Every time the World Cup comes around more people than usual pay attention to the game and the game’s critics, who strangely feel threatened by this every-four-year development, emerge to tell people who love soccer that the attention won't last. They say the game is boring, there's not enough scoring and the players flop.
The game’s proponents, who for some reason feel they must convince everyone that the game is on the cusp of an explosion in mainstream popularity, rise up to challenge those critics. They say soccer has more actual game action than American football with its constant commercial-friendly stoppages, and that basketball has its own issues with flopping.
These are tiresome arguments on both sides (mark me down as World Cup fan who is indifferent to soccer). I’m not going to get into those weeds but I will say if you are a baseball fan calling soccer boring then some self-awareness is in order.
A study by FanGraphs in April found that the average length of a baseball game at that point this season was about 188 minutes. The study found that the new instant replay rule has contributed to longer games but that there already was steady increase in game time since 2010--even as the number of batters per game has remained about the same.
The conclusion: “It’s cute and colorful that some batters are superstitious, and it makes sense that some pitchers might work more deliberately than others, but when you put it all together the players themselves aren’t helping the game speed up.”
Furthermore, last year the Wall Street Journal found that there isn’t a lot happening during those three-plus hours at the ballpark because there was only about 18 minutes of action during its sampling of games:
The almost 18-minute average included balls in play, runner advancement attempts on stolen bases, wild pitches, pitches (balls, strikes, fouls and balls hit into play), trotting batters (on home runs, walks and hit-by-pitches), pickoff throws and even one fake-pickoff throw. This may be generous. If we'd cut the action definition down to just the time when everyone on the field is running around looking for something to do (balls in play and runner advancement attempts), we'd be down to 5:47.
According to Baseball Reference, there have been roughly eight runs scored per game in the majors this season (a figure that has been steadily declining since 2006). That comes out to about 2.6 runs scored per hour of average game length.
In this year's World Cup scoring was up to 2.83 goals per game during the group stage, according to the Associated Press. Regulation games clock it at 105 minutes (including halftime but not including minutes added by the referee) which comes out to about 1.6 goals per hour of game length.
But I think even using the most conservative definition of what constitutes “action” in soccer would total more than 18 minutes of it per game. For instance, a FiveThirtyEight.com analysis of the first 36 games of this year's World Cup found that the ball was "out of play" for an average of about 42 minutes of regulation time per game, meaning it was in play for about 48 minutes. With soccer, you get a little bit less scoring than baseball but a lot more actual game action.
I know a lot of diehard baseball fans who say there is nothing wrong with the pace of the baseball. They like those colorful and superstitious batters stepping away from the plate between every pitch, the long at-bats with several foul balls, the multiple pick-off attempts to hold runners on base. They are attracted to the game's history and romanticism; they like that it's so hard to be good at baseball.
But some of those same people ridicule soccer as boring even though, like them, soccer fans enjoy the nuances of their favorite game that others consider silly. I know soccer fans who like that it's so hard to score because of the euphoric release when a goal finally happens (process, not results). They are attracted to the game's artistry and minimal stoppages; they argue that players sometimes "embellish" because otherwise the referees would not call legitimate fouls.
In other words, whether one likes soccer, baseball, neither, both or some other sport is a matter of personal taste rather than objective truth. That seems obvious but, like with most things when it comes to tribalism, it gets lost in each side's certainty of their own inherent superiority.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.