Monday, July 03, 2006

Is Soccer Boring?

Tyler Cowen argues that soccer is boring to him because (like baseball, hockey, or perhaps even chess and Go) "only the cognoscenti know what is going on." He prefers basketball because "It is far easier to approach a basketball game "cold" and figure it out on the fly. If you tune in during halftime, a few stats will indicate what is going on. It is the perfect sport for people who, like myself, don't have much time for sports."

These arguments seem inconsistent. All sports, even soccer, provide a variety of statistics that, to some degree, tell the story of the game. It is only because Tyler is a cognoscenti of basketball that he knows which statistics are important and how to interpret them.

If there is a difference between soccer and other sports, it may be the importance of augmenting statistics (like time of possession, corners, shots, shots on goal, etc.) with description (e.g., "The French were so much better at playing Brazil's natural, free-flowing game that the result never seemed in doubt ..."). To people familiar with soccer, such description serves essentially the same purpose that various statistics do.

So I disagree with the argument that soccer is boring because it is harder to quickly understand than other sports. If anything, soccer is much easier to understand than just about any other sport. After 6 years, I am still trying to explain parts of baseball and American football to my international friends. Soccer is pretty basic -- it is a big game of directed keep away where you can't use your hands.

If soccer is boring, it is boring in the same way baseball might be considered boring. It is all about the build up. If you don't care about the outcome, waiting for something pivotal to happen probably doesn't make for great television. However, if you do care about the outcome, nothing is more exciting. Watching the Red Sox in the playoffs or elimination matches in the World Cup is exhausting. Because the whole game can turn in an instant, you hang on the edge of your seat (if you can even sit down, I don't think I sat down after about the 60th minute of the Germany-Argentina match on Friday).

For me, watching soccer or baseball on TV requires that I care about the outcome. Otherwise, I tend to lose interest and get bored. Oddly, this same condition does not apply to watching these sports live. I will happily go to any major (and most minor) league ballparks to watch baseball, and the atmosphere at soccer matches seems insane enough that I can't imagine being bored there (although I've never been). I find football and basketball to be the exact opposite. I will happily watch most any teams play football or basketball on TV, but unless I care deeply about the teams involved I get bored at live football or basketball games. I am not sure what this says, but I think it is interesting.

Ultimately, if soccer has a problem it is that referees make the results somewhat arbitrary because they posess the power to change the game dramatically (by awarding penalty kicks or sending players off) yet, much of they time, they can't even see most of the fouls properly because there aren't enough of them on the field.

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