Monday, June 14, 2010

Back To The Soccer Well

Internet has been down on me for much of the day, leaving me unable to press forward on what it was I was trying to do. So I guess we go back to the soccer well. And since that's what we're doing, it's as good a time as any to address without debate the biggest question concerning American sports fans.

Just what IS it about soccer, anyway? Nobody ever scores! Halfback passes to center, back to wing, back to center! Center holds it! Holds it! Holds it!

Here's what is it about soccer.

By purely looking at the scoreline, you're not really watching the right thing. The excitement of a soccer match doesn't so much come from the actual goals- though those make fans go nuts- so much as it comes from scoring chances, which are much more frequent... or so everyone hopes. Those are where matches live or die. Scoring chances equal excitement. The ball remaining in midfield all day, it's true, is boring. You will get no arguments there. Soccer fans think those games boring too. But when the game is moving back and forth, decent shots are being taken, excitement is generated regardless of whether or not the ball actually goes in the net. (The US/England game, for reference, saw 18 shots on goal by England, and 13 by the US. 31 shots, about one every three minutes... it doesn't look like 'center holds it, holds it, holds it' anymore, does it?)

If a team marches down the field, takes a screamer of a shot, and it has a real chance but it ends up going juuuuuust wide of the post, sure, no goal was scored. If the shot is deflected by the goalkeeper's fingertips and ends up volleyed just over the crossbar, sure, no goal was scored.

But wasn't that fun to watch?

Now imagine the ball ricochets off the keeper, or the crossbar, back into play, and a second shot is taken almost immediately afterwards. The goalkeeper, having just sacrificed his body to make the first save, has to get up immediately and save another. And maybe a third, or even a fourth if the offense is bearing down particularly hard. Even if none of these shots go in, the excitement of the original scoring chance hasn't yet worn off, and while the fans are still coming down from that, they see one or more additional shots in quick succession. The excitement builds with each attempt on goal. By the time the assault is over, the fans are delirious.

And because actual goals are so rare, the appreciation for each goal that does occur increases accordingly. Each and every goal has a huge bearing on the match, because you don't know when or if another one is coming, if any are coming at all. So when a goal does get scored, the fans go absolutely crazy.

Compare to basketball. If Lionel Messi scores a goal, it's huge. It's almost a religious experince for some fans. If you're at that match, 30 years later you can tell your kids "I saw Lionel Messi score a goal." Now imagine saying "I saw Kobe Bryant score a basket." Just the one. You're not thrilled. You're disappointed, because you expected, nay demanded him to score 10-15 more just like it. Your reaction to any one basket is likely "(clap clap) All right." And that's it. On to the next possession.

A good analog in 'American' sports comes in baseball. Not runs, of course; those are much more common than goals. Think instead of home runs, which occur at something resembling equivalent frequency: not every day, and when they do, only one or a couple usually. Home runs pass the tell-your-grandkids test- "I saw Albert Pujols hit a home run."

And if you're at the ballpark, if Pujols gets that home run, you're going nuts if you're a Cardinals fan. But not quite as nuts as you would if Messi scored a goal. Why is that?

Simple: baseball has other ways to score, and more points at stake. Take a baseball game, and keeping everything else the same, make two simple rule changes:

*Home runs are the only way to put runs on the board. Hits are well and good, baserunners are well and good, but you only want to drive them home so they don't get thrown out on the basepaths.
*All home runs score one run, regardless of how many men are on base.

Now the scoring frequency, and scoreline, is brought in line with soccer. Without those additional runs, without those additional ways to score, attention focuses onto the home runs. You're going to be a lot more excited, fanatical even, when one happens. And in addition, if you've ever been to a ballgame, you know how the crowd gets excited over any long fly ball that they don't know yet will end up dying somewhere in the outfield. Imagine how much more they're going to react when they know that ball getting over the wall is the only way to score. Imagine how much more they're going to react when the outfielder goes up the wall and robs a home run. Note how excited you'll get when any powerful batter merely steps up to the plate.

Conversely, note how much you will cease to care about line drives and pitching duels and most of what goes on in the infield.

Welcome to soccer.


Space Coyote said...

I think the idea that Americans don't watch football because of low scorelines does a disservice to the attention spans of American spectators. Also, if scoreline was the only deciding factor of a sports success in the US, I would imagine that rugby and cricket would be more popular.

The biggest thing that will make football more popular is simply having more people playing it. Secondly, knockout competitions (as to avoid those snoozeworthy ties) like the North American Superliga need to be expanded along the lines of the FA Cup, where 762 teams are eligible rather than just 8, leaving much greater scope for giant-killing and bringing more attention to smaller local teams.

Aaron Allermann said...

We have the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup; that's been around forever.