The Bar-On Brief: Why do touchdowns beat goals?

Investigating the success of American football

By Shauli Bar-On, Columnist

The Bar-On Brief: a weekly column
The Bar-On Brief: a weekly column

Another Super Bowl has passed, reaching over 111 million views. Incredible numbers as usual.

We all know the FIFA World Cup Finals easily eclipses the American game in viewership. It had close to one billion viewers. But why did only about 26 million Americans tune in to the final? Why has football succeeded here while other international sports have failed to capture such attention?  

Professional American football has been America’s favorite sport for 30 years running. In second place we have baseball followed by college football.  

Compare this table with the rest of the world’s favorite sports, and we find totally different results. The most watched sport worldwide is soccer by a long shot, then cricket, field hockey and tennis. The list continues before it hits baseball at number seven, and American football and basketball are tied at number nine.

So it begs the question: why are the American people’s sporting preferences so different from the rest of the world’s?

There are three possible answers.

The first: football and baseball are American-born. The first American football game took place between Rutgers University and Princeton University in 1869. After a few rule amendments, the NCAA was formed in 1910.

After professional football became popular in the 1920s, the modern-day NFL emerged in 1966, starting the Super Bowl tradition at the end of that season.

Similarly, the first records of baseball come from Civil War-era America in the 1860s. The National League was formed in 1876 and MLB as we know it was active by 1903.

Modern soccer, on the other hand, took form in England in the mid-19th century. The English spread the sport across the world to South and East Asia, parts of Africa and Australia. It never made a big hit in the United States because it was not an American invention.

Illustration by Mila Sviderskaya

The second answer to the question: Americans were simply never good enough at certain sports to compete at the highest level, causing fans to turn away. Wherever we won, our fans stayed.

Take, for example, ice hockey. After the first United States team won the Canadian-founded hockey league in 1917, the National Hockey League formed.

Once the team from Seattle secured their first hockey championship, America took control of the Canadian-born league. More American hockey teams formed, and by 1989, the NHL headquarters moved from Montreal to New York.

Our devastating soccer record proves the flip side: when we lose, our fans leave.  

The first FIFA World Cup was held in 1930, where the United States placed in the semi-finals. We lost 6-1 to Argentina, a harsh defeat. Four years later at the next World Cup, the United States lost 7-1 to Italy in the first round of the playoffs.


The United States withdrew from the 1938 FIFA World Cup for financial reasons and in order to remain isolated in the prelude of World War II, leaving two harsh defeats in the minds of Americans. The World Cup would not return until after the war in 1950.

Meanwhile, schoolchildren lost their interest in soccer as basketball and other sports moved into the spotlight.  

But the third answer makes the most sense to me.

The United States’ rugby, soccer and cricket leagues have all been around for quite some time, but they never flourished like baseball and football. Why? It all has to do with money.

Both rugby and soccer games are roughly 90 minutes long, comprised of two halves with a short break in between. Neither game allows timeouts. The average cricket game takes between three to five days, played in six-hour sequences.

Do you see the problem with both of these game formats? A 10-15 minute halftime is not enough to get all those commercials in, not enough time to sell all the food and merchandise.

During the 40-minute lunch break in cricket, fans usually turn off the TV — no advertisement money there either.

The commercial statistics show why football is the most popular American sport. It’s because the telecast has 75 minutes of commercial time. Baseball has almost 43 minutes, basketball has 45, hockey has 30. And soccer… a mere 19.  

Find me a sport that is nationalistic, that Americans excel at and that allots the most time for commercials.

Please, enjoy the game. But more importantly, the ads and the food.

And with that, I rest my case.