Why Is Football A “Local” Sport?
The favorite sport in the US, football had a hard time spreading to other countries. It took some digging to find out why, and the answers were many. The most common one was because football is a very difficult sport. After all, there’s a reason the sport is known as a – very – physical game of chess. There are many rules, which are difficult to understand at the beginning (and afterward). The second most common was the game speed. It’s very hard to fall in love with the sport when the game stops every time. There are other reasons, of course, and some deserve a deep dive.
Yes, geography plays a big role here. Let’s take soccer, the most popular sport on Earth, as an example. If you search for it, you’ll find similar games being played 3000 years ago, but we’ll focus on the British version. Soccer became professional in England during the mid-19th century, when it was the most powerful country in the world. The game quickly spread to Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, with the majority of the public coming from the working class. It didn’t take long for soccer to reach the rest of the world, with British workers playing it in South America. The rest of Europe also fell in love with the game, and soon the whole world was playing soccer.
Football, on the other hand, wasn’t that lucky. If soccer almost instantly became the favorite sport in England, followed by many other countries, football wasn’t even the favorite sport in the US until 1972. At that time, the FIFA World Cup just had its ninth edition. Football was a slow-spreading sport since the begging, even in the US. The game took decades to become really popular in its home country, and it didn’t have dozens of countries to spread to like soccer.
But now you may be asking “Basketball also didn’t have, so why almost one billion people play it?”. This will bring us to the next topic, and the timing couldn’t be better.
Although basketball had its roots in many countries for a long time (the first FIBA World Cup was in 1950), the breaking point was Barcelona 1992. Basketball was an Olympic sport since 1936, but NBA players were forbidden until 1992. The Dream Team sky-rocketed basketball’s popularity across the world. Winning every game by a margin of 43.75 points, they put up a show for everyone to see during the only sports event that everybody is watching. After 92, many countries started to invest in an effort to close the huge gap between the US and every other country.
This investment paid dividends, and we see many NBA stars from Europe, South America, and Asia. One of the countries that benefited the most was Argentina. A generation led by Manu Ginóbli went on to the 2002 World Cup final, when they lost to Yugoslavia. During the competition, they handed the first defeat ever to an All-NBA US roster. Two years after, in Athens 2004 Olympics they won against a LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony-led team in the semifinals, the first time the US Dream Team didn’t win a gold medal. They then went on to beat Italy for the gold medal, the only existing country besides the US to do it.
Football is known as a – very – physichal chess game. This also means that, like chess, football is hard to watch unless you already know what you’re seeing. Many different rules, formations, play designs, and the TV only showing us the quarterback, make it difficult to learn football. And you probably won’t see a sport that you don’t understand.
Also, football is hard to play. Although it embraces all body tipes, you do need to be athletic enough to play. And unlike sports like soccer, where even a game with bad players can be good, football needs capable players in order for the game to be fun.
Now to wrap up this part, football isn’t really a game that you can play in a close space. It also isn’t a sport that can be played with few people. I’m not talking about the pro game here, but the “get with your friends and play”. Soccer you can play anywhere and with everything, and even a 1v1 is exciting. Basketball you need a little more, but it’s also easy to play. And the proof that you can play basketball with fewer people is in this year’s Olympics, with the introdution of the 3v3. To play football you need a ball that isn’t shaped like a ball. And the “backyard football” can be played everywhere because, of course, you don’t find that many places with a backyard.
Football is a great sport. Once you understand what’s going on, it’s hard not to love it. But in order for you to understand, there needs to be some kind of effort. This is one of the things holding it back. The NFL is trying to spread football, with the London games happening for a while and talks about having games in Germany. Before the COVID pandemic, there were also conversations about having a game in Brazil. You can see that the league is trying to make football a more important game worldwide, but there still are many humps to get over.