Americans hear a familiar refrain: this World Cup will finally conquer America for soccer. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, old enough to remember Pele’s 1970s swansong with the New York Cosmos sparking such bold declarations, isn’t buying it.
In an article at Time, the six-time NBA champion and league MVP argues that the game lacks action, the reward of scoring, and easily identifiable superstars among the small figures on such a large field. Kareem acknowledges the monster ratings that the World Cup has garnered for ESPN. He writes:
The problem with those statistics is that it’s like using the ratings of bobsledding during the Winter Olympics to declare a new renaissance for bobsledding in America. The World Cup, like the Olympics, happens every four years, so the rarity factor alone will account for inflated ratings. For a more realistic view of its popularity as a professional sport, we need to look at how many people watch on a regular basis. Major League Soccer (MLS) averages a mere 174,000 viewers (compared to the NBA’s average of 2 million and NFL average of 17.6 million), while their equivalent to NBA Finals, the MLS Cup, averaged only 505,000 viewers.
The former UCLA center similarly dismisses boasts that MLS ticket sales eclipse the live gates for NBA and NHL events by pointing out they MLS games are few in number, seats sell cheaply, and the contests generally take place in large stadiums. He believes that the reason soccer struggles as a spectator sport in America even as it thrives as a participatory sport involves its clash with the surrounding culture. Kareem opines that
soccer doesn’t fully express the American ethos as powerfully as our other popular sports. We are a country of pioneers, explorers, and contrarians who only need someone to say it can’t be done to fire us up to prove otherwise. As a result, we like to see extraordinary effort rewarded. The low scoring in soccer frustrates this American impulse. We also celebrate rugged individualism, the democratic ideal that anybody from any background can become a sports hero. We like to see heroes rise, buoyed by their teammates, but still expressing their own supreme individual skills. Certainly soccer has its celebrated stars, from Pele to Beckham, but those skills seem muted on TV where we’re often looking at small figures on a large field and therefore these feats appear less impressive than they really are. In football, basketball, baseball, and hockey, team effort is rewarded with points and individual greatness is as instant and immediate as a one-handed snagged football pass, a three-pointer from the corner, stealing home base, or a snap-shot of the puck into the goal.
Abdul-Jabbar’s basketball took him to UCLA, his religion took him to Mecca, and his acting took him to Hong Kong. But cosmopolitan Kareem doesn’t think the world’s game will become America’s passion anytime soon. He cruelly concludes that “once the World Cup is over, soccer in the U.S. will return to its sick bed and dream of glory.”