A word about baseball, soccer and establishment protectionism

Soccer doesn't have a "Mighty Casey" figure in America. Why? Probably because "Nobody likes soccer!"

On its opening day, a word about baseball: You know, the great game. The national pastime.  The cherry on the sundae of Americana, a sport so magical that it inspires mythical figures (Mighty Casey!) and rivals apple pie as middle class America’s most unimpeachable cultural icon.

You know, all that crap.

I don’t have anything against baseball per se, although I do always chuckle at the irony of baseball purist jackwads who like to call soccer slow. 

What always kicks me in the head is a sort of establishment protectionism afforded to baseball. And while we’re at it, let’s throw hockey in the same boat, although the NHL has certainly taken its hits recently as we all figured out the real deal: it was never as popular as media, hooked effectively by NHL spin doctors, wanted you to believe.

Here’s where I roll my eyes at baseball (and hockey, although not as often):

Have you ever noticed that when a team in baseball is crap at the gate, media analysts rightly call out the club for poor performance, inflated ticket prices, marketing flaws, etc.?  Meanwhile, speaking historically, if a soccer team stinks at the gate, it’s because “nobody likes soccer.”

See, that’s the simply explanation, one that requires no further effort or resource expenditure. There certainly are better, more thoughtful explanations as to why soccer teams can’t generate momentum in attendance. We can hash that out another day. The point is, too many TV gasbags and old school media pundits have no desire to open the hood and take a closer look. Why? Well, one reason is because there’s always another baseball game to write about, another middle infielder signing to analyze, another column to spew the glory of opening day, another hour to kill in the insular culture of baseball’s locker room.

Same for hockey. For a lot of years, hockey’s popularity was artificially inflated by a smart NHL spin campaign, one amplified by a gullible and compliant media.  Where I live, one local, prominent columnist used to write an annual (or so it seemed) hockey column that essentially asked the question, “Why aren’t you coming to hockey games?”

His position was this: Hockey is the best sport around, the local team is doing well, the arena is downtown, where all the action is … so what’s the freakin’ problem? Why aren’t more people attending?

The answer, of course, is that hockey just wasn’t that popular. But that didn’t serve his interest, because he liked writing about hockey. That’s what I mean by media protectionism.

(By the way, this is not to toot any conspiracy horn. It’s just the way things evolved.)

Same for baseball. Every August where I live, local attendance begins trailing off. Yes, it has a lot to do with the fact that the local team sucks (the Texas Rangers). By September, attendance has gone from “soft” to “comical.”  But the same people who always write off soccer as “not popular enough to regard” generally refuse to acknowledge a hard truth about baseball:  that in many places, attendance is driven by the fact that it’s a nice thing to do on a warm summer night. It’s not because people know (or want to read so much about) every character, personnel choice and tactical bugaboo unfolding out there.

By the way, the talent on the top local sports radio station here (which I really like and always enjoy), likes to call Tom Hicks’ baseball stadium “The Temple.” And they refer to baseball as “The Great Game.”  Soccer, of course, is a perennial punch line.

Look, I’m not obtuse. Baseball is more popular than soccer in this country. By quite a distance.

But not as much as the media establishment would have you believe. And hockey? Well, I’ve said for more than a decade that there are far, far more soccer fans in this country than hockey fans. Problem is, soccer fans don’t represent a unified block; the fan interest is quite disparate. These guys over here have their favorite Mexican teams. Those over there follow Serie A in Italy. Another group is keen on EPL, and so it goes. Along those lines, there are tens of thousands of soccer fans around my city who wouldn’t cross the street to attend an MLS match even if they were giving away free pizza.

And yet, they love soccer … a fact that gets conveniently ignored. Soccer in this country is popular. It has “made it,” whatever that means, and it’s not going anywhere.  Now, domestic league pro soccer in this country still has a long, long way to go. But the question never gets framed that way. It’s always, “Why isn’t soccer more popular?”

Nor do soccer fans represent the block of “voters” who hold sway in media matters. In that world, remember, decisions are frequently made by older white men who always want to know “Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?”

Still, there is some romance of baseball’s opening day, and I get that. So, enjoy the afternoon. But when you get back around to thinking about soccer, just remember that our sport isn’t yet close to baseball in terms of gaining greater cultural acceptance. But it may be closer than anyone writing or broadcasting about baseball would have you believe.

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