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.