How Soccer Explains Elections

Devin Lavelle
Associate Consultant, Andrew Chang& Company LLC

While many records are broken every year, there are two worth drawing attention to during the first half of 2014: the levels of participation in elections and soccer.

With 25.2% turnout, California appears headed to a record low for a statewide primary. Explanations vary, ranging from voter contentment to structural shortcomings to California’s turnout is actually fairly high.

Most of these ideas are not terribly compelling, since most Californians think we are headed in the wrong direction; recent structural changes have made the primaries more compelling for independent and minority party candidates; and a record low is still that, regardless of context.

Instead, consider an alternate theory, inspired by California’s recent soccer craze.

Every four years Americans get worked into a frenzy supporting our boys in the Red, White and Blue, in a game that many of us barely understand. What is offsides again? We watch a few games, drink a few beers, enjoy wearing clothing that flagrantly violates the Flag Code (Section 8.d) and then forget the sport exists for the next several years.

Yet despite America’s lack of appreciation for the beautiful game, last week’s matches shattered records for ESPN and online streaming viewership.

This phenomenon plays into a trend in sports, the transition from baseball to football as our real national pastime. Football is far and away the most popular sport in America and dominates baseball both in team values (Forbes estimates that the average MLB team is worth less than the Oakland Raiders, the lowest value NFL team.) and television ratings ; so much so that it was newsworthy that a World Series game earned higher ratings than Monday Night Football.

There are plenty of explanations for the trend:

  • Steroids
  • Parity issues
  • Cost of participation
  • The one-on-one nature of the pitcher-batter confrontation
  • Industrial and militaristic societal evolution

Americans simply do not have the attention span to stick to a 162 game season. We have too much stimulation, too much distraction, too much competition for our time. Baseball has a 162 game season and each game represents about 0.6% of the team’s final. There is just not that much to care about. Football has a 16 game season and few playoff spots are decided by more than a single game. If you miss a key game, you really missed something important. And best of all, there is only eleven minutes of action to distract us from the rest of our lives.

Moreover, baseball games occur every day of the week. Each game is just one in a series. Football games are typically only on Sunday with a single featured game on Monday. It creates a major event atmosphere. Every game matters and if you miss one, you cannot simply catch up tomorrow. The result is this: Americans tune in to football, while baseball ratings decline.

We enjoy events. We get excited, we throw parties and we come together as a country around big, exciting celebrations of competition. 57% of Americans watched Seattle triumph over Denver in this winter’s Super Bowl. The exact same proportion voted in the 2012 general election. It was a big event, a head-to-head matchup of the biggest stars in partisan politics, the payoff at the end of a season of primaries. Perhaps coincidentally, sixteen weeks in the winter and spring of 2012 featured primaries.

So football is like the Presidential election, featuring semi regular smaller events that build anticipation to the one big event at the end of the year. Baseball is more like the day-to-day business of government. Each game is actually really important, even if it is not always clear why, and there is just so much of it.

Right now, we think of soccer as a better version of football, with one big event every four years, forgetting the British Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A, as well as MLS and numerous other smaller professional leagues around the world. Who can keep track of UEFA Champions Real Madrid playing 10 friendlies, 38 La Liga matches, 9 Copa Del Ray matches and 13 UEFA Champions League matches over the last year, before their players leave for the World Cup?

In reality, despite often sharing a name, football and soccer have little in common. Soccer is much more like baseball, with long, drawn out seasons and leagues around the globe. But Americans have not caught on to that. And that is why, today, Americans like soccer.

What it comes down to is this: Americans enjoy voting about as much as we enjoy soccer. We tune in, we talk about it, we even remember some of the players’ names, but ultimately, we only have the attention span to do it once every four years.

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