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Book Review: "Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism" -- Why is our 'sport space' so unique?

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NEW YORK - JUNE 12:  Soccer fan Anil Shahi (R) and others watch the U.S. vs. England World Cup match beneath the Manhattan Bridge June 12, 2010 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - JUNE 12: Soccer fan Anil Shahi (R) and others watch the U.S. vs. England World Cup match beneath the Manhattan Bridge June 12, 2010 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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In the last book that I reviewed, there were a few interesting references to another book on the same subject called Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism by Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman. Coincidentally and luckily for me, I already owned it!

Going in, I knew that Offside presents a very academic approach to the sport and that it would be a difficult book to get through. Its focus is interesting, though. It attempts to analyze the historical, cultural, and sociological reasons behind why the "sport space" in the United States is so disparate from the rest of the world. Everything else in popular culture has been globalized, so why does the US care about the Big Three and a Half (football, baseball, basketball, and hockey as the half) but not soccer? Why is it the other way around in a greater part of the rest of the world? This book makes no pretence at being geared towards the general American audience; it would have been quite at home in a Masters-level geography class.

One half of this book is a combined review of soccer's history and a history of the Big Three and a Half. The authors believe that soccer can follow hockey's footsteps in establishing a niche market among American sporting fans. Sports enthusiasts will enjoy these chapters, but I skimmed them since I had already encountered the same information in Soccer in a Football World. The authors are also admirably unbiased when it comes to deciding between sports. To them:

"Hitting a small, hard ball traveling in excess of ninety miles per hour with a thin wooden bat sixty feet away is just as difficult and impressive as threading a beautiful fifty-yard cross from the back of the field into the opposing team's penalty area as an assist to a possible goal". (p 17)

What really drew my attention, however, was the other half of the book. It's an academic analysis of soccer's popularity in the US. (The book isn't outrightly half and half; it would have been more helpful if the history had been before the analysis rather than interspersed.) Here are some of the authors' reasons behind soccer's relative lack of success:

  • Nationalism. The United States is notoriously anti-foreign in some areas and while certain phrases and foods are adopted without a second thought, soccer is consistently rejected as "too foreign". A lot of the time, children of immigrants grow up following baseball and football to fit in with their peers. Following this nationalistic line of reasoning, if the national team continues improving and growing more successful, US soccer as a whole will see more followers. If anything, we Americans have a strong sense of patriotism!
  • "Following" a sport (water cooler talk, statistics, etc) as opposed to "doing" a sport. A lot of children grow up playing soccer, but not as many follow it as a sport. How can it happen, though, if it needs more visibility to be followed more - and followed more to be more popular and visible? It's a chicken-and-egg conundrum, though I think social media is helping this in leaps and bounds. The internet is a fantastic new "water cooler" to gather around and engage in a discussion.
  • Soccer as a middle-class, "yuppie" sport. The book contrasted the class backgrounds of the USMNT as opposed to other national teams in the World Cup (who primarily had parents from blue collar backgrounds). Class is always such a difficult issue to navigate. I'm not sure this is a detriment to the sport as much as it is a situation where the market for soccer can be expanded to all peoples and classes -- though it's interesting that the authors don't make a distinction between following and doing in this section! What fans are professional soccer actually catering to? Is it really the middle-class yuppies?
  • Finally, the US already has 3.5 sports (the norm is one, sometimes two). Unlike the others, MLS is not the highest level of the sport in the world. The book proposed using women's soccer as a leveraging tool since it is most likely the highest quality in the world, but the authors didn't seem too optimistic 10 years ago - and the recent collapse of the womens' league proves them right. This is the primary hurdle that soccer has to jump. How can it compete for attention?

    In light of this, on a personal note, I noticed that most of my friends in the Toronto and Ottawa area went to Toronto FC's match against LA Galaxy the other night, despite it being a weeknight. According to them, the attendance and general environment in the stadium were absolutely fantastic. And according to the authors, this bodes well since they propose that hockey was eventually adopted in the States since Americans view Canada as "less foreign" and that with such a lax border, it was easier for the sport to filter down. Who knows if that will be the case for soccer.

I would suggest this book only if a) you're interested in soccer academically or b) you want something to slowly, slowly make your way through. 300 pages of small text was almost too much for even me and I'm sure I missed some thoroughly thought-provoking points.

There isn't much to review about this book, which is why I delved into some analysis instead. It's solid, academic writing with some hits and some misses in its opinions. The information is dated by about 10 years, but I don't think a newer version has been published, which is a shame! The authors were quite positive about the MLS, so I would have loved to see their opinions on the current situation.

Quotes from Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism by Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman, 2001, Princeton University Press.