Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How to Get Americans to Like Soccer

Ok, we’ve got another World Cup in the books (yeah, I know it’s still going on, but since the U.S. lost, the screens in the sports bars have all gone back to baseball) and with the U.S. dying like a Brett Favre champion-wanna-be squad, it’s time to look at why Soccer is not working here.

Sure, the ratings for the US games were their highest ever, but how many of those eyeballs will be tuning into the MLS game of the week from now on? No more than before the Cup. Soccer still has few adherents in the U.S. aside from people who have strong ties to their ancestral home or those who have spent an obscene amount of time on trans-continental airplanes. The guy rocking the Cosimo Kramer shirt at the OTB in Tulsa is NOT following Soccer.

We’ve all known for a long time that the lack of scoring is a huge issue. Would we watch basketball if the hoop was 30 feet high and the thought of tweaking the twine was a twice a day dream? No. And that’s what Soccer is to your average American sports fan.

They’ve come up with some ideas in the past to increase scoring including widening or heightening the goal. The women’s game has caught on more here because of the fact that smaller keepers = more goals. You rarely see a 1-0 women’s game. But resizing all the Soccer goals in countries where most of the disposable income goes to buying off politicians is not practical.

The off-sides rule is confusing to Americans and most Americans just don’t get why it’s there. In this case, the Americans are 100% correct. It is the worst rule in all of organized sport. It rewards lazy defense and punishes aggressive offense. It allows for slower, less-skilled players to play on an even par with quicker, more agile athletes. The game would be much higher scoring and much more exciting if they did away with it. Eliminating the off-sides rule would also eliminate 80% of the goal controversies. There is simply no need for it.

And eliminating the off-sides rule will happen as soon as Rush endorses Obama. It’s just never going to happen. Having spent a good number of years in the sporting industry I can tell you that the most conservative/arrogant people you will ever meet are those people who work for the major sports leagues. The NCAA, the NFL, the IOC, MLB. Even people who work for state high school sports organizations feel like they run the world. FIFA is by far the biggest, richest and most arrogant of them all. They could care less about what a fan says. They wouldn't change a rule even if it would bring more asses to the stadium or eyeballs to the screen. They've already got enough. They think Soccer is just perfect.

But I propose this simple variation to increase scoring and get Americans to watch more Soccer. We don’t change the rules, we change the scoring system. One of the reasons Americans don’t understand Soccer is that a team can dominate a game and still lose on a silly error. It’s just not fair. Offense is rarely rewarded and defense is rarely punished. In order to even the playing field we do what every other field sport in the world does and give points to good offensive efforts, even if they don’t end up in a goal. Football, Rugby, Australian Rules, Gaelic Football and Hurling all allow for an offense to score points without actually getting in the end zone. They all have variations of a ‘Field Goal’ which is worth one-third to half the points of an actual goal. In Soccer it would be really easy: Five points for a goal, two points every time you force the goalie to use his hands.

Since the keeper is the only guy on the field who can use his hands, let’s make it cost him/her something if they use the privilege. If an offense makes a surge that ends up in a great save, they are rewarded with two points. The average score of a match goes from 1-1 to 9-7. 0-0 halves will be a thing of the past and strikers will be much more accurate if they know they can score w/out having to hit a one-foot by one-foot window. Sure it changes the job of the keeper quite a bit, but they’re standing around most of the game anyway. It’s not as hard a job as quarterback or catcher, so making them think of using their hands vs. making a kick save isn’t really stretching the abilities of man. (Oh yeah, two points if they use their head too; don’t want a rash of concussions in the youth leagues…)

It’s a simple solution that doesn’t require any new equipment or referee training. If the score at half time is 2-4, Americans will feel they’ve seen something and keep watching. And when goals are scored the celebrations will be just as wild as before (I was about to say, ‘even more exciting’ but that’s not possible in Soccer).

It’s a fairly radical change, but only for one position, the keeper. FIFA has made only one major rule change in the past two-decades and that is banning the use of keepers’ hands when the ball is played back to them by their own team (unless it’s headed back). This really doesn’t effect the skill set of any of the other players and it would bring all the casual fans to the stadium and the TV sets.

So there ya go, FIFA. I just made you another couple billion dollars in the U.S. market. This one’s on the house – the next one’s gonna cost you something.