey when it is sweltering outside. And finances can be a wonderful inducement to withstand discomfort, leading to the English Premier League’s nine-month long season. The seasonal aspect is stronger in a historical discussion, when they lacked the technology to fight the season, and at this point is mostly tradition. But traditional is far from nothing. Remember the USFL.
I have described niches in relation to the seasons in Europe and North America. In a tropical zone your seasons might be wet and dry, and if you are doing anything outdoors it is going to be in the dry season. Had world sporting culture arisen in a tropical climate it would have played out differently. But it arose in temperate climates and got shoved, sometimes awkwardly, into everywhere else.
Seasonal niches give us a framework for comparing like with like. We know this intuitively. We don’t ask why America has American football when much of the world plays cricket. We compare American football with soccer, and baseball with cricket
The second, and less obvious, point of seasonal niches is that once organized sports develop, and especially once they become spectator sports funded by gate receipts, there is a strong tendency for any given niche to have only one occupant. Spectator sports benefit from networking effects. People want to discuss the game at the water cooler the next day. And while there will always be that guy who wants to talk about the Real Madrid game, the other guys roll their eyes and go back to discussing the Redskins. Once one sport wins the niche, the others get marginalized.
The exception to the rule that there can be only one would seem to be basketball and hockey. This is only somewhat true, and not only because I have divided the winter niche into two parts (though that is important to the historic development of both sports). For all that the NHL would like there to be the big four American sports, there actually are the big three, with hockey a distant fourth. You can see this where the rubber meets the road: franchise value.
Note the complete absence of the NHL from the top 50 most valuable franchises. Hockey manages to hang on without being marginalized like, say, professional softball because it has a bastion of support to the north, where it is a much bigger deal than basketball. While hockey is a quasi-exception, the rule still generally stands.
So putting this together, I am going to restate the questions. At the beginning of this piece I asked why Americans don’t play, or watch, soccer; why the rest of the world does; and why instead, America has its own unique version of football. In light of the above throat-clearing, here are the restatements:
(1) Why, in America, is the fall-season team sport niche occupied by a sport played nowhere else, American football?
(2) Why, in much of the world, is the fall-season team sport niche (or its nearest equivalent) occupied by a single game, Association football?
Part II will discuss the English origin of organized football and how it split into competing codes. Part III will discuss how in America one of these codes came to dominate, and almost simultaneous was altered almost beyond recognition. Part IV will return to England for the rise of the Football Association. Part V will cover how Association football spread to much of the rest of the world. Should I be so moved, I might add a Part VI of semi-informed speculation about the future.