Friday, March 12, 2010

Soccernomics: What We Talk About When We Talk About Football

A spirited debate arises in the soccer subculture over the use of terminology when describing the game as played in the United States.  We use American expressions rather than the English counterpart for many things: cleats instead of boots, uniforms instead of kits, field instead of pitch.  We also don't tend to 'rate' players, say that they have gotten a 'knock,' talk of the ball going out to 'touch,' or that players are being directed by a 'manager.'  However, some things have seeped naturally into our lexicon: we talk of strikers instead of forwards,  matches instead of games, etc.

The debate arises about how we should speak when we speak of soccer in the US.  To many, using English terms is a pathetic affectation.  We would not talk of bonnets and boots when we talk about our cars so why should we act differently when we talk of our sports.  I am on the other side.  To me this is exactly the point, this is not our sport, it was invented by the English and the english language terms that go with it are naturally a product of that.  The relevant example is if the English came up with unique terms for basketball, an 'expanse' instead of court, and 'the round' instead of hoops, say.  They don't, of course, and so we shouldn't be so parochial about our own terms.  I don't really care which terms are used, but I get impatient with folks who say we shouldn't use English terms.

All this arises because of ESPNs decision to go with all-British announcing teams for the World Cup.  All I can say is: "oh, thank god." There are a few exceptional American announcers, JP Dellacamera being the main one, and so some games will be well called, but as the world cup needs multiple teams we often get atrocious announcers on others.  [I still remember from the '98 world cup an american announcer totally unfamiliar with the sport who would not stop gushing about a defender who shielded a ball, last touched by the offensive player, as it rolled out over the end line - a totally routine play]  The New York Times' Goal Blog wonders whether these British announcers will use the English terms or adopt the American equivalent.  I don't care either way, but just as I would expect to hear an american football field called a gridiron in Britain (and I had a little bit of a surreal globalization experience sitting in an Edinburgh sports bar with an NFL game all over the TVs once) I expect that eventually the lexicon for soccer in the US and Britain will converge (except for the soccer part).

I do think there is one area where this convergence has become a little silly, the use of acronyms like FC and names like Real and United.  Teams like Seattle Sounders FC use the FC as FC, not standing for anything officially but meaning the same thing as in England: "Football Club."  This term harkens back to the time when these professional teams were just that, clubs. Many still are in a way, kind of like the evolution of the Green Bay Packers.  I don't mind the FC, just make the name Seattle Sounders Football Club and be done with it.  Surely the world is big enough for Association Football and American Football.

The Goal Blog also wonders what Brits would think if Americans called the World Cup soccer matches on British TV, but this is the wrong question.  The right question is what would the Brits think if Americans called NFL matches on British TV?  From my experience in Edinburgh - they would think it natural.

So all this is soccer - where is the economics?  Well, in the world of 'language goods' like movies, TV, books, etc. the United States rules the english speaking world.  Our lexicon is exported much more than others' are imported. So, I think this makes us insular and parochial.  The size of our market is so much bigger than anywhere else (most notably the UK, Ireland and Australia) that we rule the English language in pop culture.  [One exception is, of course, in pop music where the UK gives about as good as it gets]  We therefore tend to think it strange to hear terms that we have not coined.

Finally, my favorite little bit of Soccer trivia: why is football called football?  Hint: it is not because you kick a ball with your foot.  When the games that would become Rugby and Football were being played and differentiated in Rugby, England - they were all referred to as 'football' because they were played on foot (as opposed to on horseback).  This is also why American football, the stateside variant of the games first played in Rugby also took on the moniker of football.  They were all football until different rules regarding mostly the handling of the ball caused the split into two different variants of the game in England and into American football, Aussie rules football and Gaelic football abroad.

UPDATE: It is happening already!  This from an official MLS press release about the Timbers victory over the Sounders:

Despite dominating play, the Seattle Sounders FC fell to the Portland Timbers, 1-0, in the Community Shield preseason friendly match on Thursday night before a crowd of 18,606 on the Xbox Pitch at Qwest Field [emphasis mine]


David said...

With regard to our Yankee version of 'soccer' nomenclature and general language, I PERSONALLY agree (and couldn't agree more concerning American announcers). However, it seems that most of the recent focus of the American soccer community has been geared towards growing the game in this country, increasing exposure, getting people to engage, etc. From that point of view, I see a real argument that would suggest using more familiar terminology when discussing the sport here at home. Forcing people to adopt foreign vocabulary, especially if doing so feels like a "pathetic affectation", would be contrary to the US soccer community's perceived goal of inclusiveness. Exclusively using English terms would only reinforce the existing barrier between soccer fans and the general sporting public in this country, ostensibly creating an exclusive club with whom one may only engage if he/she knows the right words. Now this is not to suggest that most American fans are just waiting to feel 'accepted' into this group. However, I feel that such a move would only make them more indifferent towards the sport, continuing to dimiss it as an odd game enjoyed by people using funny words.

Patrick Emerson said...

Good points. Though I still think we are on a convergence path toward a more English lexicon. Case in point: MLS, when it first started, used a count-down clock, a shoot-out in case of ties and had ridiculously lurid uniforms and logos in an attempt to 'appeal to the American sports fan.' All of this has changed through time as American audiences got up to speed (but maybe more not to alienate already savvy immigrant populations).

I think an argument can be made that we should celebrate the differences between Soccer and other, more popular, American spectator sports more than we should try and make them seem as similar as possible.

But the biggest reason I see for this is the influence of modern TV. Now you can catch multiple English Premier League games on US TV, as well as other European leagues so kids these days are being exposed to the language of English soccer regularly and I see many many kids with European soccer shirts these days - a complete change from when I was a youth.

Which is my point about the forces of globalization: the dominant culture wins. In Soccer the english language dominant culture is the UK. No matter if I am right or wrong, it'll be fun to watch the continuing culture clash and how it plays out.

Jeff Alworth said...

When you praised that New Yorker piece on Krugman, you agreed that the economist's desire to make the world a neat and tidy place was indeed an attraction to you.

Language is neither neat nor tidy, and is the last thing to be decided by reason. Whinge, if you must, about the crass and parochial US, but isn't language the ultimate market? People talk the way they talk. The reason Brits talk with more American slang than vice versa is because they're exposed to more of it. If/when Americans start hearing more UK slang, they'll pick it up, too.

And anyway, quit arsin' around with language. This is an economics blog.