Soccer — or football, as it is called by the rest of the world outside the United States — is surely the most popular sport in the world. Every four years, the world championship of soccer, the World Cup, is watched by literally billions all over the world, beating out the United States professional football’s Superbowl by far. It is estimated that 1. 7 billion television viewers watched the World Cup final between France and Brazil in July of 1998.
And it is also a genuine world championship, involving teams from 32 countries in the final rounds, unlike the much more parochial and misnamed World Series in American baseball (that doesn’t even involve Japan or Cuba, two baseball hotbeds). But although soccer has become an important sport in the American sports scene, it will never make inroads into the hearts and markets of American sports the way that football, basketball, hockey, baseball, and even tennis and golf have done. There are many reasons for this.
The biggest reason for soccer’s failure as a mass appeal sport in the United States is that it doesn’t conform easily to the demands of television. Basketball succeeds enormously in America because it regularly schedules what it calls “television time-outs” as well as the time-outs that the teams themselves call to re-group, not to mention half-times and, on the professional level, quarter breaks. Those time-outs in the action are ideally made for television commercials. And television coverage is the lifeblood of American sports.
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College basketball lives for a game scheduled on CBS or ESPN (highly recruited high school players are more likely to go to a team that regularly gets national television exposure), and we could even say that television coverage has dictated the pace and feel of American football. Anyone who has attended a live football game knows how commercial time-outs slow the game and sometimes, at its most exciting moments, disrupt the flow of events. There is no serious objection, however, because without television, football knows that it simply wouldn’t remain in the homes and hearts of Americans.
Also, without those advertising dollars, the teams couldn’t afford the sky-high salaries of their high-priced superstars. Soccer, on the other hand, except for its half-time break, has no time-outs; except for half-time, it is constant run, run, run, run, back and forth, back and forth, relentlessly, with only a few seconds of relaxation when a goal is scored, and that can happen seldom, sometimes never. The best that commercial television coverage can hope for is an injury time-out, and in soccer that happens only with decapitation or disembowelment.
Second, Americans love their violence, and soccer doesn’t deliver on this score the way that American football and hockey do. There are brief moments, spurts of violence, yes, but fans can’t expect the full-time menu of bone-crushing carnage that American football and hockey can deliver minute after minute, game after game. In soccer, players are actually singled out and warned — shamed, with embarrassingly silly “yellow cards,” for acts of violence and duplicity that would be smiled at in most American sports other than tennis and golf.
Third, it is just too difficult to score in soccer. America loves its football games with scores like 49 to 35 and a professional basketball game with scores below 100 is regarded as a defensive bore. In soccer, on the other hand, scores like 2 to 1, even 1 to 0, are commonplace and apparently desirable; games scoreless at the end of regulation time happen all the time. (In the 515 games played in the final phase in the history of the World Cup games through 1994, only 1584 goals have been scored. That’s three a game! And if there is no resolution at the end of overtime, the teams resort to a shoot-out that has more to do with luck than with real soccer skills. Worse yet, it is possible for a team to dominate in terms of sheer talent and “shots-on-goal” and still lose the game by virtue of a momentary lapse in defensive attention, a stroke of bad luck, and the opponent’s break-away goal. Things like that can happen, too, in baseball, but the problem somehow evens out over baseball’s very long season of daily games.
In soccer, it just isn’t fair. Soccer authorities should consider making the goal smaller and doing away with the goalie to make scoring easier. And the business of starting over after each goal, in the middle of the field, has to be reconsidered. It’s too much like the center-jump after each goal in the basketball game of yesteryear. It seems unlikely that Americans will ever fully comprehend or appreciate a sport in which players are not allowed to use their arms and hands.
Although the footwork of soccer players is a magnificent skill to behold, most American fans are perplexed by straitjacketed soccer players’ inability and unwillingness to “pick up the darn ball and run with it! ” The inability to use substitutes (unless the player to be substituted for is lying dead or maimed on the field of play) is also bewildering to Americans, who glorify the “sixth man” in basketball and a baseball game in which virtually the entire roster (including an otherwise unemployable old man called “the designated hitter”) is deployed on the field at one time or another.
Finally, the field in soccer is enormous. Considerably larger than the American football field, the soccer field could contain at least a dozen basketball courts. Americans like their action condensed, in a small field of vision — ten enormous sweaty people bouncing off one another and moving rapidly through a space the size of a medium-sized bedroom, twenty-two even larger people in bulky uniforms converging on a small, oddly shaped ball. In soccer, on the other hand, there is a premium on “spreading out,” not infringing upon the force field occupied by a team-mate, so that fancy foot-passing is possible.
This spreading out across the vast meadow of the soccer playing field does not lend itself, again, to close get-down-and-dirty television scrutiny. Soccer is a great sport and it certainly deserves the increased attention and popularity it is getting on all levels. But — primarily, again, because it does not lend itself to television — it will never make it big in the United States the way these other sports have, not until it changes some of its fundamental strategies.
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