Friday, July 30, 2010

Trying to Love Soccer

From True/Slant on June 14, 2010:

Stop Treating Soccer Like the Spectator Sport Equivalent of Brussel Sprouts

Americans suck. We don’t love soccer enough and, thus, we suck. For shame. Shame on all of us, a nation of cretins who watch five minutes of a soccer game, fall into a deep state of unenlightened torpor and flip to a rerun of Law & Order. That seems to be the accepted World Cup/Soccer meme, but I’m not buying it.

First, not every American hates soccer. That said, I’ll admit it that I don’t love it, but I am open to persuasion, so I started to wonder why willing consumers of sport like myself don’t love the game and how it can be made more appetizing? Short of changing the rules or shrinking the pitch, that is. Which is to say, how can the television broadcasts and promoters make the sport more entertaining?

Here are five ideas to bring the fun.

1. Let’s declare futbol detente. I come to bury the aforementioned stereotype, a Glenn Beck-style reactionary who hates futbol cause ‘it’s jess so darned fereign!’ But while we’re here, let’s put to rest the myth that it is more virtuous to watch futbol than football. Puh-leeze, people, it’s entertainment. I love women’s football. Does that make me a better person than you? Hardly. But I love the sport and I follow it because, hold on to your jocks kids, it’s fun. That’s right: Fun. Presumably, soccer fans watch because that’s fun, too, but non-soccer-heads are constantly hectored with the argument that soccer is spiritually superior, or something. This is not only false, it is the spectator sport equivalent of trying to force a willful five-year-old to eat her brussel sprouts. Nobody watches something on television because it’s good for them. We sit in front of the TV to have fun. So, put some bacon in those brussel sprouts, embrace the fun, and let’s agree to not bash each other’s heads in.

2. Make It Personal. Nearly every sport is dull if you don’t have some connection to it. I’ll be the first to admit that baseball is boring. It’s boring, people. It just is. Games take longer than it took to sell my house, big league pitchers take leisurely siestas between pitches and batters fiddle with the minutiae of their equipment and article of clothing between pitches, sometimes even calling time out to do so a second time. Home runs are down and hitless games are up. And yet, I love the game. Why?

As a kid, I was such a baseball geek that I used to keep score along with radio and television broadcasts, which is an embarrassing level of geekdom; even to this day, I keep score at the ballpark. This is just a shot in the freaking dark here, but I’m gonna go ahead and say that personal memories — of games attended, of crowding around a radio with my best friends to listen to the bottom of the 9th inning, of playing catch for hours as dusk turned to actual night, knowing that I was risking backyard rhinoplasty in my vain efforts to track and catch a badly scuffed up ball in the dark — constitute the mental muscle memory I bring to games even now. It is why a 1-0 pitcher’s duel is a thing of beauty to me, but might send a baseball neophyte to the Ninth Circle of Ennui. I get it.

So stop lecturing and start sharing. Tell me your favorite memory of playing, or about watching a game with your grandmother, or about soccer parties at your uncle’s house. If I hear that stuff, I’m in. I really am.

3. Television. ABC and ESPN, I’m begging you, we need your help! I’ve spent a lifetime watching hockey. I can see a neutral zone trap without the announcer pointing it out; I can spot a defensive breakdown, a goal saving poke-check, or a momentum altering hip-check without the color analyst commenting. But that came from years of watching hockey. Even when a team doesn’t score, a savvy fan can see what they were trying to do. And that makes the game exciting.

The problem with soccer is that, despite the preponderance of youth soccer leagues, many of us still lack that kind of knowledge, the kind of understanding that we unwittingly supply to hockey or basketball which makes those games more exciting and entertaining. For most of us Americans, soccer matches look like nothing more than a bunch of super fit guys in nice shorts running around on a ginormous grass field. Find a way to incorporate replay. Show me a play and how it developed. Explain the strategy behind it. Use a telestrator and explain it to me like I am six years old. It might be annoying for the lifelong fans, but for most of us, that insight would be invaluable. It wouldn’t solve the problem of being able to see only a fifth of the pitch (those things are bigger than Rhode Island) on the telly screen, but it would be a good start on the road to making the game more appealing for us bloody Yanks, yeah.

4. Personalities. God have mercy on my immortal soul for saying this, but the broadcasts can borrow a page from the Olympics in that regard. Most of us don’t know any soccer personalities beyond Pele, Beckham and, maybe Ronaldinho. Maybe. Until I read Jonathan Curiel’s post I had no idea that US goalie Tim Howard had Tourette’s Syndrome. Curiel is dead on when he says that personalities and backstories like Howard’s engage even the most casual fan. Who isn’t rooting for the goalie with Tourette’s? Not rooting for that guy, dare I say it, would be downright un-American.

5. Win. Not to go all Talia Shire in “Rocky II” on you, but win, guys. People love a winner and we love to celebrate. Give us a reason to.

Let me put it on a small scale. Steelers games are sold out from now until doomsday, but it wasn’t always thus. In fact, the playoff game between the Steelers and the Raiders which ended with the Immaculate Reception was blacked out in the Pittsburgh television market because, get this, it wasn’t sold out. But, from there, the Steelers went on to win four Super Bowls, an entire generation was converted to the church of Steelers football and games have been sold out ever since. If you sign up for Steelers season tickets today, you might get tickets by 2028. If you’re lucky. And you know somebody who can pull some strings. Maybe.

Winning changes EVERYTHING. America’s soccer has team made it to the World Cup’s final four just once (in 1930, no less.) Make it past the group stage and I guarantee scores of new fans will be won over. Make it to the final, and you may convert an entire nation of cement-heads.

Well, maybe not Glenn Beck.

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