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US World Cup Hangover: The Economics of Soccer in the United States

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The United States bowed out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup after a spirited performance against Belgium—a nation of just 11 million (or, as one humorous article put it, “a Dakota and a half”. For the record, Ohio’s population of 11,570,808 makes it the closest state in terms of population to Belgium. A “Dakota and a half” renders only around 1.5 million).

While the loss was not unexpected it was still upsetting for me as it is any time one of my countries loses in football—especially since, inexplicably, the US had a chance to win the game at the death before Chris Wondolowski—also inexplicably—managed to make a mess of his moment in front of goal. But football is, sometimes, like life. You get your one moment, and you either make the best of it . . . or you don’t. There is no real in between.

A few articles have been written in the wake of the United States’ second round exit, including a very interesting one that asks the question “Has the US Men’s National Team Plateaued?”. Personally, I would be less dramatic—after all, this is football and anything can happen. I should know. My other team, Turkey, made an improbable run to third place at the 2002 World Cup—and another to the semifinals of the 2008 European Championships with an admittedly under-talented side. Hard work coupled with heart and belief can go a long way in football (like it can in life)—just look at the Greece team that won the 2004 European Championship!

So do I think the United States will, in the next three World Cups (a twelve year cycle), have a stunning performance? Yes, I suppose I do. But I won’t ask them to compete with the likes of Brazil, Argentina, and Germany year in and year out. And that’s ok because I also—secretly—like soccer in the US to be more of an inside joke amongst those of us who truly enjoy the game for what it is, and not some marquis event for frat boys who want an excuse to slam beers at odd hours of the working day in the name of banal nationalism done ‘Muricuh style. And that inside joke would be made even sweeter if the US somehow managed to scare the world by advancing past the Quarterfinals of a World Cup. I’ve watched enough US matches on foreign soil to recognize the glee when the US concedes a goal—in the last week alone I’ve seen it in both Russia and Turkey—and I can imagine the fear of a US World Cup win.

It does not appear that soccer in the US will ever move beyond being an inside joke that becomes part of the country’s mainstream culture for just a few summer weeks once every four years (selling many Nike shirts in the meantime) before, again, retreating into hibernation. I don’t think like this because I’m negative or a non-believer in US soccer, it is mainly because I am a realist—both in International Relations theory and in terms of football. When one looks at the facts it should not come as a surprise that the United States will never be a true world power in football. At the heart of it—as in so many cases—lies economics (James Carville would be proud).

The top professional soccer league in the United States is Major League Soccer (MLS), a league that has been steadily improving since its inception in 1996 despite competing with the other major American sports for visibility, fans, and . . . athletes.

Its not hard to understand why. On April 10, 2014 MLS released their salary information and the results were shocking. The top seven salaries in MLS—those of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Defoe, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, and Tim Cahill—account for 31% of all player salaries. In fact, as Empireofsoccer.com shows, the top 5% of earners represent 45% of total player salaries. That is a huge disparity for a country that prides itself on equality (perhaps there is a psychological dimension to this as well—the economics of MLS are fundamentally un-American!).

The salaries of the aforementioned seven players have, as empireofsoccer.com stated, inflated the league’s average salary to a figure of $207,831 (up from the 2013 figure of $165,066 when the median salary was just $100,000). Still, just a cursory look at a sample of the Colorado Rapid’s salary information for the 2014 season shows some glaring examples of the issues in play. At least three Rapids players—professional athletes who face far greater risk of serious injury daily than I ever did at work—make less money than I made sitting at a desk in my old day job!

Now compare the (admittedly inflated) average salary figure of $207,831 in MLS to the average salaries in the other major US sports from two years ago, courtesy of Forbes unless cited otherwise:

 

Major League Baseball (MLB): $3.2 million in 2012, now it is just under $4 million.

National Basketball Association (NBA): $5.15 million, now it is 3,453,241 (with a median of $1,500,000—fifteen times the MLS median in 2013).

National Football League (NFL): $1.9 million

National Hockey League (NHL): $2.4 million

 

The disparity is staggering. And now lets look back at that list of the seven highest paid MLS players, for a moment. Only three of the seven—Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan—are American. And after Jurgen Klinsmann’s now legendary snubbing of Landon Donovan, only two of them made it to the United States’ World Cup squad! Clearly, what big money that does exist in MLS is certainly not going to help the development of the US Men’s National team. And that means that for your average American soccer player, the chances of making big money at home—and representing your country on the biggest stage—are very small indeed.

This in itself poses a problem for the development of the game in the US. Many talented soccer players at the youth level in the United States often play multiple sports. Soccer is either a fall or spring sport depending on where you live, so that leaves the options of American Football and Baseball in other seasons, not to mention Basketball and Hockey in the winter months. Unlike in other countries, where football is the only money-making game in town, American athletes have other options as well that may prove to be more lucrative in the long term. While it is obviously difficult to make it as a professional in any of the major US sports, the fact that there is more money—and more collegiate scholarships (Soccer has the same number of NCAA Division 1 scholarships as Swimming/Diving and Wrestling)—available in the other sports means that it is very difficult to keep the country’s best athletes playing football. This is a fact that, unfortunately, does not bode well for the hopes of developing a truly world class US Men’s National Team; it doesn’t meant that it is impossible by any means, just that it is more difficult than it is in other nations.

 

Tim Howard Does His Country Proud, But Can Only Slump Off In The End As Belgium Move On:

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2014/07/01/onsoccer/r7h11DZZUn5HsRJGqfZ0hJ/story.html

 

Top Five World Cup 2014 Shirts and Top Five Classic World Cup Shirts

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Although I am not a huge World Cup fan since the tournament has become the definition of industrial football and mainly a cynical money making machine in recent years, I still can’t ignore the shirts. With the games in full swing I thought I would do what some sites have been doing and rank the top five shirts from World Cup 2014, along with the top five from the past World Cups that I have watched. As with everything on this blog all opinions are my own, so don’t be offended if your favorite shirt—or team—does not make an appearance. Personally, it is always hard to rank the newer shirts because the old ones hold a special place in my heart but here goes nothing.

 

World Cup 2014:

Number 5: Japan (Adidas)

Japan 2014 World Cup Home Kit (1) Japan 2014 World Cup Home Kit (2)

Japan 2014 World CUp Away Kit 4 Japan 2014 World CUp Away Kit 5

Images Courtesy of: http://www.footyheadlines.com/2013/06/exclusive-japan-13-14-2013-2014-2014.html

 

The “electricity” colored away shirt obviously needs no explanation, but the blue home shirt has a few details that make it, in my opinion, one of the best shirts of the 2014 World Cup. The rising sun motif around the badge is special, giving a sort of Japanese authenticity to the shirt. On the back, however, is a pink stripe that gives this jersey a unique detail that—when seen in person—really gets your attention. Adidas did a nice job with the socks as well, carrying that color through the kit instead of leaving it as a one-off detail on the shirt. It also harkens back to the red used in Japan’s 1995-96 kit, manufactured by Asics.

 

Numbers 4 and 4.5: Cameroon Home (Puma)

Cameroon 2014 World Cup Home Kit

Image Courtesy of: http://www.footyheadlines.com/2013/10/unique-cameroon-2014-home-and-away-kits.html

Ghana Away (Puma)

Ghana 2014 World Cup Away Kit 1

Images Courtesy of: http://www.footyheadlines.com/2013/11/ghana-2014-world-cup-home-kit-leaked.html

 

This is really a tie, and I chose to include both because each team’s other jersey (Cameroon Away and Ghana Home) are too light colored to see any of the details which make the darker colored shirts so special. Apparently the design on the Cameroon shirt is taken from cave paintings, with “Les Lions Indomptables” written across each line. This comes from the team’s nickname, “The Indomitable Lions”.

Ghana’s away shirt is a similar design, this one with Ghana’s nickname “The Black Stars”. The sleeve details are also good looking—while not being as eye-catching as the Kente design on the home shirt, the dark red is just too nice of a color to be ignored. I might still prefer Ghana’s 2012-13 kit (the fade is something I enjoy in shirts) but this year’s is still a unique piece produced for Ghana, and that is worth something in itself.

 

Number 3: Belgium (Burrda Sports)

Belgium 2014 World Cup Home Kit Belgium 2014 World Cup Away Kit Belgium 2014 World Cup Third Kit

Image Courtesy of: http://www.footyheadlines.com/2014/02/burrda-belgium-2014-world-cup-kits-jerseys.html

 

This is the only shirt in this World Cup manufactured by the Swiss/Qatari company Burrda Sports—perhaps they’re getting ready for 2022? All three of these shirts carry elements of the Belgian flag, with the black away version the best looking in my opinion with the red and yellow sash across the chest. Belgium are being picked by many as a dark horse; while the outcome of their World Cup campaign may be uncertain one thing is certain—they’ll look good, win or lose.

 

Number 2: Germany (Adidas)

Germany 2014 Home kit Adilite 1 Germany 2014 World Cup Away Kit (1)

Image Courtesy of: http://www.footyheadlines.com/2013/05/germany-1314-2013-2014-world-cup-home.html

 

Germany’s white home shirt has a “V” design around the neck, which doesn’t represent too much of a change from their jerseys in previous years. The away shirt, however, represents a completely new move for “Die Nationalmannschaft”. Even if the red and black hoops and collar buttons make this shirt reminiscent of a rugby shirt I still found it extremely attractive when I saw it in person. In 2006 Germany moved to the black and red color scheme for their away shirts before moving to black for the 2010 World Cup. I think this represents the best Germany away shirt since they moved away from their classic emerald green kits (the Irish-looking green of Euro 2012 doesn’t count for me).

 

Number 1: Russia (Adidas)

 

Image Courtesy of: http://www.footyheadlines.com/2013/11/russia-2014-world-cup-home-kit-leaked.html

Russia 2014 World Cup Away Kit (1)

For me, Russia’s away shirt is without a doubt the best jersey in the 2014 World Cup, and I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment. Just below the collar is a view of the earth from space which then fades into white. Of course, this is in memory of the Soviet space program and Yuri Gagarin—the first human being in space. This shirt, of course, has a political connotation as well considering recent developments in Russia. As Putin looks to re-assert Russia’s strength in the modern era, this shirt advertising the greatness of Russia’s past on the world stage makes a bold nationalist statement. It will be interesting to see if this shirt starts a trend of countries visually representing their histories on football shirts—football shirt nationalism by using elements of The Modern Janus Theory (made famous by Tom Nairn).

 

 

Classic World Cups:

Number 5: Nigeria World Cup 1994 (Adidas)

Nigeria Home and Away Kits World Cup 1994

Image Courtesy of: http://kirefootballkits.blogspot.com.tr/2011/10/nigeria-kits-world-cup-1994.html

nigeria-94

 

Dancin’ the night away–in pajamas?!

Image Courtesy of: http://www.footballfoundout.com/top-five-worst-world-cup-shirts-ever/

I have no idea what this design is but it is definitely unique. Perhaps this was the beginning of the trend of providing special designs for African teams that we see now, since I have never seen this design used in any other team’s shirt. The white version looks a little pyjama-esque (hence its ranking as the ugliest World Cup shirt in history on one of the above lists) but, for my money, its still an unforgettable shirt. And that is what I look for.

 

Number 4: Croatia World Cup 1998 (Lotto)

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.croatiaweek.com/tag/brazil/page/3/

 

This shirt really needs no introduction as it is a piece of history, one of many legendary designs worn by Croatia since 1996. What makes this shirt special is the fact that just half the shirt is checkered. No one will forget Croatia’s historic run to third place while wearing this shirt, fueled by legends Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki, and Zvonimir Boban (whose kick, some say, started a war). I’m counting on Bosnia-Herzegovina to make a similar run in this World Cup, even if their shirts aren’t quite as special.

 

Number 3: Mexico World Cup 1998 (Aba Sport)

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Luis Hernandez makes another World Cup disappointent look good

Image Courtesy Of: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1936489-mexicos-best-and-worst-world-cup-jerseys/page/4

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.oldfootballshirts.com/en/teams/m/mexico/old-mexico-football-shirt-s3660.html

 

A few lists, including the one at the link above, have cited this shirt as one of the best World Cup shirts of all time and for good reason. This shirt is in Mexico’s classic shade of green with an interesting detail unique to Mexico: printed into the fabric is a design of the Aztec calendar. While this year’s Mexico design by Adidas is among the better designs on display this summer, I still think that nothing can come close to the France ’98 kit.

 

Number 2: USA World Cup 1994 (Adidas):

US national team defender Alexi Lalas jumps in the Roy Wegerle

Alexei Lalas jumps for joy at World Cup ’94, Roy Wegerle isn’t sure what to make of his kits

Images Courtesy Of: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_spot/2014/05/19/u_s_soccer_denim_kit_the_horrifying_true_story_of_the_ugliest_jerseys_in.html

 

This shirt has been derided by so many that it feels funny posting it as the number two best shirt—please see articles at Mashable.com and Slate.com for more on this shirt (albeit from a negative angle). Personally, I do not see why this shirt has so many critics–as you can see above, Alexi Lalas seems more than enthused to be wearing the shirt (!) even if Roy Wegerle gives us a more bemused expression.

The point of a football shirt, in my opinion, is to represent a country in a unique and instantly recognizable way. For me, that is exactly what the United State’s 1994 kit did. The denim look was certainly unprecedented, and it is true that it bore no relation to anything Adidas had—or has since—produced. But it was unique. In fact, it was uniquely American. As a kid watching the 1994 World Cup in I didn’t even notice the denim factor—I just thought it was a blue background with white stars, a representation of the national flag, which is fine. And for those critics of this shirt, I’d like to point out that if a USA shirt need be criticized the USA away shirt for the 2014 World Cup (a shirt I myself own) looks more French than it does American.

I would like to think that like a fine wine, football shirts also get better as the years go by. That sentiment is confirmed for me by the number one shirt on this list . . .

 

Number 1: Germany World Cup 1998 (Adidas)

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Image Courtesy of: http://37.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lwcb1unOX11r6mwuno1_1280.jpg

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Klinsmann et al make bracing for impact look good . . . or at least half-way decent

Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/worldcup2010/article-1282545/John-Motson-Ten-greatest-World-Cup-games.html

And now we come to the shirt that—I think—is hands down the best shirt in World Cup history. If Helen of Troy’s face is the one that launched a thousand ships, then this is—undoubtedly—the design that launched a thousand kits. After Germany made this Adidas “basket weave” pattern famous the design became a staple for Adidas kits around the world between 1995 and 1996. The reason this kit in particular is so stunning is that the bold colors of the German flag really jump off the shirt’s white background and right into the viewer’s eyes. Adidas really did their country justice with this well designed shirt, a shirt that hasn’t lost any of its luster twenty years on.