Why we don't watch soccer - Macleans.ca

Why we don’t watch soccer

Amateur participation is sky-high, so why is the Beautiful Game such a commerical flop in Canada?


Getty Images

In 1988 the United States won the right to host the 1994 World Cup. For soccer fans, this was to be the beginning of the end of their sport’s struggle for relevance in North America. But nearly 25 years later, little has changed. Aside from the once-every-four-years hoopla surrounding the World Cup, soccer remains a third-rank pro sport in the U.S. and Canada.

America’s World Cup playoff match against Ghana last month drew 19.4 million viewers in the U.S. Significant, but far less than the 27.6 million who watched the U.S.-Canada Olympic hockey final. In Canada, the World Cup was the most watched program in the last week of June, with about two million viewers—about the same number who watched Global TV’s police drama Rookie Blue. Neither the arrival of Major League Soccer in 1996 nor its luring of stars like David Beckham stateside have been able to propel the game into the big leagues of North American pro sport.

Based on participation rates alone, soccer is wildly successful. Almost 670,000 Canadians under the age of 18 played organized soccer last year (compared to fewer than 500,000 playing hockey). Numbers like that should translate into big commercial success. Yet at its core, soccer is a game that runs antithetical to what American and Canadian fans value in the sports they celebrate.

To start, it is a methodical game in which long stretches are spent shifting the ball around midfield probing for weaknesses in an opponent’s defence. “You have to concentrate on what you’re watching,” says Colin Jose, a historian at the Soccer Hall of Fame in Vaughan, Ont. “There are no natural breaks.” To the American fan, raised on a diet of high-octane sports filled with bursts of explosive action (football, hockey, basketball), soccer can look boring. In a popular YouTube rant, British comedian John Cleese says Americans don’t appreciate that soccer is a thinking man’s game “played like jazz.” Or is it that Americans prefer their sports to be more in your face, like rock ’n’ roll? “There’s a disconnect between the way sports are seen in North America and the way they’re seen in Europe,” says Jose.

New defensive coaching strategies haven’t helped. In the first week of the World Cup, seven games ended in ties of either 0-0 or 1-1, and seven ended with scores of 1-0. Not the kind of results that will win over North American fans, already inclined to view the game as frustratingly slow. Many of soccer’s rules only add to the problem. In an age when TV viewers are treated to high-definition, slow-motion playback, soccer referees aren’t allowed to see video replays. Then there’s the diving.

Soccer players flop to the grass at the slightest hint of contact, and turn, beseeching, to the referee almost every time they go down—infuriating for fans used to cheering on hockey players who spit out broken teeth on the bench and football players bruised and bandaged on the line of scrimmage.

Bob Lenarduzzi, who played for Canada in the 1986 World Cup and is now president of the Vancouver Whitecaps Football Club, says a number of rule changes could make soccer more exciting. Extended offside lines (so players can’t be offside until they’re within 35 yards of the opposition goal) and an over-and-back rule (similar to basketball) would open up the game, he says. Officials should also be able to review video during and after games to penalize fakers. But the global success of soccer means there is little demand for such radical reform.

Maybe the biggest problem with soccer is that despite the participation rates, it’s still perceived as an outsider’s sport here. Young athletes tend to gravitate to homegrown sports (Canadian NBA superstar Steve Nash, for instance, gave up soccer to play basketball). They’re helped along by established professional systems that identify and groom talent at a young age. “We need to do a better job of providing the one per cent of kids who are very good [soccer] players the chance to develop their skills,” says Lenarduzzi.

Rising immigration will continue to make soccer more Canadian. The success of pro teams like the Toronto FC and new teams in Vancouver (next year) and Montreal (in two years) could help build local talent and a bigger fan base. Supporters are optimistic the game can one day rival the likes of the NHL and NFL. But for the impatient, TV-watching American and Canadian fan, the Beautiful Game is still just an off-season diversion.


Why we don’t watch soccer

  1. Idiotic, out of date article. I guess that's why more people watched the World Cup Final on CBC than the Stanley Cup. Or why TFC has a waiting list for seasons tickets, while Vancouver and Montreal sell out regularly.

    Goes to show why Macleans is a magazine for my grandparents.

    • Vancouver sells out soccer games because it's like a 4,000 seat stadium and tickets are like $10. They'll sell lots of tickets for the first couple of years, then people will realize it's basically the equivalent of AA baseball.

      The fact of the matter is in North America, where we have the top hockey, football, baseball and basketball leagues, no one wants to watch a third rate (if that) soccer league. Sure, people go to games, but do you think the fans care about these teams to the extent people care about their city's other pro sports teams?

      As far as people watching the World Cup more than the Stanley Cup finals, that's expected. It's the World Cup, the best players in the world that happens once every four years. It's an event; it's more than just another game that only fans of the sport watch. How many people do you think watched the 2006 World Cup, then not another game of soccer until the 2010 Cup?

      It's more fair to compare it to the Olympic hockey final, which, as I recall, had something like 26 million viewers in Canada.

    • this article is so 1990s. Where have been Colin Campbell in the past 2 decades.

      points raised are also pretty weak. in terms of ratings, very few sports programs out rate ent shows in Canada.

      a fairer comparison with Olympic gold medal hockey is the WC final. Including viewers on Univision, it had about 33m viewers in the US. Cdn WC ratings doubled from 06.

      so, unlike the gist of the article, North Americans are turning away from the Disneyfied North American landscape littered with McFandom to the raw, real life glory to tragedy of football.

  2. "Supporters are optimistic the game can one day rival the likes of the NHL and NFL"

    Let me know when the MLS draws the best players in the world, then we'll talk.

  3. There is talk of what football (soccer) needs to do to appeal to north america. my answer is who cares???

    soocer is the most popular sport on planet earth. The world cup the biggest tv event on the planet. Soccer does not need to do anything. It is way ahead of any sport in terms of following.

    To put soccer into global perspective, consider this. Combine nfl, nba, mjb, nhl. combine the tv audience of these events, mulitply by 10. Still they will fall short of the soccer world cup!!

    To conclude soccer does not need to do anything. it is the premier sport in the world, other sports need to do something to compete.

  4. The popularity of traditional american sports (hockey, NFL etc.) have nothing to do with the pace of the game being boring. Consider baseball, the most boring sport of all and how wildly popular it is in the USA. If soccer were truly boring, then it would not be popular elsewhere in the world and games like basketball, hockey, baseball and rugby which are played in other geographic regions would greatly surpass soccer's popularity.

    The real problem is cultural. Sports conservatives in North America see soccer as a threat because of its popularity elsewhere to their established sports culture. Therefore in the media there is a constant "campaign" to undermine soccer, ridicule it and refuse to give it the coverage on TV that it deserves. This is changing but will take time .. I myself have seen massive changes in this cutural chauvinism sine the 1980s .. given more time it will change but this will require tradition to be established by soccer clubs in North America. Hopefully the sports snobs who control the north american media coverage will get on board.

    • Macthis you are totally right. Articles like this drive me nuts, and is a perect example of the campaign against soccer.

      The funny thing is despite the anti-soccer propaganda soccer is still growing here. I wonder why there is "soccer day in canada" on cbc and not baskeball or baseball day in canada?

      BTW I am an emtenth generation Canadian, I didn't play soccer as a kid, didn't watch it on tv (until I was in my 20's), I grew up with the stereotypes about soccer and I love soccer! Once I actually sat and watched a couple games I was hooked. Enough of this immigrantion is what will drive the growth of soccer. Exposure IS driving the growth of soccer here. And it's Canadians ALL Canadians new, old or whatever that are falling in love with the beautiful game.

    • "Therefore in the media there is a constant "campaign" to undermine soccer, ridicule it and refuse to give it the coverage on TV that it deserves."

      That is sophomoric, conspiratorial BS. If soccer were commercially appealing to North Americans, it would be commercially successful here. There's no conspiracy to keep it off the airwaves. There are tons of specialty sports channels available in North America, and generally if you want to watch soccer, you can find it on the dial if you have a decent cable package (I can and I do). Any sport that is decidedly low-scoring in the first place, and then clearly disallows 2 high profile goals in its marquee tournament because its poohbahs are too stuck in the mud is a sport in serious need of some beneficial rule changes.

      Look what happened to the NHL — they took a critical look at themselves, made some rule changes, and those changes are almost universally acknowledged to have made the sport better. Soccer fans (and I count myself as one) need to have a more critical, objective eye towards their game.

  5. Really, how can you make a statement like new teams in Vancouver and Montreal. They have had teams for many many years. They just aren't in the MSL. Apart from the media driven hype for Toronto FC, it should be known that the Impact of Montreal is regularly shown on SRC (French language CBC) on a regular basis. Probably more often than Toronton FC.__ As for why soccer is so popular elsewhere in the world, I'm not so sure how true this is. It certainly is true in many parts of Europe. However, there it is more like a religion. People show up like partisans to support their team. In fact, there is often more action in the stands (singing, dancing, etc.) than on the field. You're comment that it's a thinking game and requires concentration is a sham. I don't think all those fans carrying out their antics in the stands are concentrating much on the game. The game is simply the thing to do, the place to be, and supporting your home team the thing to do. There is really no more reason for its large popularity than that. In Canada, hockey fills this role and in the US it's football. That's just the way it is and it's not going to change anytime soon.

  6. This is really an interesting blog. I must appereciate the work.As you all know importance and popularity of sports games like football,baseball and many more. You must visit us for live scores

  7. im american here but do the french speaking parts of canada have a big soccer following, i mean dont they have similar culture to france and soccer is part of french culture

  8. In Europe soccer is most popular sport. Maybe USA do not like soccer becouse in soccer could be draw :)

  9. Soccer is fucking gay

  10. The only thing better than soccer is anything. In fact I'm watching some paint dry now and it's about as much fun as the world cup. Bring on REAL Football!

    • You obviously don't know what real football is. Let me suggest to you it might be a sport where the ball is played by the feet. What you really mean is bring on agravatingly slow… lets stop for commercial breaks… let the TV editing machine make us look good…. pointy throw ball!!

  11. I'm not a big fan of watching soccer, although I did enjoy playing the game as a youth. In fact, there are few sports I find truly exciting to watch, besides some forms of motor racing (F1, Rally racing, etc.) and some of the alpine sports. I have always found gridiron football, basketball, and baseball to be particularly boring (I think it's all the stopping and starting). Ice hockey can be exciting, although I do find the fighting in Canadian leagues distasteful.

    Of all the pitch-based sports, I would have to say rugby and rugby sevens are the most exciting. The games are more fluid, and play isn't constantly being stopped. If only the CFL could turn back the clock and become more similar to its rugby roots…

  12. As far as I know, this year I don't think that the Montreal Impact has one sell out. And they only have 13,000 seats.

  13. Slowly, attitudes towards soccer are changing.  It will take a while, and its a good thing the attitude of the MLS brass is a long-term strategy.