“Do you support Chelsea or Man U?” The question was framed as though it was inevitable that I must be a fan of one of the two best football teams in the English Premier League. I had watched a documentary on the Manchester United during a recent flight so I told my new Kenyan friend that I was a Man U fan.
This encounter during one of my first evenings in Nairobi initiated a series of discoveries about football, or soccer as we call it in the US, that have culminated in the following observations about the 2014 World Cup. Many have written about the cultural and sociological reasons behind why Americans are so much less interested in the most popular sport throughout most of the world. I would like to discuss some of the reasons I think that we are becoming more interested in international football than ever.
The viewership ratings for this summer’s World Cup were higher than ever in the United States. One infamous interpretation of why we have become so interested in international football is that we are a nation in moral decline. I’m not interested in discussing the politics behind this statement except for to say that a statement like this betrays a shortsighted view of what it means to be the United States of America. The majority of American citizens moved to this land from somewhere if we look back far enough. Naturally, our interests and expectations vary widely by where the immigrants from a similar background settle and how much of our original cultures we’ve endeavored to maintain.
Essence vs. Environment
Another interpretation of American interest in football comes from Erwin McManus, Pastor of Mosaic Church in Los Angeles. In a recent address, he described people drawn to football because of their essence and those drawn to it because of their environment. Those who carry football as part of their essence are the ones who follow it year-round. They know the players, understand the strategy and are the kind of people that are committed enough to wake up early in the morning and go somewhere that they can watch an international match taking place in a European time zone.
Those who are interested in football because of their environment are the ones that I’m focusing on here. Unlike the people I’ve met all over East Africa or the multitude of devastated Brazilians after their embarrassing loss in the semifinals to Germany, people in the USA are generally more interested in other sports. American football, as they call it abroad, is by far our most popular sport followed by baseball, basketball or auto racing, depending on which list you check, and then hockey.
According to an article by Al-Jazeera soccer is the second most popular professional sport among Americans between the ages of 12-24. This has a lot to do with the fact that unlike their parents, younger people often grew up playing the game and understand its nuances. For those who have never played soccer a 1-0 result may seem boring but for those who have played and appreciate what it takes to develop the skills exhibited on the pitch, a match like this can be incredibly exciting.
Playing a sport can go a long way toward making it a part of a person’s essence but our family backgrounds are even more influential to the sports that we choose to take interest in. If you grow up in a home where your parents cheer passionately for the home team, it is likely that you will join them as a lifelong fan. This is why a team’s wins or losses can cause such extreme emotions. They become a part of our identity in a way that people who aren’t sports fans will never understand. On the other hand, if your family and friends didn’t care about sports it is more likely that they won’t matter to you as well.
Our families start influencing our interests but the environment that we live in also informs us about what is relevant. If you grow up in Brazil you know from the moment that you are cognizant that football matters to your family, friends, environment and consequently to you. If you grow up in the USA, you are more likely than ever to play soccer as a child but it doesn’t take long to figure out that the environment at the school cares more about the football and basketball teams.
When following college or professional sports in the United States you are not likely to find the media discussing soccer. During much of the World Cup, ESPN was fixated on the NBA free agent market and where Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony and others would end up. If you wanted to find quality conversations about the World Cup you needed to look up them online or listen to podcasts from the UK.
Although the MLS has gained traction and become quite popular in markets like Seattle, it is still a long way from competing with the other major sports in the USA. So why do so many people care about the World Cup in a place where professional soccer is overlooked and newspapers and sports networks would rather discuss the whims of offseason basketball?
The World’s Interests Becoming Our Own
I believe that the answer to this question is that the internet and social media, in particular, are influencing our sense of what is relevant more than ever before. If you don’t think that anybody you know cares about the World Cup, you won’t likely care as well. If you know people from all over the world, either from living in your own community or traveling abroad, you are connected to people who care passionately about the largest sporting event in the world.
National pride and the desire to see our own boys win certainly influences our interest as well but given the fact that we’ve never advanced past the quarterfinals in our history, most of us aren’t delusional enough to think that we are actually going to win the tournament. Not yet, at least.
The world is flat, as Milton Friedman told us so eloquently a few years back, and the interests of the rest of the world are quickly becoming our own. This means that if the rest of the world cares about “real” football, globalization will continue to raise our interest as well. This will gradually reshape our environment’s approach to football, increase interest in the MLS and hopefully make us compete for a title in the World Cup someday. One can hope.