Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism

By Andrei S. Markovits; Steven L. Hellerman | Go to book overview

Two
The Formation of the American Sport Space
“CROWDING OUT” AND OTHER FACTORS IN THE
RELEGATION AND MARGINALIZATION OF SOCCER

SOCCER FAILED to gain more than a marginal existence in American sports culture for three interrelated reasons, each of which can be conveniently and respectively labeled historical-sociological, cultural-anthropological, and organizational-institutional. The first—and certainly the most important and instrumental—is that soccer as both a recreational and spectator activity was “crowded out” in the nineteenth century from below by the prior emergence and success of baseball as a sport for the American masses in spring and summer, and from above by American football as a sport for the middle and upper middle classes in autumn. This chapter mainly focuses on these sociological roots for soccer's relegation by providing a brief account of the key junctures in the historical development of baseball, football, basketball, and hockey—the sports we have labeled the Big Three and One-Half. However, the other two reasons warrant mention here, as it will become apparent that each of these sports exhibited identifying and institutional features that soccer was unable to match or, in contrast to the cases of basketball and hockey, unable to adjust to the requisites for success in the American sport space.

Regarding the second reason, like the first modern British sport to be played and watched in the United States, cricket, soccer was perceived by both native-born Americans and immigrants as a non-American activity at a time in American history when nativism and nationalism emerged to create a distinctly American self-image. Soccer enthusiasts generally refrained from any attempts to integrate their sport into the culture of their adopted land, choosing instead to emphasize the game's non-American roots and features, often in an endeavor to retain their own pre-American identity. For the vast majority of immigrants looking to “fit in” in the new country, sports helped to unify ethnically diverse groups toward assimilation. “Immigrants saw sport as a socializing force, an ‘Americanizing’ force,” according to University of Cincinnati archivist Kevin Grace, a sports specialist. “If you were a fan who loved baseball, you were American.” 1 The same applied to basketball, football, and boxing. But if one liked soccer, one was viewed as at least resisting—if not outright rejecting—integration into America and its general ethos. For the typical

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