Previous Columns

The Way It Is/ Soccer may be largely invisible in America but it blows Formula 1 away in the USA's sports market

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
With last week's World Cup kick-off, vast numbers of column inches were lavished in many of the nation's newspapers discussing why soccer continues to be a minor niche sport and is unlikely ever to come close to challenging America's unique panoply of national sports--football, baseball and basketball. It's a well-known fact that America's sports culture has little in common with the rest of the world, best drawn by comparing the whopping 95 million Americans who tuned in to watch this year's Super Bowl to the paltry 3.9 million Americans who watched the World Cup final in 2002.

Personally, I can't see soccer--football to the rest of the world--ever making any serious ground in America against the likes of football, baseball and basketball. Not only do Americans grow up playing and watching these sports, but much of high school and college life is built around them too. Loyalty to your college team carries on through many Americans' lives and the country's traditional sports provide not only a cultural yoke but also much of the fuel for the fund-raising among graduates that's helped build so many financially-strong American colleges and universities.

And too, college basketball and football are huge businesses in their own right, overflowing with handsome scholarships for the players and bountiful TV contracts for the sanctioning bodies and schools. Many Europeans seem not to appreciate the strength of college sports in America but it's a fact of life that any professional sporting entity would do well to take on board and study.

At the same time that soccer's future in America is coming under the domestic media's microscope, Formula 1 arrives for a two-week swing through North America. Formula 1 races in Montreal next weekend and Indianapolis the week after, and it should be sobering to the F1 world that their sport will receive much less attention from the American media than soccer which is covered intensively by the American media during the World Cup, infinitely more so than when F1 arrives in the USA. And while F1 falls entirely off the domestic media map before and after it's brief appearance in the United States, soccer is covered on a regular, sometimes suprisingly complete basis. While there's quite a lot of hand-wringing by American sports columnists about whether or not soccer ever will go big-time in the USA, it's unlikely that any of these columnists will write anything other than a few lines about F1.

In Canada, by contrast, F1 is a major sport with some of the country's leading newspapers sending a reporter to cover the races around the world. And of course, the packed grandstands over all three days in Montreal this coming weekend also attest to F1's popularity north of the border.

For decades, of course, racing people have talked about how F1 can be made more popular in America. It's a prized market for F1 teams and sponsors and it's probably fair to say that achieving serious popularity in the United States remains F1's greatest unsolved riddle. Is a solution possible? Unlikely, I'm afraid to say.

If Bernie Ecclestone is in fact close to making the move from Indianapolis to running a street race around the major hotels in Las Vegas, it should provide a boost for F1's visibility in America. But the road to becoming a regularly accepted and watched part of the country's vast sports network is long, difficult and fraught with cultural misunderstanding.

As everyone knows, having an American driver racing successfully in F1 would be a help, but he can't be a mere token American, simply helping fill out the field. The guy has got to be a big star in the USA with a large fan and media following, like Mario Andretti enjoyed when he tackled F1 in the seventies after winning the Indy 500 in 1969 when it was easily the world's biggest race. But those days are long gone. American open-wheel racing is struggling these days for any kind of visibility and credibility and there's not a single American open-wheel racer, Sam Hornish included, who enjoys a serious national profile. Excuse me, I forgot about Danica Patrick, America's most renowned open-wheel driver of today!

There's a great conundrum in this quest for an American F1 star. On one hand people believe any potential candidate should follow the Scott Speed route and move to Europe to build his career. But that immediately makes the fellow a non-entity in the United States where nobody's going to be interested until he does something big in F1 or wins a whole string of GP2 or major sports car races.

On the other hand, former American champions and F1 winners like Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti made their names in America before tackling F1, but the deep damage done by the CART/IRL civil war seemingly has put paid to anything like that happening again. As we all know, racing in America is now spelled NASCAR. That's the goal for most young American drivers today. Open-wheel or formula car racing has become a quirky, largely irrelevant thing. It's all very sad and it's also ironically true that if F1 wants to achieve any kind of serious success in America, Bernie Eccelestone and the FIA need to put some effort into helping rebuild the domestic open-wheel scene. But that's about as likely to happen as America becoming the dominant force in soccer.

Remember too, that while American drivers and teams used to race regularly in Europe there's almost none of that activity today. Other than Mario Andretti's great stint in F1 through the seventies America's participation in international motor racing has been all downhill since Dan Gurney won Le Mans with A.J. Foyt and Ford in 1967, then won the Belgian GP the following weekend with his own Eagle-Weslake V12. Since those days (thirty-nine years ago!) American drivers and teams have faded from the global scene and the statistics of Americans racing in F1 over the decades are stunning testament to this retraction. Fourteen Americans competed in F1 in the fifties; eighteen in the sixties--including '61 champion Phil Hill and the highly-rated Gurney; eleven in the seventies--including '78 champ Andretti; three in the eighties; and just one--a hapless Michael Andretti--in the nineties.

Today, Scott Speed is trying to make his mark and America's other hopes for the future appear to ride with either Marco Andretti or Graham Rahal, teen-agers both with family lineages that may see them racing successfully in Europe or F1. Marco and Graham have shown they have the raw talent, but they've got to make all the right moves and get some good breaks to realize their ambitions. Given their names, both of them will face plenty of stern media scrutiny as they make their way up the ladder. But if they have the ability and strength of character they will arrive in the big leagues with plenty of media and fan support. This is a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of a couple of teen-agers, but that's what big-time sport is all about.

Of course, the young American who's shown the most so far is 24-year old A.J. Allmendinger who bounced back from losing his job at RuSPORT in spectacular style to score his first Champ Car win at Portland on Sunday in his debut with Jerry Forsythe's team. Allmendinger comprehensively outpaced new teammate Paul Tracy and controlled the race from start to finish. A former Barber/Dodge and Toyota/Atlantic champion, Allmendinger has been a contender, if not a winner, since he started racing Champ cars two and a half years ago. His unexpected move to Forsythe has allowed Allmedinger's true talent to emerge and it will be interesting to see how strong he is through the rest of the season. For more on Allmendinger's instantly successful move to Forsythe, read my Inside Track column this week on the Champ Car website.

Allmendinger always has said his career goal was Champ Car rather than Formula 1, but he clearly stands out as the most talented and seasoned young American open-wheel racer. One would think his Red Bull connections would open doors to A.J. in F1, but you have to ask why the frequently myopic F1 bosses would see the potential in Allmendinger when they refuse to show any interest in Sebastien Bourdais.

The likes of Allmendinger, Andretti and Rahal aside, F1's hopes for a bigger slice of America's sports market will take much more application and hard work than the FIA has thus far lavished on America. There's no magic bullet, but accepting and understanding America's very different sports culture is the place to start.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page