Sunday, August 8, 2010

Why Soccer is Less Popular in the U.S.

What is it about soccer that has stopped it from really taking off as a spectator sport in the United States? Could it be the low goal scoring? The constant change of possession? In my opinion, the answer has less to do with the aesthetics of the game than it does with economics (big surprise, right?). Allow me to explain.
To understand the market for televised soccer, one must first understand the economic quirks of the television market in general. Specifically, antenna television has the problem of being what economists call a "public good." A public good has two characteristics:
1) It is non-rivalrous in consumption, meaning one person's consumption of the good does not prevent others from using it. While goods like apples are rivalrous in consumption, meaning if you eat an apple, someone else cannot also eat that apple, one person's watching a television program does not stop anyone else from watching it on a separate TV.
2) It is non-exclusive in consumption, meaning nobody can be stopped from consuming the good if they want to consume it, making it impossible to collect money in exchange for consumption. While a grocery store can prevent the theft of its apples, a TV network broadcasting over airwaves cannot prevent anyone with a television from harnessing those airwaves to watch TV programs.

Cable and satellite broadcasts, however are excludable. These advancements have bypassed the problem of money collection for TV services. But things were different before the age of cable TV. In these early decades, there were two choices for financing television, either publicly funding it, or getting revenues from advertisers. The United States, unlike many other countries in the world, has relied primarily upon a private system of television funding, based on advertising. In the US, the advertiser became the real customer, paying for airtime, and the TV viewer was a bystander to the process. The commercial break became a necessity. In other countries however, governments stepped in to create networks like the BBC in Britain, that were funded by taxation, thus eliminating the need for commercial breaks.

But what does this have to do with soccer? Quite a lot really. The game of soccer is divided into two continuous 45 minute halves. Other than half-time there are no natural breaks in the game, like time-outs in American football or basketball, or breaks between 9 different innings as there are in baseball. This is a problem for broadcasters who depend on commercial breaks for their only source of revenue. For this reason, in an advertising based financing system, soccer games will tend to be chosen less than other programs. Why show a soccer game with only a few commercial breaks during half-time, when you can show a basketball game with numerous time-outs, breaks between quarters, and a half-time break? So antenna-televised soccer is not just a public good, but a public good that is resistant to advertising.
To explain why soccer is not so popular in the United States, my theory is, in recent decades when soccer became the world's most popular sport, its lack of exposure on US television played a role in its relative lack of popularity. Soccer haters may disagree, but the economic logic is sound. The pay-for cable and satellite sports networks that sprang up in the age of cable, or new forms of web based broadcasting, may eventually give soccer the exposure it needs to be on par with football, baseball and basketball. Just don't expect any of the traditional networks to broadcast a soccer game when there's a perfectly good basketball game to show.


  1. Excellent points. I've always wondered how much it has to do with the cost of equipment, too. Most of the sports that are popular in America—esp. those in the Winter Olympics—all require specific equipment that one often needs to buy for one's own personal use. Even basketball needs a goal, and you can't play football unless you have that oblong ball. In a wealthy country like the US, it's not that big of a problem. "We" can afford it, and the resources are as readily available as the sporting goods store in the mall a few miles away. It's a different story with soccer, though. Even in the most disadvantaged circumstances, you can organize an informal game of soccer with a variety of spherical, kickable objects in an open space with a few friends. Anyone can dream of being a soccer player because those basic resources are more readily available, which is not necessarily the case for an economically disadvantaged kid who wants to become a professional speed skater. (Of course, this doesn't explain why soccer's not as popular in America, at least, not without a close examination of the historical, cultural and class attitudes that might have contributed to such a phenomenon, of which I am totally ignorant). Or am I just completely off the mark here?

  2. I think you are on to something here. Soccer just needs a ball. It definitely seems to help explain why soccer has been more popular in poorer countries. But in comparing relatively prosperous countries, I think my television-related hypothesis probably has something to do with it. Obviously climate is an important factor too. It's much harder to play hockey in Saudi Arabia for example, or to have a Jamaican bobsled team.

  3. Absolutely! I agree that television's the paramount reason.

    However, since the dearth of commercial breaks is unquestionably unattractive to a sponsor, the advertising does take a different form in professional soccer. I can't speak for other countries, but I can tell you that as a somewhat tepid follower of the English Premier League, you can see how corporate sponsors have had to dream up more concise, repetitive and blatant forms of advertising. If you look at the jerseys for almost any team, their sponsor's name is loudly displayed on their jerseys. I haven't seen what the jerseys will look like for this coming season, but I know that I'd have a hard time recognizing an Arsenal jersey without the Fly Emirates emblazoned on it. Not to mention those screens that surround the pitch, continuously telling me to buy buy buy…

  4. Exactly. In the U.S. Nascar has the same kind of advertising. But they also can fit in commercial breaks because Nascar is just people turning left hundreds of times. Nobody's really missing much. Sorry Nascar fans.