Discussion tackles differences between the role of soccer in the U.S. and Europe
On June 12, GMF in cooperation with the Heinrich-Boell-Foundation hosted a discussion on The Role of Soccer in the U.S. and Europe. The discussion was followed by a live screening of a Euro 2008 championship match featuring Germany and Croatia. The light-hearted discussion featured German Ambassador to the United States Dr. Klaus Scharioth; DC United President & CEO Kevin Payne, and Dr. Heiko Hesse, a former professional soccer player turned economist.
Panelists discussed the main thesis of the event: when it comes to soccer, "Europeans are from Mars, and Americans are from Venus." Ambassador Scharioth, who proved to be remarkably knowledgeable about all things soccer, illustrated the rise of soccer in Germany and Europe by example of "Rot-Weiss Essen," the soccer team he supports. According to Scharioth, soccer rose to prominence in Europe in the 1920s when it truly became a sport for the masses. Since then, soccer has been the region's dominant sport and has reached audiences from all socio-economic backgrounds. Ambassador Scharioth also pointed to the greater level of identification among European soccer fans with "their" team, a phenomenon similar to that of identification with local college teams in the United States. Furthermore, it was said that the more competitive aspect of clubs facing relegation and promotion in European leagues often leads to even greater interest among European soccer fans.
Kevin Payne pointed out that soccer has had to compete with other "national sports" in the U.S., but said that its following (and its economic reach) had been growing steadily since the 1990s. While the U.S. still has some catching up to do, Payne estimated that there are probably as many organized soccer players in hobby leagues and clubs in the U.S. as there are in Germany, which he saw as an important step in the right direction. The Latino community in the U.S. has been hugely important in this respect. Payne insisted that U.S. professional soccer clubs still need better stadiums, improved marketing and TV contracts, and to attract better players from around the globe.
He also suggested that the concept of aging European soccer stars coming to finish their careers in the U.S. was a mixed bag. While this concept has arguably worked well in the case of David Beckham, an English soccer star whose celebrity has reached tremendous heights since signing a contract to play soccer in the U.S. in 2007, other players have often failed to inspire U.S. audiences. One rationale for this is the possibility that European players might underestimate the U.S. league and not be willing to put in the required effort.
Heiko Hesse added that, from a player's perspective, organization of soccer leagues (from youth to professional level), training methods and intensity, as well as financial incentives were superior in Europe compared to those in the United States. Still, compared to the early 1980s, when Beckenbauer and Pele played in the U.S., Hesse said that the U.S. had come a long way.
Overall, participants agreed that while there were clear differences between the role of soccer in Europe and in the United States, they felt that the "Mars/Venus" comparison coined by Robert Kagan did not fully apply to soccer and was best kept to the policy side of transatlantic relations. Following this engaging discussion, the panel gathered together with nearly 100 participants to watch a live-screening of Germany's 1:2 loss to Croatia in the Euro 2008 tournament.