Tip O’Neill, the former U.S. Speaker of the House, observed quite famously that “all politics is local,” which meant that saving the world is well and good, but being elected is more about getting the street paved for your constituents.
He had something there, and it is human nature that our interests often don’t extend beyond our backyards. It might be that all sports is local, too, something that has become a topic of discussion while the rest of the globe has been captivated by a very entertaining edition of soccer’s World Cup. In the United States, which did not qualify for the first time since 1986, interest has been tepid at best heading into Sunday’s championship match between France and Croatia.
To be kind, Fox and Telemundo, the English- and Spanish-language television rights-holders for the U.S., are taking baths. Ratings were down between 35 and 40 percent compared to 2014 through the quarterfinal round. Both networks are going to lose money in relation to the rights fees as advertisers get rebates based on the unmet viewership projections.
It wasn’t as if the networks made a bad bet on the United States joining the 32-team field for an eighth straight World Cup. They just lost the bet. Qualifying is never easy, although the final straw for the U.S. team was an October road loss to a Trinidad and Tobago team that was previously 1-8 in the final round of regional elimination. It was an embarrassment, but, seriously, how can a small country such as ours hope to compete against two islands?
That result, which led to a second change in the head-coaching position since the start of the desultory qualification process, also changed everything about U.S. interest in the ensuing World Cup. If there was no local representation, what was the point for casual fans? It also led to a resumption of the tiresome debate as to whether the United States is a “soccer nation,” a discussion that not only doesn’t have an answer, but also represents a faulty question.
If television ratings in Philadelphia decline markedly for playoffs in the four major sports when local teams aren’t involved, does that mean Philly isn’t a “football city” or “baseball city?” No, more likely it means that emotional involvement always trumps intellectual involvement, particularly for casual fans.
The overall problem, or perception of a problem, for soccer in the United States is that there isn’t a terribly deep pool of rabid fans, who will watch no matter what. Italy, enough of a soccer nation to have made the finals of the World Cup six times and won it four times, didn’t qualify for the 2018 tournament, either. Its dismissal, the first in 60 years, came in a home draw against Sweden, a somewhat sturdier opponent than Trinidad and Tobago, but still represented nearly a national scandal. You can be assured that coach was sacked, too.
Nevertheless, as critics of the U.S. soccer landscape like to point out, Italians have still followed the World Cup intently. Well, of course, they have. A good number of players from other nations are on the rosters of teams in Serie A, the Italian top league. That now includes Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, among the best players in the world, who was rumored during Cup play to be joining the Juventus team that is the Yankees of Italian soccer. (Ronaldo’s move from Real Madrid was consummated after Portugal was eliminated in the round of 16.) So, it isn’t as if Italians were going to forgo watching soccer’s ultimate prize and turn their attention to the NBA Summer League.
In this country, we have more choices perhaps, and that also goes for the directions taken by our best athletes. But if they all played soccer — which is nearly the case in those “soccer nations” — it doesn’t mean the U.S. would win the World Cup. It didn’t for Italy. (It would help our chances against Trinidad and Tobago, however.)
It’s wrong to look at the transcendent French striker Kylian Mbappe, a 19-year-old who has been incredible in leading his nation to the final match, and decide that he would have been more likely to become a great basketball player if raised in the United States. For one thing, the kid is 5-foot-10. Beyond that, you simply can’t add up the apples and get oranges as a result.
The United States is exactly the soccer nation it should be, no better and no worse. Major League Soccer, the Division I league in this country, is exactly as good as it should be. That’s less a criticism than a statement of fact, and the game here should be appreciated for what it is rather than what it is not. This business of waiting for the U.S. to “catch up” is nonsense. We aren’t behind.
The nice people at Fox and Telemundo might disagree with that — although the audience for the Sunday conclusion should be respectable — but, hey, all television ratings are local, too.