Soccer’s split fan base is well known: upper middle-class whites and working class immigrants, mostly Latinos. Both have distinct viewing habits: Anglos tend to watch English Premiere League and MLS, Latinos tend to watch Mexican League and European teams.
The problem is not the number of viewers that soccer has. The biggest problem American soccer faces, and one it needs to overcome if soccer is going to finally get the piece of American sports attention that it so badly wants, is how to unite those disparate viewers. More than that, American soccer needs to include the vast uninterested block of American sports fans who pay no attention to futbol. Call them the Average American Sports Fan (AASF).
To the AASF, soccer is a game played by children and women. They have good reason for thinking so, since soccer is uniquely popular among children and women. However, in most of the world, soccer is a man’s sport. So, why isn’t soccer a man’s sport in the good old U.S. of A?
When men watch sports, they see a physical expression of masculinity. Revered athletes display strength, grit, determination. They are powerful, dominant, aggressive, and ruthless. We talk about athletes such as Kobe Bryant not only because of their physical abilities, but because of their mental ferocity.
Men such as Bret Favre and Cal Ripken Jr. are looked up to because they “bring their lunchpail”and have “bluecollar work eithic”.
To soccer fans worldwide, players express this type of masculinity. But the very traits that most Mexican men ascribe to soccer–grit, strength, athleticism, perseverance–are the traits that most American sports fans think that soccer lacks. Why the difference? Maybe because soccer in the U.S. did not rise to popularity out of the vacant lot and the schoolyard, the proving grounds for boys eager to display their strength and courage. Maybe it is because the most strident soccer fans in America tend to be white and educated and therefore perceived as soft. Maybe it’s because soccer is popular in Europe, and we all know what wimps the Europeans are.
The reason why is moot: professional soccer is here. We can’t go back and change the narrative. We just need to roughen it up a bit.
Americans love sports narratives that demonstrate a player’s grit and determination. Think Steve Nash in the 2010 NBA playoff games, taking the floor with one eye swollen shut and a broken nose. Think Duncan Keith, who battled on in the NHL playoffs despite having seven teeth knocked out. Think of Greg LaMonde, who won the Tour de France after being shotgunned in the thigh, or Lance Armstrong, winning after nearly dying from testicular cancer.
The narrative that the AASF applies to soccer, however, is about the lack of scoring, the flops, and the violence off the field (at least internationally). What American soccer needs is not photos of Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba stripped to their undershorts on the cover of Vanity Fair–it needs pictures of guys playing with broken arms, guys returning to the field after being carried off in a stretcher, guys with blood dripping from their ears.
This is the hurdle that American soccer needs to overcome. Somehow, MLS needs to focus on a single narrative: that soccer is hard, violent, and physical. It is. Americans just don’t know it yet.