An American Watching Football

September 4, 2009

At Anomaly, I continue to spend a lot of my time thinking about English football while working alongside Umbro on their branding efforts. This has caused the game to seep into my sporting commitments (of which, as you know, are many, even if they are mostly critical and observational in nature, not physical).

I won’t attempt to explain why Americans react differently to football. Though it is a sentiment that is slowly changing, our country still maintains majority indifference toward the game. The answer is rooted in manifold cultural reasons: religion, class, race, even politics are the stories of European Football. It is scripted like our sports are not: the former President of Italy owns AC Milan; Real Madrid buys players with government loans that carry absurdly low interest rates; the Old Firm is a centuries-old religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants.

Yankees-Red Sox, this is not.

I’ve noticed that, while I can check baseball news five or six times per day, I check football news less often. Baseball, with its litany of measureable statistics, always has a story: a slump, a bounceback season, how two players in a trade have performed.

Football, on the other hand, in many ways lacks that. Because football has so many fewer statistics, stories draw more from the romantic side of the game, with more heroic and tragic story arcs and quotations that drip with emotion.

A baseball news story can be supported with statements like:

“Obama, 6-2 with a 3.61 ERA over his last ten starts since coming over from the White Sox, has led the Nationals to wins in three straight starts. He has been excellent, striking out eight at home against Pittsburgh and going seven strong innings in a 4-2 win versus Colorado. Moreover, he’s only allowed four home runs in that span and maintained a 60% groundball ratio.”

I can read that sentence and form a fairly clear picture of what just happened and how that player performed. Contrast this with football journalism, which, absent of so many statistics, reads more like:

“Kennedy, the midfielder, displayed terrific form in United’s cup tie away to City. His presence disrupted the opposition’s defense and made up for his ineffectiveness in a 1-1 tie last week at home to Rovers.

‘I thought the player looked good,’ said the boss Benitez. ‘I did not think he played well two weeks ago, but he has been very fit in practice and he demonstrated that tenacity today.’

Kennedy, the Northern Ireland international, has generally disappointed since arriving on loan, but has pledged his commitment to the club and insisted his play will improve. “I have been training hard, I want to succeed with United.”

Coaches – the undeniable focus of every team that lacks a marquee player – often level trenchant postgame comments, criticizing referees, questioning motives, complaining, insulting other coaches. “‘City don’t even come into the equation. They are a small club with a small mentality. All they can talk about is us,” said Sir Alex Ferguson, the most famous coach in football, boss at Manchester United.

It is a color that American sports lack – it feels more like literature or a motion picture than the games we watch, which are a series of logistic chunks that we absorb, analyze, and digest to understand the next.

It explains why so many people watch football in bars – because it has to be watched. Matches can’t be understood if you don’t watch them, because you can’t repaint them like you can with football.

So I guess that explains why I look forward to Saturday mornings even more now.