Everybody knows that millions of American kids grow up playing football. Everybody also knows that football barely moves the needle here as a spectator sport. What caused this contradiction, and is it permanent? Bold predictions of football’s future in America–boom, bust, somewhere-in-between–are commonplace. I don’t know the future, but here is how one American grew up to be a football fan.
I discovered football as a five year old on my first day of school. I did not know it that day, but I would play unsupervised, pickup football virtually every school day for the next seven years (and play the organized version of the sport in recreational and school leagues through high school.) I grew up in a typical small town in the South. Why was football the sport of choice on a Mississippi playground in 1983?
My hometown hosted a US Air Force base, and many of the kids who lived on base attended my school. They were from such exotic places as Texas and California, and they brought the game with them to small town Mississippi. The nuns in charge at my Catholic school had a strict policy forbidding the full-contact version of gridiron football. We could play the “two hand touch” variety, but that was a pale imitation of the real thing. Occasionally, an outlaw game of tackle football would develop out in a far field, but those only lasted until someone got hurt and reported the injury. Punishment was swift.
The untimed sport of baseball requires equipment and would not work well within our short recess periods. The playground had a couple of basketball goals, but they were in cramped and crowded areas. In contrast, we had enough open field to stage several games of football. The only other option was to infantalize yourself among the sandbox or swings. So my friends and I were consumed with the glories and disappointments of a neverending game of pickup football. We did not have referees or any adult supervision, though we did take major disputes about goals or fouls to the nuns.
Most of us also played in the local recreational league, complete with coaches, referees, and spectator parents. Virtually all of my rec league coaches were befuddled dads who would open the first day of practice by saying “All I know about soccer is that you can’t touch the ball with your hands.” (We did not spend a lot of time drilling on tactics.) Except for summer, when school was out and we played rec league baseball, we played football day and night.
But we did not watch it. The NASL had folded by the time I was old enough to pay attention to professional sports. In fact, it never crossed my mind that football could be anything other than a game for kids similar to tetherball or four square. American football was and still is the passion of the south. I spent all of my fall weekends watching college gridiron in person or on TV. The only time I did not want to go play football myself was when the occasional weekend tournament clashed with a home game for the college gridiron team I closely followed.
When ESPN began promoting its coverage of the 1994 World Cup, I took notice. I was 16 that summer, and the only channels I watched were ESPN and MTV. I was a captive audience. I had no idea that soccer was a culturally important force virtually everywhere else in the world other than a vague sense that Europeans were good at it and treated it seriously. I had no idea how leagues or international competition were organized.
That the United States was a huge underdog to even advance to the second round was enough to pique my interest. I was too young to remember the famous hockey upset in the 1980 Winter Olympics over the USSR, so my sole exposure to international team sport competition was the basketball Dream Team obliterating its opponents in Barcelona. I was fascinated by this whole other world of sport, of soccer played by professionals, where countries had different styles, nicknames, flamboyant goal celebrations (strictly prohibited in US sport) and traveling supporters with their own nicknames. I was fully converted when I watched the United States stun Colombia in the group stage. I was devastated by the 1-0 loss to Brazil on July 4th in the second round. My friends and I played pickup football instead of basketball throughout that summer and fall.
But after the final, everything just stopped and football again disappeared from the American sports landscape. MLS was in its embryonic development stages, still a few years away from starting play. (My friends and I have never really become MLS fans because there is no team within 400 miles of where I live.) At that time, I had no idea what the internet was, and it barely existed in any case. My only option to expand my horizons was to go to the library (not a realistic option to my 16 year old self, sadly) or the mall.
Luckily, the mall had what I needed. In connection with USA 94, FIFA had produced a Top 50 World Cup goals VHS tape, and my local music store stocked a single copy. It offered glimpses into the world of football about two minutes long each, complete with the original BBC commentary, and I watched it over and over. In the pre-Youtube age, that tape was priceless. Even an unsophisticated viewer like me realized that USA 94 did not produce anything like Maradona’s famous goal against England or the incredible goals the Brazilian teams of the 70s scored.
The mall bookstore had a single slim volume about soccer: Twenty-Two Foreigners in Funny Shorts: The Intelligent Fan’s Guide to Soccer and World Cup ’94 by Pete Davies. The book was written as an introduction of the world game for Americans, and in addition to general background Davies keeps a diary of his passionate fandom of a football team in some place I had never heard of called Wrexham. His explanation of the concept of promotion and relegation blew my provincial American sports mind. He discussed the different approaches countries took to the game and extolled the virtues of the Italian league, which he preferred to the nasty and brutish English version. With that book and my Top 50 goals video, I had a much better sense of the sport.
But I still had no real way to follow it. That would come a few years later as the internet grew and cable television expanded its football offerings. I suffered through the awful 1998 World Cup, which was about 1/1,000th as much fun as the ‘94 tournament had been. For the first time I could shop for books about the game; I read Fever Pitch, Brilliant Orange, and Four Four Two magazine. I imported Championship Manager and instantly had at my fingertips 20 different ratings for every major team and player in the world. (True to my roots, I spent most of my time trying to take Wrexham up the ladder.) In 2001, I moved to a town whose cable system offered what was then called Fox Sports World. I could finally watch live league games of the sport I loved playing so much as a kid. In ‘02, we stayed up all night in watching World Cup games from South Korea. For the first time, I knew who non-American players were.
Things are a lot different now. When my three year old son wakes me up at 6 am on Saturday morning, I turn on ESPN 2’s broadcast of the early Premier League game. He occasionally glances up from whatever is occupying him to watch. He listens to The Football Ramble in the car with me. He is already a fair dribbler. He will be able to pair playing the sport with the same sense of fandom that Americans develop for our major spectator sports. He will know that the United States has a national soccer team because he will wear a Landon Donovan jersey and watch national team games with me.
My experience is one of the reasons people have been premature when trumpeting the arrival of “soccer”in the US. At 10 years old, I would readily tell anyone that soccer was my favorite sport to play. But I did not watch it on TV or dream about scoring goals in packed stadiums; I dreamed about scoring touchdowns or hitting game winning three point shots. Even after discovering that the game was played professionally, it took a considerable amount of effort to understand how and where it was played. Many of its rules and intricacies still do not make sense to American sports fans. Playing the sport as a kid is a gateway to enjoying the sport as a spectator, but it is not enough on its own.
That said, the 16 year old soccer player growing up in a small town in the US who saw Donovan’s goal against Algeria last summer will have a much easier time growing up to be the kind of fan who watches games on television and buys season tickets.