Parochialism leaves US sport in domestic bliss

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The few foreigners who have heard of the World Series like to laugh at it. They ask why it’s called “World Series” when it’s only open to American teams. Americans often retort that the word “World” came from the event’s first sponsor, the New York World newspaper. In other words, they say, “World” doesn’t imply “world championship”.

But the foreigners are right. The World Series – contested from Saturday night by the Detroit Tigers and St Louis Cardinals – never had anything to do with the New York World. Originally it was called “the World’s Championship”, and later “the World’s Championship Series” before morphing into what the writer Ring Lardner dubbed the “World Serious”.

American football’s Super Bowl and the finals of the National Basketball Association are supposed to be world championships too. That’s why their winners are often called “world champions”. Yet even globalisation couldn’t globalise these three events. None is a world championship – partly because foreigners don’t care and partly because the winners may no longer be the world’s best.

Sporting authorities routinely claim humungous global audiences for their events. The National Football League says the Super Bowl’s “potential worldwide audience” is 1bn. Soccer’s World Cup claims several times more viewers than there are humans. The NBA says its finals draw hundreds of millions worldwide.

These figures generally rely on counting anyone who channel-hopped through a second of action, or through a news programme showing highlights. But reliable numbers do exist. Each year the media agency Initiative tallies viewers of the biggest sporting events. Measuring the average audience for live broadcasts only, it tells American sports where they stand in the world.

The planet’s most watched sporting event last year was the Super Bowl with 93m viewers, says Initiative. Further down the list came the deciding games of the World Series and the NBA finals, with 22m and 20m viewers respectively.

But hardly anyone outside North America watched. The Super Bowl drew 86m viewers in the US and nearly 4m in Canada. That leaves just 3m viewers elsewhere, including almost 1m in Mexico.

Baseball is even more thoroughly American. Game four of the World Series won 20m viewers in the US and nearly 1m each in Canada and Mexico. That leaves just a few hundred thousand viewers elsewhere, who could easily all have been American expats. And the last game of the NBA finals drew fewer than 1m live viewers outside the US. The NBA boasts that its games are shown in 215 countries but that means little. Nowadays, almost everything is shown on some channel somewhere. The European dwarf-tossing championship is probably live in 87 countries. That doesn’t mean anyone is watching.

In short, when people say American culture is conquering the world, they aren’t talking about sport. The American athletes most familiar to foreign viewers are probably not Peyton Manning or Dwyane Wade but the hapless members of the men’s national soccer team. “If people in a country have been following the same sports for 50 or 100 years, it’s very difficult to break into that. In most countries, sport is a mature market,” says Kevin Alavy of Initiative.

In the past, Americans could at least claim that their domestic championships were, in effect, world championships: the teams contesting the World Series, or the NBA title, were the best teams on earth. That may no longer be true.

Anti-Americans have had a brilliant sporting year. The star-studded US baseball team failed even to make the semi-finals of the World Baseball Classic. The star-studded basketball team did make the semis of their world championship but lost to a Greek team featuring no NBA players. The ice-hockey team finished eighth in the Olympics, though it did manage to beat Kazakhstan. The golfers lost their third straight Ryder Cup to Europe. The men’s soccer team departed the World Cup in the first round. And no US tennis player won a Grand Slam in singles.

Here are some of the reasons for those failures:

■ American teams often underestimate foreigners, who follow the principle, “We’re number two, we try harder.”

■ American athletes usually play gently, or as they say, “half-assed”. That’s because they play all the time: 162 regular-season games in baseball, 82 in basketball. This workload is unmatched anywhere else. On the average night in American sport, winning just isn’t that important. There is always tomorrow. American players therefore almost never give their all. When they meet rested foreigners, they often lose.

■ An American athlete’s mission is not so much to win as to find sponsors. The ideal is to star in Nike commercials. This incentive structure encourages the best athletes to think of themselves, not the team. The star system is now so well understood as a cause of American decline – particularly in basketball – that a backlash has begun. Adidas’s new television commercialshows great basketball players lecturing viewers on teamwork. That may not be enough to change a culture, though. Nike’s stars have won the company 82 per cent of the US’s basketball shoe market.

■ Foreign teams learn from Americans but Americans seldom bother learning from foreigners. David Stern, the NBA’s commissioner, says: “We see ourselves as a resource to the basketball world.” But perhaps the basketball world should be a resource to the US. The NBA imports foreign players but no head coaches.

■ Beating foreigners is half the point of soccer but was never relevant in American sport. American teams enter World Cups caring less than their opponents and, therefore, lose.

■ We expect too much of the US. This is partly because of its own hype – all that talk of “World Series” etc. But the US already outperforms everyone else. As this column argued last month, judged across a range of sports, the US is the best country in sporting history. Reaching the semis of the basketball world cup, or losing at golf only to an all-European team, is not bad.

Still, they might stop calling their teams world champions.

simonkuper-ft@hotmail.com

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