Why Women’s Soccer Might Make Soccer Work in America

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.

YJPSOCCER blog480

Image from the NY Times (I think)

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.

Grantland: 2 Weeks of a Noble Endeavor

On June 8th, Bill Simmons launched his latest ESPN endeavor: Grantland, a sports and pop culture site. “Wow!”, you say sarcastically, “isn’t that exactly what Page 2 is?”

Yes, yes it is.

But Grantland is more than Page 2, for a few reasons:

  • It is focused on long content, not just short attention grabbing blog posts
  • It has attracted a really solid set of known writers (Simmons, Chuck Klosterman, Dave Eggers) and lesser-known writers (Bill Barnwell, Katie Baker)
  • It’s not plastered in ESPN’s incessant branding and cross-promotion

At the core, Grantland seems to be an attempt to prove that if you generate good, sustainable content (even if it might be magazine article length) that the audience will come. And that makes Grantland a noble endeavor.

So, after two weeks, how does Grantland look? Let’s start with the bad.

As a web property, its design is, well, I don’t want to say excruiatingly bad, but it’s pretty bad. The layout with new content appearing at the top is reasonably blog like, but without any of the markers that give you a clue about what’s new since you last visited (or even just what’s new today). The intermingled blog content (where sometimes it seems blog posts make the front page, but other times they don’t) adds a bit of confusion.

Those are reasonably minor quibbles.

The site itself looks like it was designed in 1997. That’s ok, I think, since they’re going for the old-timey media feel (or at least I think they are). Except it ends up looking pretty ass-like when you end up with a giant Subway or Klondike ad in the middle of a page.

The use of footnotes (which is a Simmons favorite) is fine. The footnotes showing up in the right column, in line with the reference is a clever idea that sounds better than it works, especially if you use a service like Instapaper or ReadItLater (perfect for the longer content of Grantland). Footnotes are called footnotes for a reason — the bottom of the page is *always* the bottom of the page.

Oh, and no full text RSS feeds. Seriously, it’s 2011.

However, the the poor-to-middling site design can be completely overlooked if the content is as stellar as I think the team at Grantland wants it to be.

So far, sadly, the answer to that is that it is not uniformly great. But there have been some bright spots. Some truly, supremely, worth the experiment already bright spots.

Tom Bissel’s incredibly thoughtful, “review as commentary on society” review of the video game L.A. Noire was the first article on the Grantland site that really met the high bar the Simmons’ team is aspiring too. There are almost no mainstream outlets that would devote 5000 words to a review of a video game, unless it ended with the conclusion that they cause all of society’s ills.

Charles Pierce’s recollection of his time at The National is just the sort of well-written piece that doesn’t really get written any more, or if it does, it’s on some backwater blog that you hope you catch a link to on a Twitter. And it really was the perfect entree into what is probably Grantland’s signature piece, to this point, the Tom Shales-ian oral history of The National.

The oral history piece does a few amazing things that I can’t imagine flying on ESPN. It allows some ESPN folks to crap on other ESPN (and non-ESPN folk). It spends thousands of words reliving the days of a long departed sports daily. It makes it interesting.

If Grantland can launch one or two of these pieces a quarter (and, it’s somewhat telling all 3 of these hit in the first couple of days), then it may not just be a vanity outlet for Bill Simmons, but instead a place where long-form content can go and actually be read.

If Grantland has more of the, let’s say, spotty content that has filled its “pages” since the launch, I think it’ll end up as just another Page 2. I’m hoping that the Chris-Jones-and-Wesley-Morris-like articles (two authors who I have enjoyed elsewhere), where we take a simple sports topic and try to turn them into something more poetic (or simply, purely, less readable), find their way to an editor who can reign them in.

Ironically, that editor may be Bill Simmons, and that hasn’t proven to be one of his strong points.

I’m actually hopeful that each month Grantland will spit out a couple of “I’ll read that once a year” articles mixed in with a few “did ya read that one yet” articles you share with your friends. Mix in a slightly better site design and I think it’ll be a success.

By success, here, I mean something I’ll go to and know that I’ll be able to grab a good article or two to read on a plane or subway ride (or more likely, on the shitter). I’m not sure, beyond the Bill Simmons articles (which have lost some of their sheen when put next to better writers) that there’s an audience for the site, but I’m really hoping I’m wrong. (I’d love to see what their webstats look like.)

There should be a place in this world for a site like Grantland.

Simmons vs. Klosterman IV

I’m actually not sure how many Simmons/Klosterman podcasts there have actually been, but Bill Simmons may want to think twice about having another one. Each time he has a podcast with Klosterman, he comes off like your local sports bar yokel, spouting off random ridiculous theories, and having the calm, knowledgeable friend talk him back down off the ledge.

If Simmons wasn’t so influential, it’d almost be funny.

As it was, this most recent podcast was incredibly sad. At times, it bordered on unlistenable due to how intellectually obstinate Simmons was, and how Chuck Klosterman had to keep backing off basically calling him an idiot.

A few of the stellar moments:

  • Simmons insisting that Maya Moore 2.0 could play in the NBA, as a 15th man, to draw fans. Klosterman comparing that to Eddie Gaedel (which is actually a pretty apt comparison), and Simmons simply either not getting it or, quite frankly, just being obstinate.
  • Simmons trying to come up with a way to keep college kids from jumping to the NBA, with Klosterman simply derailing each one with a single sentence.
  • Simmons challenging Klosterman to describe how he would turn around a downtrodden NBA team, to which Klosterman replies (paraphrasing) “I would build a competitive team, since that’s all that matters in the long run”, leading Simmons to reply that he wouldn’t hire him, that he would bottom out and build a team the way Sam Presti did (i.e. exactly what Klosterman was saying), but while doing it, he would do something for the fans. Apparently, like hiring a token woman to ride the end of the bench.

I could go on, but I really don’t want to. There are a bunch of other people who’ve captured some good moments.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually really enjoy reading Bill Simmons (for the most part). But, over the past few months, he has obviously been spread way too thin, and that has lead to some pretty poor columns (when he bothers to write them), some poor podcasts (though the quality of guests he gets makes them still required listening), and a seeming erosion of his talent.

Hopefully, his new sports site will allow him to do a little bit less of the heavy lifting for his brand, letting him be a curator of good stuff (something he is truly good at), and maybe letting him get his head back into his writing.

(As an aside, it took everything I had to not end that last sentence “get his head back into his writing and out of his own ass,” because he seems to have bought into his own hype a bit. I really enjoyed parts of his last book, The Big Book of Basketball, especially when you pulled out all of the complete douchebaggery about “the secret,” and his constant namedropping. But, I guess now I’ve written it here, so I probably just should have ended my sentence with it.)

Fantasy Dork

My AL-only fantasy baseball auction is tomorrow. I’m, sadly, incredibly excited. Auction leagues are so much more fun than straight drafts because you can go in with very different strategies than the normal “pick the best player at a position I need” strategy.

Strategies include:

  • “Suggest the hometown players early so people over pay”
  • “Suggest young, intriguing players early so people over pay”
  • “Bid up the last good shortstop/second baseman/catcher so that someone wastes a bunch of money on Ian Kinsler/Derek Jeter/Jason Varitek”
  • “Save all your money to the end of the draft and clean up on the guys everyone forgot about”

Basically, it’s open season to be a dick. For my “keepers,” I’m keeping 5 guys from last year who I got cheaply and save me money versus what they would cost me this season (Jered Weaver and Clay Buchholz are probably 2 of the top 10 or 12 pitchers available and I’ve got them for a combined $20 auction dollars).

Giddy up. Baseball season is here (just in time for the Celtics to go into their normal end of season hibernation).

–Ryan

The Greatest NBA Draft in History

The 2006 NBA Draft is going to go down as the most entertaining draft in NBA history. A weak draft, without a player who’s assured to make a significant impact, and on ESPN rather than TNT, this draft could have been a disaster.

Instead, ESPN and the NBA got together and made it the most entertaining 4 hours of TV ever. Here’s a couple of real-time recaps to check out:

Chairchuckers.com
Sons of Sam Horn
(The latter link might not work unless you have an account.)

I don’t think I can possibly do it justice. Here are just some of the highlights:

  • A million random trades, including 400 by Portland
  • 4 Year Duke scholar Shelden Williams giving an interview in mumbleese
  • The Wolves/Blazers swap the 6th and 7th picks in one of the sketchiest deals in memory
  • Centers Sene and Armstrong go in the lottery
  • Rudy Gay miked up
  • Jay Bilas, Stephen A. Smith, and Greg Anthony ripping everyone — while their commentary is being broadcast live in the arena to all of the draftees present
  • Dan Patrick and David Stern go at it live on the air
  • Dick Vitale verbally fellates J.J. Reddick and then asks him for tickets
  • Dick Vitale, who’s never said a bad word about a player, disses Celtics’ pick Rajon Rondo as the equivalent of a .220 hitter
  • Jay Bilas says Noah Lowry could beat up Rondo
  • Isiah Thomas spends his 1st pick on Renaldo Blackman, expected by many to go undrafted
  • Marc Jones getting accosted by Knick fans both times he was forced to venture into the stands

Just a stellar night. I’m sure Bill Simmons will have a lot to say about it.