June 30, 2014

Why Americans like sports

As with most Theories of Everything, this will be an exercise in massive generalizations, gross oversimplifications, and carefree stereotyping.

For example, I'll leave out popular sports like skating and gymnastics (except at the end) where the "score" depends on an ultimately subjective evaluation of an athletic performance.

My next leap of logic is to define the popularity of a sport by the amount of regular weekend coverage on network television. Events periodically covered, like the Olympics, the World Cup, and Grand Slam tennis tournaments, don't count.

That makes limiting the field easy, leaving us with: football, basketball, baseball, golf, and NASCAR.

Two complaints commonly voiced about soccer are low scores and ties. Ties, yes. But football and baseball games can also be low scoring. A baseball game where a single pitcher allows no hits, errors, or runs is described as "perfect."

One of the biggest complaints voiced in turn about American sports is more telling: all that stopping and starting and time-outs that stretch a one-hour football game to three hours.

While I would agree that time-outs get mightily abused in basketball and football (and baseball could use some speeding up), the stopping and starting actually gets to the heart of the matter.

Because the stopping and starting is what makes a sport popular on American television. Specifically, the strategy of stopping and starting.

Yep, that's why the crashes matter in NASCAR too. Not only as a model of evolutionary bottlenecking, but because pitting at the right time--under green or risking waiting for a yellow--can make the difference at the end of the race.

All sports make you wonder what will happen next. The most popular American sports invite the viewer to anticipate the strategies each team will take next, and then watch to see if those predictions pay off when play resumes.

Thus the sport has to appeal to the armchair quarterbacks and backseat drivers and wannabee coaches and managers, who also demand that their predictions and expectations pay off quickly.

American football is designed to do just that, which has made it the blockbuster of spectator sports in America. As does golf, which commands comparably tiny audiences but is given saturation coverage most summer weekends.

Any paunchy, middle-aged man can imagine what he would do on the golf course if he had a swing like Tiger Woods, because every once in a great while, that paunchy, middle-aged man will hit a golf ball as well as Tiger Woods.

No, not imagine playing. Imagine strategizing: in this situation, that is what I would do. It's what every little kid playing sandlot football does when squats down in the huddle and traces a down-and-out on the palm of his hand.

The time-outs and game breaks give the coaches and players time to plan the next moves, the viewers time to take a breather and wonder, and the commentators time to examine the stats and discuss all the options when play resumes.

I had a World Cup game on last week as background noise (if anybody scores, it'll get replayed). No discussion of on-field strategies ever came up. Because there was nothing to discuss except what was happening right now.

Rather, soccer teams are described as personalities that shape the player interaction and the game as a whole. Nothing can be said about what will or won't happen at minute 1 or minute 89, except that 22 players will be kicking a ball around.

Want to "live in the moment"? Then soccer is for you. The moment is all you've got and it lasts for an hour and a half. As Dan observed in my last post on the subject:

There is a good portion of a game [of soccer] where there is no offense. Rather the players just push the ball forward and then fall back into defense. Why exhaust oneself to score a goal when the odds are so steep against it happening? [As a result], much of what happens in the game is inconsequential and everyone knows it.

I previously compared soccer to basketball, except with goaltending. Other than the obvious comparison to hockey, soccer also like tennis, slowed way down. Once the ball is in play, the action is real-time and mostly reflexive.

It's all about the now, and what the players are going to do right now is impossible to predict.

The offense will either do something brilliant--on the spur of the moment--or the defense will do something stupid--on the spur of the moment. This is what makes soccer a "performance" sport rather than a "strategy" sport.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
The gymnast not falling off the balance beam, the skater not falling at the end of a jump, can be the difference between winning and losing. But while "not falling" may be a pleasant surprise, it isn't a strategy. It's a desire (or a desperate hope). It's all about the surprise at something unexpected happening.

Of course, in the end, all popular sports are performance sports judged by their highlight reels. But "American" sports (as defined above) are highlight machines designed to produce high-performance moments that negate the mistakes. Don't be the goat!

Soccer is watched for the unanticipated occurrences of its unpredictable performances, where a single bad roll of the dice can decide a championship.

The American football fan watches a game knowing there will probably be a couple of great passes, a couple of great runs, a couple of great interceptions, a couple of big hits, a couple of long kicks, and a couple of touchdowns.

As the clock winds down, the team behind will take bigger and bigger chances with bigger and bigger plays, and some of them will pay off, but as part of an overall strategy.

The soccer fan knows that something will happen. Maybe even a goal! Maybe. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe this time . . . Well, lotteries are hugely popular around the world too, despite the long--and totally random--odds.

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
6/30/2014 11:52 AM   
This may explain why I can occasionally watch golf (it's pleasantly soporific--all that greenery), and I quite enjoy the cultural aspects of baseball (eating fried dough and doing the wave), and I approve of basketball (on principle) and of football (because it makes for some gosh darn watchable sports movies).

And yet, I find professional tennis the most pointless sport in existence.

The strategy seems to be: "I will serve the ball so hard the other player can't return it. I will then do it again. And again. I will then hit the ball into the net. The other player will then serve the ball so hard I can't return it."

Rinse and repeat.

Oh, yawn. Why does anybody care?
# posted by Anonymous Dan
7/02/2014 7:43 AM   
I believe popular American sports express American idealism and soccer expresses European idealism. The most remarkable difference being individual attribution or credit for the outcome of a match. The story of American sports has always focused on the hero and his heroic play. Someone must get credit for the outcome. If not a player than it is given to a coach or the owner or to the fans. Someone must get credit! The narrative of soccer match is completely different. Things just happen. Results happen. It is karma or good luck or bad luck. No one is ever to blame. Yes, there are a few stars but there are very few goats. When the US coughed up the lead in their match with Portugal two US players made noticeable errors. Given the circumstance these were Bill Buckneresque mistakes. But there has been no headlines blasting the players. In baseball if you let the ball go through your legs and allow the winning run to score you are a goat! In soccer if you give away the ball and fail to play defense and allow the tying goal to score that’s just the harshness of the game the boys play.

The other aspect of American sports reflecting the American ideal is that the officials will change the game as needed to better entertain the fans. The game is a product and it can and will be refined to meet the needs of the fans. Soccer on the other hand is a “beautiful game”. It no more will be changed than one would add another brushstroke to the painting of the Mona Lisa.

If the majority of soccer games were like the last 30 minutes of US vs Belgium the game would become very popular in the United States. The US team had to score and so it attacked with reckless abandon. It was very athletic and very entertaining. But you had to wait around 90 minutes to get to that point. American owners would change soccer to encourage an attacking style the whole game - they would add paint strokes to Mona Lisa.
# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
7/03/2014 6:42 PM   
I asked my hometeacher--who is a huge soccer fan--what he thought about changing the rules of soccer. And he objected. Interestingly enough, he is also a German (who has lived in the U.S. since his teens and has no discernible accent--to my ears) and has retained his German citizenship (he is technically in the U.S. on a permanent visa).

In the same conversation, he mentioned that Germany recently played the U.S. and won by one goal--on purpose since if the German team had won by too many goals, it would have to go up against Ghana next (a tougher team to beat).

In other words, in connection with Eugene's post and Dan's comment, the strategy is in the overall "big picture" team/manager strategy, not in the individual player or coach's minute by minute strategy.

I wonder if this difference also explains why soccer fans come across as so much more committed than fans of other sports. Granted, Red Sox fans are far more intense than any other baseball fans I've met, but in general, U.S. fans seem to get wild & crazy--and then go home. But if a sport is all about the GROUP, then identity would become paramount.

But maybe that is too much generalization . . . (I don't know that many fans of any sport, outside of rational family members, that is).
# posted by Blogger Eugene
7/04/2014 10:51 AM   
I think you're onto something. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it, "Watching soccer (football) is punishingly boring unless you root for one side. Without an emotional draw it is literally impossible to follow the game."

Americans have too many geographical choices and too many options to devote themselves so single-mindedly to a single team in a single sport. The fanatical Red Sox fan will likely also be an ardent Patriots fan.

But not necessarily. The "spectator" watching a "spectator sport" is there to be entertained, not to discover the meaning of life. It's only a game, after all.

Explaining his loyalty to the Chicago Cubs, George Will notes that "I became a Cub fan [at the age of seven]. The Catholic Church thinks seven-year-olds have reached an age of reasoning. The church might want to rethink that."