U.S. Intellectual History Blog

I Believe That We Will Tie: The US, Soccer, and Rooting Interests

Teddy GoalseveltEvery four years, the US media has a conversation about whether the US is ready to embrace soccer. One of the talking points is the supposed obstacle to mass popularity presented by the frequency of tie games. It is generally assumed that US sports fans despise draws, even think they are “un-American.”

In fact, everyone—from Ann Coulter to the guy who has just finished telling you that Americans are too unsophisticated and egotistical to like a truly international game like soccer—seems to agree that US sports fans regard winning as definitively “American,”[1] and all assume, correspondingly, that the US will not be able to embrace a sport that the US isn’t good at winning.

I’m going to throw out a theory: this hypothetical average US sports fan feels uncomfortable with draws not because as a nation “we” worship winners, but because we love underdogs. We love underdogs winning, but we also love underdogs narrowly, heroically losing (Rocky most iconically), or even just triumphing on their own terms (Rudy). US sports fans love underdogs so much that they cavalierly dress up as “Teddy Goalsevelt,” seeing only the inspirational mystique of TR–his overcoming childhood debility, his fearlessness before physical danger. It is oblivious and it is ugly and it is incomprehensible, but it is Teddy the underdog that many US soccer fans see, not Roosevelt the imperialist. (Or just perhaps, it is Roosevelt the underdog imperialist.)

Draws complicate Cinderella sports stories because they defer the underdog’s fate beyond the limits of an individual game: the value of a draw changes based on your subsequent results and the results of your competitors, or it is dependent for its value on prior results—it is never enough to advance your side as a single result. And Cinderella stories are all about the vicissitudes of single games—each game has to be an elimination, winner-take all game, or you have no true Cinderella, no true underdog. If there is some truth to a US aversion to the idea of ties (or to yesterday’s situation, where the US advanced with a close loss), it is for this reason: US sports fans want underdogs, and to get them, games have to be self-contained, “win or go home” situations.

But US sports fans do not, I think, love underdogs because it is “in their character.” Rather, it comes from the way that major sports leagues have tried to chase bigger and bigger television ratings. If you consider the long-term trend in major US sports leagues, the expansion of “win or go home” games is astonishing. Until 1969 in Major League Baseball, the winningest teams in the American and National Leagues advanced directly to the World Series; there were at most seven playoff games, and both teams went home with a pennant (which also seems to have meant more). In 1969, suddenly, there were potentially 17 playoff games and four teams fighting for glory; two would go home with just a measly divisional title. Not coincidentally, the brand new format that year produced the greatest underdog probably in the history of baseball, the “Miracle Mets.”[2] Baseball playoffs have expanded twice since then, including the recent addition of a one-game sudden death playoff between the two wild cards in each league.

Other sports have followed suit, expanding their playoff formats in such a manner that regular season records progressively carry less meaning, give less protection for the “favorites.”[3] But the real result is the multiplication of games that carry the highest stakes—games that, not coincidentally, have the highest television ratings. When sports commissioners talk about increasing “parity,” this is what they are really saying: they are after the underdog bonus, the addition of many more “must-see” games. “Anything can happen” is unbeatable television.

US sports fans would undoubtedly like to see a World Cup (and its qualifying matches) more like the NCAA basketball tournament–every game is sudden death, every loose ball is all-out war. But that is the case not out of amour-propre (the US would be no more likely to win the Cup) but out of a rooting interest in the underdogs that would inevitably emerge from a tournament entirely structured as sudden-death.

If they prefer an NCAA set-up it is because it fits best with the way US television and professional sports leagues have taught us to follow a sport and to watch a tournament, and if that is so, it is not a question of national character or American exceptionalism. The “America” that is invoked as being incompatible with soccer—with draws, with teamwork, with the thoroughly international character of the sport, with the acceptance of not being first in everything—exists as an object of desire for people like Ann Coulter, not as an ingrained reality in the national fabric. We can learn to watch differently, to appreciate draws—even scoreless draws.

[1] “American” here mostly means “young-ish white male.”

[2] The Mets did have the best record in the National League that year and would have advanced to the World Series under the old system, yet the fact that they had to win two playoff series only increased the sense that they were overcoming enormous odds—and enormous skepticism—to become World Series champions.

[3] The World Cup’s initial field has also been expanded, although the round robin nature of the group stage seems to have remained fairly effective at minimizing the number of true underdogs advancing. More common is the collapse of highly touted sides—Italy, Spain, and England this year—but except for Costa Rica, this year’s biggest underdog, the teams which advanced instead—Holland, Uruguay, and Chile—cannot be said to be underdogs.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is an excellent post, and your point about do or die, or “win or go home” games exploding in American sports in the last forty years is an excellent point. That’s been cited as the chief reason everyone loves the NFL: every regular season game matters, and by extension, every week means a new storyline for fans to follow. And in terms of baseball, you’re exactly right about pennants meaning more–to the point that the rare postseason series in the NL or one game playoffs in the AL took on special meaning (“Giants win the pennant!” anyone?).

    And of course, more playoff games means more money for the various sports leagues. There’s talk about adding another team to the NFL playoffs, for instance. What’s interesting about the World Cup is that there’s been talk in the last few years about eliminating draws altogether at the group stage! http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/football/8914308.stm

    • A pennant meant more when it was the NL champ versus the AL champ in the World Series without and preliminary playoffs.

  2. I’ve heard it floated that the recent increase (as of last year, at least) in MLB games of no-hitters and one-hitters (caused by, it was being argued at the time, less players on the juice) will not last because it will hurt the popularity of the sport; Americans don’t like low-scoring games, so on and so forth. This sounds like another overly deterministic instinctual declaration just like the idea that Americans don’t like ties because they need a winner, which you break down here. I did not realize all that stuff about the play-offs being increasingly structured to increase sudden-death games; that makes a lot of sense!

    I’m wondering though if you could unpack your thoughts on Americans rooting for the underdog a little more. At first glance, it seems true; I like an underdog team as much as anyone, but then again I don’t root for an underdog team (in baseball at least, that is), and most people invested in a sport, it seems, tend to root for the team they ended up with as a coincidence. True, everyone hates the Yankees; except for all the truckloads of Yankees fans which find their way to games in huge numbers even all the way over here in California (I’ve marveled at how many there are at away games at Oakland). Because there are a lot of people in New York, obviously. But then the Yankees have about twice as many fans as the Mets do – and the Yankees, obviously, are not underdogs. So what is that about?

  3. Robert,
    Thanks so much. I had no idea anyone was discussing doing away with draws in the group stage–thanks for pointing that out!

    Robin Marie,
    Thanks for your question; I certainly should have explained what I meant by rooting for underdogs better. What I was thinking of was not so much how people select the team they most identify with, which as you say, is mostly circumstantial–where you were born, who your family cheers on, etc. What I was thinking about was more trying to answer how people choose a team watch and to root for temporarily in situations where their own team is not involved. Which kind of teams attract bandwagon jumpers?

    Of course, there always are what sports fans call frontrunners–when Jordan was on the Bulls, very few uncommitted viewers, I imagine, suddenly began cheering for the Jazz or the Sonics because they were the underdog (I did, I loved Gary Payton and Malone/Stockton). But much more commonly, I think, folks tend to pick up an underdog as their new and temporary favorite during the course of a playoffs or a tournament, especially once their team is out of the playoffs or tournament, or if their team is in a different bracket or league. And most of these bandwagon jumpers, I think, don’t stick around as fans of that underdog beyond that year’s playoffs or tournament.

    • That makes a lot of sense; and I guess, a lot of the impact of very popular sports involves just those bandwagon jumpers; everyone watches the Superbowl in America, including tons of people who do not follow the normal season. But they are kind of carried along and compelled to participate in that circumstance.

      I wonder though if or how we could get a handle on how this underdog preference runs through America as opposed to other countries; did more Europeans root for Atletico Madrid than Real Madrid in the Champions League final this year? I honestly don’t know; but, true to your argument here, in my little corner of the US, the local sports bar was packed with about 75 percent Atletico fans.

      • That’s a great question, and I’m totally incapable of answering–although it would be fun to do some research!

        One consideration, though, is that the match you’re talking about is not exactly common in association football, right? Isn’t the UEFA Champions League the only instance of a tournament deciding the champion? The Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, et al. all crown their champions based on the final standings after a double round-robin. So if you’re watching a Premier League game that doesn’t involve your side, your rooting interests are more likely to align with which result would be most beneficial to your team. Of course, I’m sure it’s always fun to see Real Madrid lose, no matter how it affects everyone else!

  4. Ties are like kissing your sister as the man said.

    But there is much more than this to Americans’ failure to embrace soccer. Basketball, hockey, soccer and lacrosse are basically the same game — center the ball/puck and get it to players attacking from optimum angles. Basketball, which has scoring, flow and intensity going for it — not to mention ample space in the ghettoes for the great athletes there to play the game — is accepted wildly as is hockey, which has fights and we all know Americans love fights. Lacrosse is big in the East and has the benefit of historical antecedents in America among the natives. Like hockey it is also seen as a game for tough guys.

    Ah but soccer, the game of frustration and stoppage of play and the godawful offsides rule that stops the offense from pressing an advantage. (Imagine being out in front of a fast break in basketball and having to stop and wait for the defense to catch up. Ridiculous. The American mind reels from it.) There is no historical imperative to playing soccer for American kids who are looked down on for playing it instead of football, which Americans love because it is symbolic and metaphoric war. In soccer, the ball is always changing hands (feet) and direction with no results to show for it. The ball also is constantly being kicked out of bounds and action halted. Americans love to take the ball and go.

    Just as you can’t lead a horse to water and make it drink, so, too, can’t you lead an American to soccer and shove it down his or her throat.

    • While I think there is something to many of your points here, I disagree about the stoppage of play part; soccer is actually remarkably fluid compared to all of the most popular American sports. Football has a stop-start rhythm akin to bumper to bumper traffic; basketball, while when allowed to flow has constant movement, is nonetheless punctuated heavily by time-outs and, especially in close games, fouls; and baseball is a game almost entirely composed, actually, of interruptions. (I mean really a batter gets to take 30 seconds to a do a nervous-ticks routine after every pitch, for goodness sake).

      So I don’t think it is flow; I think it is more how often people score that marks the major difference. Soccer is an exercise in delayed gratification; and, the argument goes, Americans aren’t any good at this and want more and more offensive scoring. This is an argument I’m not sure about, but the difference it rests on is definitely real.

      And then there is a good old fashioned conspiratorial leftist idea — soccer has failed to take off because the lack of interruption makes for almost no time for commercial interruptions (they do kick around the ball a lot, but at any moment, something *could* happen, so they can’t break until halftime and only at halftime) leading to a lack of corporate enthusiasm. I hardly think this explains everything but it is, again, a very real and intriguing difference.

      • That is why i didn’t mention baseball (which i abhor) and dealt only with those sports that are from the same tree as soccer. Hockey scoring is low and people in America flock to it, lacrose is relatively lwo scoring and people on the East coast have embraced it. Basketball, when not a tv game is very intense and back and forth and why i tend to go to more high school games (I live in Indiana where basketball is king and still played and taught the right way) It’s the best high school baksetball anywhere in the U.S. and I have seen tons of other teams and talent from around the country. Soccer may feature back and forth action but to Americans there is no prupsoe to it. Football is like war and battles have time lapses between them. It’s also the perfect TV game. Scoring also is low in baseball and football. You may have 28 points in football but you’ve only scored 4 times.

        Actually, I think Americans disllike the sport of soccer because you can’t use your hands and they see this as a terrible and inexplicable waste. True you cannot use your hands to advance a puck or a lacrosse ball but the means by which you do are controlled by your hands.

        In America hands were created for use in athletics.

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