With or without Beckham, we yawn
David Beckham arrived in America last week to one of the biggest receptions for a British import since the Beatles landed in New York some 43 years ago.
His picture, and that of his wife’s, has been in every newspaper, on all the celebrity-based TV shows and all over the Web. Before even playing a game, he’s single-handedly made the Los Angeles Galaxy a worldwide brand name.
When he takes the pitch this weekend in an exhibition game against the great British team Chelsea, much of the world will be watching on television.
Beckham and the Galaxy will doubtlessly remain media curiosities for a while, but the bigger question is whether this move will signal an era of greater popularity stateside for soccer, the most popular sport in the world.
Are Americans ready to become passionate about soccer in the same way they are about football, basketball and NASCAR? Probably not.
There are several things going against soccer turning into a favorite American sport. One of the biggest is its unsuitability for television. The game only stops at the end of the first half, meaning there’s no opportunity for networks to sell beer, car and Viagra advertising to run every five minutes.
Our pro football games have 19 or more 90-second advertising windows per game. College football has 13 such windows. Baseball and basketball each have 20 or more. With far fewer opportunities to make money, networks will no doubt balk at carrying soccer games except on rare occasions.
The other, more important, reason that America will not embrace soccer, at least in the short term: We suck at it.
In World Cup after World Cup, our teams — or our men’s teams, at least — get pummeled by much smaller countries. We never win anything and our team usually embarrasses itself in the process.
In our sports, like our wars, we stop caring about them once we start losing. Unless and until our national team starts beating England and Brazil, and our drunken fans can shout, “USA! USA!” at matches, it’s unlikely that we’ll pay attention to the game of soccer.
And, except for Beckham, our teams haven’t had the money to lure top international stars to play in Major League Soccer.
I’ve read analysis from experts that the level of play in the MLS is on par with the British Conference Two league, which is three levels from the top, or equivalent to single-A baseball or Division Two college ball in the states.
That means teams such as Accrington Stanley and Rochdale, British squads full of 17-year-olds and washed-up players, could probably beat the crap out of the Houston Dynamo or the New York Red Bulls.
Americans don’t like it when foreigners do something better than we can; it’s just as simple as that.
But it’s too bad that soccer will never unseat football in the hearts of my countrymen, because it’s an exciting and complex sport with many nuances, at least in the elite leagues, such as the British Premier League and the Italian Serie A league.
After watching Inter Milan take on AC Milan, or Chelsea play Manchester United, watching the MLS is like watching Little League baseball. It’s the same sport, but one that’s played at a much lower level.
As a lifelong NFL and NBA fan, I have to admit I paid more attention to soccer than either football or basketball last year. I became frustrated with the length of time it took to play, angry with all of the breaks in the action and the subsequent commercials, and the relative lack of excitement.
Even when nothing appears to be happening in soccer, many things are going on. There’s the jostling for position, the patient assembly of a scoring opportunity or just somebody being bodyslammed into the grass.
Too much time is spent on utter nothingness in football, with players running off the field, with guys just standing around, with John Madden talking about the fine ribs he ate the night before.
Baseball is so full of cheating and scandals that it lost its credibility years ago. The all-time home run record is about to be broken and not that many people care about it.
What does it say about America that we willingly spend time watching millionaire athletes doing nothing? The average baseball and football game lasts well over three hours, with basketball not too far behind.
A pro soccer game lasts 90 minutes, plus 15 minutes for halftime. Unless it’s a championship game where extra time is added for a tied match, it ends on schedule, even when fans are throwing bottles and rocks at the players.
At any rate, while Beckham might not be the savior of American soccer, anything that gets people more aware of the sport is a good thing. Perhaps someday Americans will realize just what a great sport they’re missing.