A brief disclaimer: Any answer given in the debate of American Sports culture vs. Other sports, will most likely oversimplify a decidedly complex social subject. I will complicate it further with qualified thoughts and opinions (i.e.: “many Americans” do this or that, etc.), knowing this topic would be better served with facts and data at every turn. This answer should be viewed as opinion, with the understanding that there are exceptions with every comment and qualifications with every statement. I take neither side of the superiority debate, and hereafter refer to American Football and Association Football by their nicknames of ‘gridiron’ and ‘football’ respectively. Oh and click the links to see the images. Stu
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The major American sports and the cult-like culture that surrounds them, exist in almost a totally separate universe to a sport like football which dominates so strongly across other continents (see this link). Why is this the case? Why do American’s love the ‘Big 4’ sports so much when everywhere else doesn’t quite get it? In a word – statistics. Americans have a fundamentally different view to the rest of the world on what is exciting in sport.
If you look at the traditionally big American sports, they are all very structured and procedural, with standardised repeated plays that are quantified into statistics. The narrative of those sport is largely told through statistics too. Americans cheer when a quantifiable number is achieved, and excitement is found in that which results in a number indicating a success. Football is completely unlike this. It doesn’t provide the standardised plays that increment in a linear fashion but is a complete free-form gameplay with only one giant milestone that is difficult to achieve (scoring a goal). To create a gaming analogy, American sports are similar turn-based games (Chess or Risk) while football is much more like real-time strategy (The online multiplayer’s of World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto).
This chart provides a good example: An American watches 5 minutes of football and 5 minutes of gridiron. In the 5 minutes of the gridiron he will see on average 21 seconds of live ball gameplay and lots of downtime and commercials (which non-Americans frequently cite as one of the reasons gridiron is boring). Critically however, to Americans that 21 seconds will result in quantifiable achievement, the team will gain or lose an X number of yards, and every player will be granted a plethora of statistics on exactly what he did in every second of gameplay. Gridiron, like most American sports, regiments and segments the game into a series of small statistical gains, which are tabulated and compared to previous standardised segments. Football is completely the opposite. In football, a 5 minute stretch may include the ball moving for several miles with players performing many passes, feints, dribbles…etc yet none of that will be quantified to create a sense of linear progression that Americans are used to. While the rest of the world gets excited by plays like this that don’t result in quantifiable achievement because of the skill and creativity, to your average American its “just kicking a ball around”.
Skillful midfield play like this are to your average American “nothing happening”, since the play didn’t stop and Ronaldo wasn’t awarded with a number for what he did.
That’s why Americans traditionally feel football is boring because only 1 or 2 goals are scored. To most, the only exciting part is when a team scores, because its the only time the game stops and a number on the screen changes and indicates something has been achieved. American sports conversations are filled with numbers, fractions, decimal points, and acronyms. It is the definitive method whereby fans compare the contributions of individual teams and athletes. There are many reasons for this, but the imbalanced schedule is one. Teams often face each other an odd number of times or never at all. How do you determine who is the better team? In lieu of an equal number of games, statistics open some interesting points of discussion for fans.
Even the more free-flowing American sport of basketball is still segmented by design into 24 second parts (with a shot clock). It also provides plenty of statistics because of how repeatable the actions are. Its guaranteed that every 24 seconds, you’ll get a shot, a rebound by one team or the other and most likely an assist. These can be tabulated and a narrative formed around these numbers. Its largely why rugby and hockey have had a very hard time in America. Hockey is largely regional and relies heavily on the northern states where there is cross-border influence from Canada, and rugby has largely been absent from American TV. Baseball (America’s past time) is one of if not the most statistical game on the planet. It could also be the most procedural. There is a statistic for almost every aspect of the sport. On a base-level everyone knows about batting averages, etc. but the more in depth you go the more statistics there are. Baseball is so procedural in fact, the sport can literally be read, as opposed to watched. It’s impossible to imagine reading a football match play by play.
Of course there is nothing wrong with this, all sports are ultimately arbitrary and interest is largely linked to social/cultural identity. It is not just about the incremental stat-driven vs. freeflowing improvisation-driven nature of sport that causes the difference of view on what is exciting, it goes way beyond that. Sports are a lot like religion; what really matters are the social connections and feeling of belonging that arise from them, not the arbitrary gameplay or rules of the sport. This content is simply something people get used to with exposure to the given sport, and is something that can change over time.
The traditions and cultural connections to the sport of football are only now being developed in America. The huge viewing parties seen this World Cup in America would have been unimaginable just 25 years ago. In 2014 more than 31 million Americans watched the Premier League on NBC and they paid $250 million (£172 million) for the broadcast rights. Today, 8.2% of Americans list football as their favorite professional sport. (Its quickly closing in on baseball today only 14% of Americans say is their favorite sport, down from 30% in 1980’s). This is something that would have seemed absurd to the previous generation. It’s interesting to note that the demographic in America that is getting into football is mostly the under 35 age group as its the first demographic in history to have grown up in the information age with the internet linking Americans to the rest of the world.
The longer one spends watching a sport, the more the appreciation of it grows. With any sport, there is always so much more to understand than can be learnt from in the first few viewings. The American Sports vs. Others debate is a long and tiresome one. My advice would be that before anyone takes sides and insults something that hundreds of millions of people love, they should listen to what it is they love about the sport.