Searching for Bo Jackson: A Postscript

Over the last several weeks, I’ve written a lot about MLS fandom, the reasons people follow individual teams within the league and the ways teams are having a hard time taking advantage of those motivating factors.  Today, however, we’re concerned not with individual teams, but with the growth of soccer as a whole, how the game itself adds fans in this country.

Right now, soccer in America is still on the slow growth path. The inevitable, quadrennial talk of a World Cup jump-start for the sport — that this is going to be the year soccer makes it — was no more true in 2010 than it was in 1998. What’s changed is that it no longer seems that soccer needs the boost.

As I’ve said before, I’m convinced that there are at this moment fewer soccer fans in America than there ever will be again. More kids are playing, and less of those are permanently losing interest even as their own playing careers end. The growth curve points in one direction, and while it may eventually plateau, we’re certainly not at that point yet.

But there’s a flip side to all this, another facet worth examining: if competing in a World Cup proves time and time again that it produces less off a takeoff and more of a bump, then, what would generate that takeoff? What would prove an instant lift, a can of spinach squeezed into the gullet of our pastime? The two possible answers are obvious, but probably more nuanced than you would first suspect.

Now, let’s make it clear here: This isn’t what the American soccer fanbase needs by any means. While there are ways things could improve from the perspective of recruiting fans, on the whole I think we’re doing alright without having to slap on the pair of Acme Rocket Skates the following items would represent.

The first, most obvious way, would be to win a World Cup. Or even just make the finals. It’s tough to imagine anyone but the most vehement soccer haters wouldn’t skip their midseason baseball to watch that game. If Donovan’s goal against Algeria galvanized a certain group of casual fans into further devotion, imagine what a run through the knockout stages would do, where we’d have to face off and knock off some real world powers to get there.

If our men’s national team made it to a World Cup final, the national media would explode. The press’s soccer awareness is improving, even if it seems we’re still fighting the same battles with columnists and ESPN talking heads (and the people who make the broadcast decisions). It’s not just the sports media either, who no doubt would feel obligated to cover it. Sportswriters become sportswriters because they love football, basketball, baseball or some combination of those. But soccer fans, due to a variety of demographic and educational reasons, go work as news reporters, editors, web designers, bloggers, copy-editors and the like. They have the ability to shape the coverage, particularly at outlets where there is no sports desk, and they’d use that final to proselytize the same way you or I would.

The second would be the development of a true American soccer star. Not a phenom, not a ball of near-limitless potential, not the “next” anything, but the genuine article, ready-made, no assembly required.

The problem here is it’s not really that easy, because it would have to be a certain type of star to get the boost we’re talking about.  I may feel faint and swoon-prone at the thought of an American Xavi, but would his abilities translate with the sporting public at large?

Soccer lends itself to sublime displays of skill, flashes of genius that drop the jaw and stun the brain and cause a spot midway up the back of your skull to itch uncontrollably. But skill alone isn’t enough to dominate the American sporting mind. Our greatest sporting icons have always married their skill with a physical tool set, with strength, speed, hangtime, etc, but I think it’s safe to say that the larger sporting public will have a harder time appreciating skill in a midfielder than they would in a small forward or a quarterback because their less familiar with what that skill set requires.

What they are familiar with is raw, physical dominance. The player that could single-handedly boost soccer here is the opposite of a Xavi. Someone superhuman. Someone, to quote Benny the Jet Rodriguez, who is “less than a god, but more than a man.” Someone no fan will ever forget, and most importantly, someone whose physical exploits are so staggering that they become the stuff of YouTube legend, and the rest of the sports-watching public just has to pay attention to him.

Someone like Bo Jackson.

Displays of physical prowess are trickier to notice in soccer than other sports. Tackling doesn’t have the overt physicality it does in American football, and small, fast guys are a dime a dozen and just not as comparatively impressive. But someone like Bo would have a physicality that could transcend the sport. You don’t have to know football to appreciate the fact that Bo could either run over or through you, and there’s nothing you could do about it. You don’t have to know baseball to appreciate a 460-foot home run, or a guy breaking a bat over his knee.

An American soccer Bo wouldn’t need to be perfect; he wouldn’t need to be one of the top 10, 20, 50 players in the world. He would just need to be capable of doing things that make those people disinclined toward soccer, who tune out every time a soccer highlight comes up on Top Plays, take notice, and perhaps reconsider.

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