I’ve been watching the World Cup and idly pondering big-time soccer’s lack of success in this country. The games haven’t been too bad. While there hasn’t been a lot of scoring even by World Cup standards, most of the games I’ve seen have had fairly aggressive offense and ball movement; there hasn’t been much standing around at midfield kicking the ball back and forth waiting for someone on the other side to fall asleep. Much has been made of Americans simply not liking certain aspects of the game, but I think that is changing as more kids who have played it grow up (I just saw an ad for the local soccer association for kids from grades 7-12).
The big problem is, as always, how to make money at it, which in this country means TV, which (unless someone can figure out how make pay-per-view work) means advertising, to which the nonstop nature of soccer has always been unfriendly. The electronic billboards along the edge of the field seem like a good idea, although I don’t know how effective they actually are. I have noticed a number of points in a game where a billboard-type ad (the company logo accompanied by a quick “this game is brought to you by….”) or an audio-only ad, either recorded or by the announcer, might be squeezed in, although the audio-only ad may not work too well during this World Cup, where I would guess many people are, like me, watching with the sound as low as possible due to the vuvuzelas.
The basic structure of the game actually has one very TV-friendly feature: the predictable length. The constantly running clock, even with some extra time added for injuries, etc., makes it possible to assign a fairly precise time slot with some confidence. For this the willingness to end in a tie, which is one of the aspects frequently derided, is actually an advantage. As someone who frequently had to make on-the-fly programming decisions based on when a sporting event might end and how the network was going to handle it (NBC used to send lengthy teletype messages in advance listing various scenarios and how they would deal with them), I can say that this isn’t a trivial consideration for a broadcaster.
Soccer’s larger problem might simply be finding space. While there are many TV channels out there, only a few offer the ability to attract the large number of viewers necessary to bring in the ad dollars required to support a big-time league, and many of those channels and advertisers already have established relationships with other sports. Advertisers only have so much money to spend, so anything soccer can get would have to come out of another sport’s pocket.
Perhaps the best strategy might be to stay small for now and take the long view, supporting soccer at lower levels to build future fans and players as demographics bring more soccer-raised immigrants into the U.S. sporting scene. Of course, people have been trying that plan for a long time. They just haven’t been able to hang on long enough to see it through.