A throng of casual fans tightly pack together and surround the television screens inside their local gastropub. As the pace of the game accelerates, so too do the heartbeats of the anxious onlookers. The full array of the emotional spectrum is felt – hope, optimism, fear, concern – as the two teams go blow-for-blow, trading scoring chances. After each missed opportunity, the wide-eyed patriots ooh and aah in a fashion as united as they are. Then – just as the tension builds to its maximum point like a covered boiling pot on the verge of exploding – The Red, White and Blue finally come through and score a timely goal. The crowd bursts into pandemonium and begins belting out U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
The Big Stage
The above anecdote can describe a soccer match just as easily it can a hockey game. In fact, the parallels between the World Cup and Winter Olympic hockey are unmistakable in the U.S.A. Once every four years, casual American sports fans gather together and cheer on a team of a sport they otherwise can’t be bothered with. While the fact that both soccer and hockey have a very short fleeting limelight in America is a certainty, the question becomes which sport is better leveraging its moment in the sun?
While the American hockey team has been more successful –albeit in a much less diverse and competitive pool- wins and losses don’t always play into a sports popularity. The other factor to consider is the World Cup stage is much larger than that of the Winter Olympics. The Winter Olympics heavily favor the likes of Scandinavia, the U.S., Canada and Russia (to name a few), soccer really is the World’s game.
Taking this into account, it appears that soccer wins out. Most likely because of the enormity of its stage, fan support – and therefore interest –seems to be greater for soccer during the World Cup in comparison to hockey during the Winter Olympics. Celebrities, organizations and the general public are backing the U.S.M.N.T far and wide.
— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer) June 21, 2014
American hockey has already reached its pinnacle al la the Miracle on Ice that coincidentally led to its last gold medal in 1980. In spite of this feat being
regarded as one of the most defining moments in all of Sport, hockey never fully took off in the U.S. like many expected. America loves the underdog. After all the entire country was founded because a rag-tag coalition rebelled against the Mighty English Empire. So, it’s simply intertwined in the American Spirit. With that being said, what better story than a bunch of college kids conquering the seemingly unbeatable Soviet Red Army?
That’s possibly why the current U.S. soccer team is getting so much American love. Being drawn into the so called Group of Death, the Americans came into the tournament given little chance to advance. America’s greatest World Cup finish was a semifinals appearance all the way back in 1930. Imagine if the U.S. would one day triumph on the World’s biggest stage and capture the Jules Rime Trophy. That would surely send America into Soccer euphoria as soccer has for a longtime been regarded as “the game for the rest of the world.”
Why It Matters
Since soccer and hockey – although having loyal devout followers – are both niche sports trying to capture the attention of the average sports fan as well as the general public, that means the two sports are directly competing against each other. When it comes to growing the game, it’s paramount that each sport makes the best of its opportunity while they have the attention of the public.
The best way to grow the game is by doing it at the grassroots level and getting more kids interested in the sport at a young age. Children are easily influenced by major events such as the World Cup and the Olympics. Therefore, when they see their heroes triumphing and captivating a national audience, they soon enough emulate the Gretzkys, Peles, Maradonas and Orrs of the World and urge their parents to let them participate in the activities they see on T.V.
Unfortunately for hockey, soccer has a much lower barrier of entry. When tasked with the decision of choosing soccer or hockey for their child to participate in, the average parent is far more likely to choose soccer once the cost of hockey equipment and ice time are factored in, not to mention the perceived safety risks that are associated with hockey. After all, there is reason why we use the general term Soccer Mom instead of Hockey Mom.
Another issue that compounds the barrier of entry problem is accessibility. Soccer can virtually be played anywhere while hockey needs special facilities. Therefore, it becomes even more important for hockey to influence Americans while it has the Nation’s attention. More often than not, it takes a great deal of public backing to get ice rinks constructed in local communities.
While the debate may rage on about the place soccer and hockey have respectively in American culture, the significance that major world events such as the World Cup and the Olympics have on Sport is something that cannot be argued. What’s an even greater fact is that Americans will always be front and center supporting athletes that dawn The Stars & Stripes. Whether it’s bocce ball or basketball, true American Patriotism will always shine through.
As an American based in Amsterdam, Joe provides a unique hockey insight, bringing a global perspective to the game. Joe has several years of experience covering the game on both a domestic and international level, including being credentialed for multiple World and World Junior Championships.