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.