Friday, September 05, 2014

An American Sports Primer for Sports Fans Not From The US

Photo: Clint Mickel, Flickr Creative Commons

I've been watching a lot of soccer the last couple of years. Before that, I watched a lot of rugby, back before the jerks at DirecTV snatched up the American rights to basically every rugby match to ever be televised, denying me and my Dish Network service the chance to watch. Paying attention to international sports has made me realize, perhaps more so than the average American, that Americans are really weird when it comes to sports. First, we don't even play your sports. Our interest in a sport is inversely proportionate to the sport's global popularity. We only care about our distantly related versions of the sports your emigrants gave us, and the only other places in the world where our sports are played are countries we pushed around a lot back in the 1800s and early 1900s. And Canada, which, surprisingly, is not actually one of the 50 states.

Let's assume you're some rando in Slovenia who, despite learning to read English fluently and living in a world dominated by American culture, doesn't actually know anything about American sports. The first thing you need to know is that we like football best and by football we mean that sport where we carry and throw the prolate spheroid ball with our hands and only use our feet to kick it sometimes, usually when our offense sucks and he have to give the ball back to the other team or settle for 3 points instead of 6. You may have been under the impression that baseball is the most American game, but unless you're in a time warp and reading this from 1949, baseball hasn't been the most popular sport in a long while. Major League Baseball brings in a billion dollars less per year than the NFL. After baseball, you have basketball and our fourth sport is hockey, although that's really more of a regional US and Canadian thing. This ranking also ignores that college football is also a huge business and no other minor league in any other sport matters, except for college basketball one month in the spring.

Photo: Harald Kobler, Flickr Creative Commons

Being a complete newb to sports in the States, this order of importance may surprise you. After all, lots of northern nations play hockey. It's in the Olympics. The same goes for basketball, which seems to be quickly turning into the world's second favorite sport after your football (which we call soccer). Baseball is played by a few countries, but mostly just countries in the Caribbean and Latin America because of proximity and our past political meddling, and then Japan and Korea because we fought wars there and then never completely left either country. Our favorite sport basically isn't played outside of the US and Canada (although the Canucks put their goal posts in the wrong place). In other words, the more likely a foreigner is to play our sport, the less we actually like it. For example, soccer, by far the world's favorite, is only a distant fourth in the US despite the continual improvement of the quality of play in the league and its popularity.

Oh, and there's also lacrosse, a sport that has been a part of American culture long before there were any Americans. American Indians from at least modern day Georgia to Canada played the direct ancestor of this sport. It's an awesome sport that sadly only rich suburbanites and private school kids play.

Photo: Tom Beary, Flickr Creative Commons

That's not the only weird thing about our sporting culture. Going back to our favorite sport, it's actually arguable that in one region of the country, the South, that an amateur minor league is actually more popular than the top pro league. This is partly due to the fact that the South was slower to leave behind traditional sporting values that held amateurism as pure and professionalism as crass and only for the poor. (Think about the origins of the Olympics and you'll remember what I'm talking about.) It's also partly due to the fact that our weather and environment kept population growth slow until the advent of cheap air conditioners (and the eradication of most mosquito-borne diseases) in the mid 1900s. We just didn't have the cities big enough and wealthy enough to host top pro teams until relatively recently, so college sports were our only option. The NFL is increasing in popularity, but it's rare to find a football fan in South whose opinions on the main college team are weaker than those for the regional pro team. Seriously, try to find a Falcon logo before you find fifteen bulldogs in Georgia. Ain't going to happen unless you're actually in Atlanta on a gameday Sunday.

Also, I realize that in most places, college sports aren't really a thing. I'm not entirely sure why, but in the US, academics and athletics became inseparably intertwined sometime in the 1800s. Every high school in the country has varsity sports teams that play other regional high schools. The high school in Barrow, Alaska, even flies their football and basketball teams to games further south in the state because they're so remote. Colleges often take athletics even more seriously, especially the big football schools. In fact, unlike you with your youth programs run by professional clubs, the vast majority of the athlete development done in most sports will be in grade school or college with a school team and coaches paid by the schools.

Finally, despite the fact that the US is one of the most capitalist countries in the developed world (although it's hard to match the level of capitalism you'd find in Somalia and other failed states), our pro sports leagues are among the most socialist. You know how it seems that every great player in Germany seems to play for Bayern Munich and how Real Madrid somehow manages to stockpile players in the top 5 in the world for their positions? That can't happen in any US league, except baseball, and not even there, really. The NFL has a hard salary cap and a salary floor so all teams have to spend more or less the same on the team payroll. There are ways to fudge the numbers, but even with those loopholes, once you start to get a great team together, the price for those players starts going up and you have to start making decisions on whether it's worth keeping that guy with his bigger paycheck and have to pay less for players at other positions or to let the expensive star go and stock up on cheaper younger players with upside. The NBA and NHL have variations of this that make it just too difficult to build an all-star team. The leagues want teams to be even and to make it feel like your team may suck this year, but eventually they'll have their chance. Unlike the fans of Queens Park Rangers.

Photo: Keith Allison, Flickr Creative Commons

Baseball has a luxury tax, but teams wealthy enough to pay it just stock up on stars anyway. This is why everyone hates the Yankees.

Oh, and this all happens because the clubs aren't independent entities. The teams are franchises of the leagues. They have their own owners, but they can't go play anywhere else unless the league tells them to. The league makes their schedules. The league set safety and behavior rules. The league takes in most of the money and then distributes it to teams as it sees fit. In contrast, the Barclays English Premier League has almost no real power over the teams.

Photo: woodleywonderworks, Flickr Creative Commons

Then we have the MLS, our soccer league. Despite pro soccer in most countries being basically capitalism in its purest form, Americans took soccer and made it a communist state (although, much like Mikhail Gorbachev in the 90s, they've started introducing economic reforms). While the other leagues have drafts, salary caps, and profit sharing to spread the wealth among the teams, the MLS actually owns all the players and distributes them based on a pecking order so the worst teams get the best players and the best teams have to wait their turns. The league had good reasons for this system as the previous attempt at a premier league in the US ended with bankruptcies as spending on players grew more quickly than income. The MLS, hoping to avoid the bidding wars, made sure that the teams were staying within their means. This actually could be why the league has survived and had a chance to grow in popularity instead of flaming out in a blaze of Beckham encrusted glory. It's been a long time since a team in the MLS folded. It's only happened twice and both teams folded in 2001, only five years after the league was founded. Also, both were in Florida and Florida sucks.

Photo: Francois Meehan, Flickr Creative Commons

So, dear foreign friends in sport, you now have a beginner's understanding of the bizarre world of American athletics. To sum it up, we like sports inversely proportionally to the popularity of the sport outside of our borders, we get really worked up over kids playing football for schools we did not attend, and our pro leagues are socialists functioning in a capitalist state. Enjoy. Take this weekend's break from club soccer for international friendlies and watch Michigan State at Oregon (both excellent college teams) on Saturday or Indianapolis at Denver on Sunday (the NFL's Peyton Manning, our Messi, versus his old team). See what it's like for us American having to watch commercials every 10 minutes during a game.

Seriously. It's ridiculous. If they score, it's score, commercial break, kickoff, commercial break, next offensive series. The NFL even created an special two minute warning at the end of halves exclusively so they could show more commercials. What the hell? How do people without DVRs who can watch on delay to skip commercials even live during football season?

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