Soccer is my favorite sport, but I have made my peace with its otherworldly complexity. I understand the game well enough to follow it on TV. But I’m as lost as an Ethiopian in a French restaurant when a team scores.
I know that if you’re watching soccer at all, you’re probably a millennial. And millennials are smart and savvier than any generation before them. To me, this means that the way they watch soccer is not only interesting but also instructive.
The most obvious thing about soccer to a millennial is the way it is consuming their lives so thoroughly. They don’t just watch soccer but post on Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat about it, tweet photos of themselves on airplanes and trains and Metro cars, write articles about it for publications like ESPN The Magazine, blog about it in their own space, attend games in person or on television, and talk about it with people they know who don’t live in Brazil or Australia or Qatar. And they care passionately about the results of what they call “the beautiful game.”
Soccer has become an important part of their identity. As a result, they are (in a word) different from every generation before them. They’re more interested in following sports than playing them; less interested in loyalty
The traditional way of watching soccer is to sit in a stadium and have the commentators describe the action to you. But when the game is at its most intense, it’s hard to hear what they’re saying. So young people like to watch live soccer from a moving car or from their own home.
The professional soccer player has been replaced by the digital commentator, who does not want to be located where an actual person might interrupt his flow. The professional soccer player was always a distraction, but now the whole sport is distracting.
My friends and I are in our early 20s and very tech-savvy. We watch games on phones and laptops, on screens big enough for us to see the ball without having to zoom. We pay for subscriptions on streaming media services that let us watch multiple games at once, and on which we can record matches so that we don’t miss any detail.
We are also as knowledgeable about soccer as anyone else our age, perhaps more so; only football fans who are old enough to remember Pele have more extensive knowledge of soccer history and tactics.
In 2015, I wrote a blog post about millennials and soccer. The basic idea was that the internet has made it possible for millennials to watch soccer the same way they used to watch other sports: by finding ways to move beyond the restrictions of time and geography.
But this is not really true. Millennials are still watching soccer the same way their parents did: through television broadcast networks with little or no choice of games.
Millennials aren’t used to the rhythms of soccer, so we can’t expect them to be tuned in when there’s a major event on. And they’re not used to slowly discovering “what’s happening” during a game like we are (that’s what makes social media so good). They’re used to new information arriving every few minutes.
So why do millennials watch soccer so differently? It’s not just because they’re more comfortable watching replays than live broadcasts. It’s also because they have learned to imagine themselves as observers in a game, getting new information through social media, rather than as one player among many who has determined what happens next.
To understand the millennial soccer fan, we have to start with the soccer fan of the ’80s. Soccer hooligans were vicious, but they mostly watched soccer in public stadiums. They carried signs and shouted slogans and sang songs, but they mostly did that in front of large groups of people who were not watching the game.
The biggest difference between soccer hooligans in the ’80s and millennials today is that millennials like to watch their soccer games alone. This is a big deal.
As much as young people like to use social media to connect, it turns out that there is a lot of truth to what football coaches say about “being lonely” on the field.
Soccer is a sport that has been around for a long time. It is also a very popular game, and seems to be growing in popularity around the world. But most of the growth of soccer viewership has come from young people in places that don’t have much soccer to watch.
In the U.S., there are more people watching soccer now than ever before. When you look at the numbers for U.S. viewers rather than just total viewers, it looks like soccer is growing faster than ever before.
But then you notice something: The 20-34 age group is where soccer viewership has grown the most, and the older groups are down (even though people should be getting older as they get more exposed to soccer). And the 18-29 group is where U.S. soccer viewership grew most rapidly over the 2010-2014 period, but its members also watched less total U.S. sports programming overall during that period—though not significantly less, thanks to TV Everywhere which allows them to watch live games on their tablets or smartphones anywhere they want without having to buy expensive cable TV subscriptions.
So why do young people love soccer so much?
Soccer “journalism” has been around for a long time. Soccer journalists have been writing ever since there have been soccer fans. They have always been judged by the quality of their games coverage, and their standards are high.
The genre of soccer journalism has gone through several phases in its history. First, there was the “match report,” where you went to a game and wrote down what happened; that became the fanzine. In football’s modern era, the two most famous match reports were The Sun’s Stanley Matthews and The Daily Mail’s Tommy Lawrence. The match report was eventually supplanted by the bulletin-board, where you could post your thoughts on the game. Wikipedia is conceptually similar to that format, but it is written in a very different style, not directly commenting on the action but more like a public opinion poll or an encyclopedic essay on some aspect of the sport.
The most famous soccer journalist was probably Arthur Hopcraft, who started as a fanzine writer then moved into soccer journalism proper and stayed there for decades, writing hundreds of match reports that were collected in “Hopscotch: A Football Journey”. He is widely credited with inventing an important new form: the book review.
There have been many
Soccer is a sport that has survived through the ages by adapting to changes and trying new things. Its traditional format involves two teams of 11 and a goal. But in the 1970s, FIFA experimented with extra time, showing that games could be longer than three hours. Then, in 1994, it tried out a new format: a 24-team tournament for clubs from all over the world.
Since then it has gradually been expanding its format. The World Cup now features 64 teams from all over the world playing in 32 matches over seven weeks, although only 32 make it to the final match (and only 16 of those win). The 2010 World Cup featured 24 teams and 12 stadiums; now it features 32 teams split across 48 cities, with six stadiums each. The 2022 World Cup will feature 48 teams split into 32 matches at ten stadiums spread across four continents.