Sports economics puzzle of the day

I very much enjoyed my visit this week to the University of Western Ontario. I had an especially good time trading micro puzzles with one of my hosts John Palmer. John is an economist, an artist, and founder of the Philistine Liberation Organization.

We quickly hit upon the old sports chestnut: why is soccer not a major professional sport in America?

It seems easy enough to add commercials when the ball goes out of bounds. And we have plenty of land for soccer fields. Maybe soccer is too boring on television, but hey (no brickbats please) what about baseball? Could it be that soccer is too hard to describe on radio, noting that this medium drove the initial popularity of baseball?
I have the vague intuition that soccer is too “working class” for the non-unionized United States, but it is hard to go far with this hypothesis.

My best shot at an answer was the following: Americans prefer professional sports where they know (or feel) that they are the best in the world. This applies to baseball, football, and basketball, the major professional sports in the United States. At tennis we are no joke. Chess became massively popular, but only briefly, when Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky.

The implicit prediction, of course, is that basketball will decline in popularity.

Addendum: Perhaps a country can only fit so many sports. Thanks to Scott Cunningham for the pointer. In another direction, Bob Crosby writes the following:

“Both soccer and hockey have problems gaining US audiences for similar reasons.

Both games make it very difficult for the best players to fully exploit their skills. Put differently, they are games where the difference between the great players and the mediocre players is minimized.

In hockey, (a) the unwillingness of the refs to call hooking, slashing and holding penalties and (b) the ridiculously small size of modern rinks mean that the value of speed and skill is reduced. The wide disparities in skill levels that naturally exist are reduced or eliminated.

In soccer, the off-sides rule has the same effect. It acts as a speed break. And speed breaks help slower, less talented players.

In short, the difference between the best players and the worst players is structurally minimized in those sports.

Football, basketball, baseball or golf do not have similar problems. In those sports, wide disparities in talent are encouraged and immediately and easily discernable by fans.”


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