Simon Williamson

American football. The kind with feet.

2014-06-27 09:05

Simon Williamson

While my location would dictate I refer to the world's game as "soccer", I'm going to stick with the more traditional "football", as the American version of "football" rarely involves the use of the feet in any way that isn't the usual fashion used in running - you know, in virtually all real sports (by definition: real sports are ones in which you can't smoke and play at the same time).
I wasn't aware that the FIFA World Cup would be so enjoyable on these shores. The men's national team (bizarrely referred to always as USMNT, well within Americans' natural urge to abbreviate absolutely everything) is fairly average, although regionally dominant, and plies its expertise in a sport that is somewhat anathema to the way Americans like their own sport to be played.
Now, although I grew up criticising American Football for its players seemingly playing rugby in protective gear (I contemporarily criticise it for being set up to be excessively violent), and baseball for a nine-inning game which is essentially cricket made harder, and ice-hockey for being too fast to actually watch, and basketball forcibly repetitive (literally, you have to take shot within 24 seconds of gaining possession of the ball) I have been known to scream at the TV in the just over two-and-a-half years I have lived here. But the peculiar allegiance to American-only sport in this country has made the widespread appreciation of the USMNT’s graduation from the "group of death" notable, and much appreciated by this foreigner.
An "un-American" sport

Football is, if you'll accuse the crass term, a somewhat "un-American" sport. For starters, there is only one period during which a television network can advertise which is decidedly unpatriotic. American’s do not accept no-result, a draw or a tie in any sport – in virtually all instances teams keep on playing until one bests the other. And while, in the rest of the world, we marvel at players like DaMarcus Beasley and Wayne Rooney who can attack and defend, Americans like specialists to do all the work.

In baseball, often, the pitcher isn't even required to bat; to a cricket fan this is abhorrent. In American Football, they have two separate teams: one to attack and one to defend, and then a specialist kicker who plays no other part in the game (the role Naas Botha gets a hard-on for). In our football a manager is constantly changing how attacking or defensive his team is going to be with slight formational changes. Americans prefer decisions centre around which way a coach will attack, not whether he is risking his defence to do so.
While a lot of whiny US criticism of football is that it is preferred by "soccer moms" because it is not dangerous (cough) and has no basis in individual achievement (because, umm, team sports like ice-hockey and American Football), the sport is growing in the US, although from a smallish base. While the nation’s principal league is piddly in quality when compared to its European and South American counterparts, it is on the rise in viewership and investment. Recently Major League Soccer decided to expand with another total to 23.
On the television front, NBC paid $250m in 2012 to broadcast every game of the English Premier League, and flights them on separate channels in English and Spanish. While that’s titchy compared to the nearly $5bn for the same rights in the UK, it is well up on the $80m previous deal. Viewership for the 2012/2013 season was also 70% higher than it was for the one before. Al Jazeera has thrown around $400m to broadcast Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A, France’s Ligue 1 around the world, and within that reportedly twice what the previous US broadcaster of the same product paid to show football here.

The desire to beat everyone else

And the risk has the potential to pay off. More than 25 million people in the US had their hearts broken in real time when Critiano Ronaldo equalised in the dying seconds last week. That's more than the average audiences for the baseball World Series last year (the final of the competition), and the recently completed NBA finals. It is five times the size of the audience of the Stanley Cup (ice-hockey finals).
This statistic is largely mitigated by the low ratings when USMNT (this abbreviation still hurts my fingers) or the women's national team doesn't play in a World Cup. Major League Soccer is not yet a huge drawcard, while European league games happen in the morning ad early afternoon. World Cup qualifiers don't draw a huge audience. Football is very much yet to turn into a massive money-maker, in spite of its growth thus far.
So what is it that explains the national excitement at this World Cup, with banging ratings compared to the MLS, that has made watching the world’s top football tournament in this country such a delight?
The most underestimated facet of the World Cup here is that the US national team gets to play against other people.
The sheer desire to beat everyone else: that is quintessentially American.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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