That a greater percentage of viewers are passionate and knowledgable is one reason why Aaron Gordon loves niche sports.
On a brisk March night, thousands of Americans gathered to watch a sport we normally watch alone. There aren’t many soccer fans born and raised in the United States. It just isn’t “our” thing, for the most part. But there are some of us who embrace it. Most of the time, we are separated by distance, time zones, and mid-afternoon obligations that prevent us from watching together. But every once in a while, we are reunited.
I recognized I’m not the only one drawn to niche sports like soccer and hockey when I attended a US-Argentina soccer game at the New Meadowlands (now Metlife Stadium). The game was sold out, but only because the Argentinean fans vastly outnumbered their American counterparts. When the few American fans did arrive, many of them had Rangers, Devils, or Islanders hats (yes, Islanders fans exist) to accompany their Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan jerseys.
In a desolate parking lot barely ten miles from the New Jersey Devils home ice, a vocal contingent of Rangers fans bellowed a “Let’s Go Rangers” chant, only to be rebutted by a louder “Let’s Go Devils” chant a few rows over. As I disappeared into the reeds of the swampland to relieve myself, the hockey chants were drowned out by the tango music of the away team’s contingent. Pissing in the reeds reminded me of being a soccer or hockey fan in general: you’re surrounded in a dense indifference, only to emerge once in a while surrounded by similarly enthusiastic obsessives.
There are several professional sports in America that are often described as “niche” sports, such as hockey or soccer (only in America can the most popular sport in the world be characterized as “niche”). I love those sports for what they are—they’re both beautiful, free-flowing games of athletic brilliance and intelligence with underappreciated amounts of physicality—but I also love them for what they are not: popular. There’s something appealing about contrarianism, and there’s something paradoxically satisfying about being a contrarian about what sports I watch.
Sports are a social movement. One of the primary reasons we watch sports is a fear of exclusion; we want to be a part of the conversation. The games are fun, but the conversations we have about the games are vastly more interesting. (I enjoyed reading Eric Freeman’s article at The Classical about LeSean McCoy’s unique style much more than I enjoyed watching LeSean McCoy’s unique style.) All of the importance we assign to sports is reliant on other people watching sports with us and talking to them about what we saw.
Nobody needs to be alone when watching sports anymore, not with Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging, live blogging, and all the other tools of globalization at hand. But deciding when to encounter your favorite sports marginalizes the beauty of unexpectedly sharing them with others. One of my favorite scenes from The Office involved the CEO of Dunder Mifflin asking Jim if he wanted to “shoot hoops out back” at his own cocktail party. We have all been at that office party where putting a fork through your hand just to excuse yourself from a conversation about the ideal thread count of bed sheets seemed plausibly rational, but then someone brought up the 49ers’ resurgence and we suddenly weren’t so miserable anymore.
Most of those party conversations about football or baseball tend to sound like a Peter King article. Aaron Rogers is really good, I think he’s got a future in this league. Those Lions sure do have an attitude problem. I don’t think college athletes should be paid because they get an education and that’s priceless. These superficial, brain-dead conversations negate the advantage of sports-as-a-social-movement. There’s little difference between having a mind-numbing conversation about thread counts versus a mind-numbing conversation about the moral superiority of Danny Woodhead.
But these conversations rarely happen with niche sports. People are quicker to admit they know nothing about soccer or hockey. Unlike football or baseball, it’s generally acceptable not to be aware of these lesser-appreciated sports. Discussing niche sports functions as a screening agent for conceptually vacant conversations. If you see someone wearing a Dallas Stars shirt or hat, it’s highly unlikely that person knows nothing about hockey. That hypothesis has failed me time and time again with football and baseball, leaving me stuck in conversations about Derek Jeter’s romantic endeavors.
There’s nothing wrong with mainstream sports themselves; I love football just as much as hockey and soccer. But, the more mainstream a sport is, the more likely a random person has only a casual knowledge of the game. A Sunday Night football telecast consistently rates above 10 on the Neilson ratings (over 11 million viewers), whereas the MLS Cup rated a meager .8 (about 927,000 viewers), and a recent English Premier League match broadcasted on FOX rated a slightly-better 1.5 (about 1.65 million viewers). It’s unlikely all 11 million viewers of the average Sunday Night Football game can tell you about the strong safety’s assignment on a zone blitz, but it’s a solid bet the 927,000 people tuning into the MLS Cup can tell you about running an offside trap.
To escape these hazards of mainstream sports, I wander in the reeds of other leagues. I went to the US-Argentina game with the only friend I have who watches soccer routinely. When we arrived at the New Meadowlands, this is what we saw:
In the background, a bustling city of 12 million people went about their weekend, unaware the most recognized, awarded, and brilliant athlete in the world, Lionel Messi, was playing a few miles away against their primary representatives in the most popular game on the planet. Most people didn’t care. But, their apathy is part of what brought me to this parking lot. I can peek out of the reeds knowing everyone I see is there for the right reasons, for the pure love of the beautiful game. I think the lone kid kicking a soccer ball in an empty parking lot would understand that.
—Natacha Pisarenko (AP)/Grantland