If you are remotely sports-minded, the timing of this post is probably a bit too on the nose. The US Women’s National Soccer Team just played what may have been one of the most exciting, frustrating, and ultimately American games of soccer ever played. However, these thoughts have been percolating around in my brain for a bit, and the game yesterday just crystallized that my premise is right.
For the average American, the Women’s World Cup is a more interesting soccer tournament than the men’s, and might be the event necessary to get your average American sports fan to watch soccer.
With almost any other sport, Americans will not accept the women’s version. Volleyball and gymnastics might be the exception, but those are not major sports and Americans will only care about them every four years.
But Women’s soccer, particularly this team in this event, might help soccer catch on for the rank and file fans who generally spend their year moving from their local baseball team to football Sundays to the NBA and NHL playoffs. They might now spend a morning watching a Premier League game, or tune into a Men’s national friendly.
- The World Cup is played at a high enough level that the average fan can see it’s a skilled sport. This, alone, doesn’t seem like anything particularly insightful. The World Cup, an international event that, like all good international events, plays on patriotism and jingoism to get you artificially behind a team you didn’t know existed two days ago. When you turn on a Women’s World Cup game, you can tell you’re watching something important. The same thing goes for the Men’s World Cup. Or the Olympics. Or your average EPL or [insert other league here]. Pretty much anything other than MLS. Americans like the best. The World Cup is the best.
- The players in the Women’s World Cup are not as good as their counterparts in the Men’s event.Now we are getting somewhere. While this doesn’t sound like a positive, it is in this case. The Men’s World Cup is full of supremely talented teams who don’t play together enough. That leads to a very conservative game, a game that is spent almost entirely in the midfield, touch passes, reversing field, methodically moving the ball, probing for a weakness in the defense. Occasionally, you’ll get a run by an offensive minded player, followed by a counterstrike by the defense, and then another 30 minutes of midfield play. It is this play, the generically boring, possession-based offenses, that bores your average American to death.Top leagues like the English Premier League, or really, any of the UEFA leagues, aren’t like this. They have inventive and interesting offense, and a game that has a tremendous amount of back and forth. This is because these teams play together (basically) year round. They know each other, and their opponents, and they aren’t in what amounts to a single elimination tournament. But, they’re also foreign, with odd chants, and odd names, and few Americans.
The Women’s World Cup finds a niche the Men’s doesn’t. The players are great, but not so good that they have the ability to control the ball for minutes at a time. There are many more turnovers, fewer successful passes, and this leads to a significant amount of offense. Teams make runs all the time. The ball travels from one keeper to the other keeper in seconds, not in minutes. It is a less precise game, and, therefore, becomes far more interesting.
- The Women’s National Team is good; The US Men’s National Team isn’t.And here’s where our patriotism kicks in. Your average fan, when turning on a Men’s National team game, particularly against any nation that isn’t found in the Caribbean, can tell that the Men’s team is in for a fight. Or, worse yet, in for a drubbing. They just aren’t that good. Someday, that might be different, but it’s not different today. Americans do not like cheering, or watching, a team lose. So, instead, we just don’t watch.But the Women’s team is one of the best in the world–or possibly, the best in the World. They won the Cup in 1999 (which almost everyone remembers), and have been consistently good. When you turn it on, you know you’re watching a team that can win.
(Why didn’t soccer catch on in 1999 after the Women’s team won the World Cup? Well, it did, a little. But, mostly, because it was 10+ years ago without 10+ sports networks, HD cable, and online video. You had to struggle to watch soccer in 1999. Today, you can turn on ESPN and have a broadcast of the Premier League that is done specifically for the American audience.)
The best teams in the world, playing an exciting (if sloppy) brand of soccer, in the biggest tournament in the world, and the American team has a shot at winning. This is why Women’s soccer might turn Americans on to watching soccer on TV. Yesterday’s 2-2 Penalty Kick victory over Brazil might have been the tipping point. It had everything Americans love, and rather than rehash that, I’ll point you to American McCarver’s recap of the game.
This tournament, particularly if the US team can beat France and move into the finals, might be enough to get fans to check out another soccer game. If ESPN is smart, they’ll start showing recaps of Premier League games, pitching the upcoming EPL season, and pointing hungry soccer fans towards something besides MLS. Americans simply are never going to get behind MLS. We don’t watch second rate leagues (at least not in large numbers). Hardcore soccer fans will watch MLS the way hardcore football fans watch the CFL or Arena league: they just like the sport and will do anything to watch it.
Casual fans, hooked by this Women’s World Cup (and, in particular, this team), should be spoon fed EPL games, in hopes of growing a larger, American soccer audience. This time, it might actually work.