Americans, Soccer, and the Holy Trinity; Or, the World Sauna Championship is (Much) More Popular than the NFL

August 11, 2010

Kickoff: AC Milan hosts ParmaI was in New York City for the first half of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

I read somewhere that there are four or so cities in the U.S. where soccer is a big deal all the time — not just during a World Cup year — and New York City is one of those cities. (The others were Seattle, Chicago, and D.C., if I remember correctly.)  There is nothing really remarkable about the fact that these are the U.S.’s “soccer cities”: all four cities have large European communities, extremely well-run professional teams, and are in close proximity to universities and colleges that have highly-regarded NCAA men’s and women’s soccer programs.

Regardless, when I was in New York, no matter where I watched a game — whether at an Italian restaurant (thumbs down, they took it too seriously and charged too much for crap beer) or a South African bar (thumbs up, especially for the delicious Bunny Chow dish) — the talk inevitably turned to why soccer isn’t more popular in the U.S.

Here are summaries of the points made during those conversations:

  1. Someone would invariably offer up the accurate observation that soccer is popular in the U.S.; in fact, it is wildly popular . . . amongst children. But, during high school, there is peer pressure to move into “real” sports;
  2. Someone (namely my friend Jesse Brukman, an editor at Maxim and an expert on Americaness) would say that Americans can’t “handle” sports where there is the possibility that a winner will not be determined;
  3. Someone would say that the “lack of scoring” might be the reason why soccer does not enjoy the status of the baseball, basketball, and football Holy Trinity;
  4. Someone would say that soccer doesn’t “have enough statistics.” I presume this point is made because Americans (all of them) innately love statistics. This is the weakest of the aforementioned points, I think, because it is a little preposterous to make such a wide-ranging stereotype.

Maybe because of these circular and repetitive conversations, I never once heard someone raise what seemed a rather obvious point: Why do Americans have to like soccer as much as the Holy Trinity? Because it’s the most popular sport in the world? Just because it’s the most popular sport in the world? Without sounding like your mother, I presume you can agree with me that just because something’s popular (like the “rules” on contraception decreed by the Catholic Church, for example, or those Guy Harvey t-shirts that the state of Florida’s best and brightest 18 to 22 year-olds punish me with year after year), doesn’t make it right.

In fact, I’ll give you an example of what I’ll call, Wrong (Sporting) Popularity.

The World Sauna Championship, which has been held in Finland every year since its 1999 inception, wrapped up last week. 130 competitors from 15 countries competed to see who could sit in a sauna for the greatest amount of time at the highest temperature. As one expert explains, “a pint of water is added to the stove every 30 seconds and the last person to remain at the sauna is the winner.” I believe they had to endure temperatures of 230 degrees Fahrenheit for extended stretches. (Point of comparison: last night, I cooked a large frozen lasagna at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.) Of the two finalists, one, Russia’s Vladimir Ladyzhensk, died, and the runner-up, Finland’s Timo Kaukonen, ended up in hospital with serious burns. Basically, these men decided to be cooked in the form of a competition where the winner was the one who stayed in the boiling pot for the longest amount of time. There is no prize money, the contest spokesperson said, apart from “some small things.”

Now, it’s tragic, but not particularly surprising, that someone died in such a stupid way. People die in equally stupid ways every day: people swim in alligator-infested waters and get chomped, fall off cliffs trying to snatch a pretty falling feather, change light bulbs while standing in the bath. And it’s not really surprising to me that in this world, packed with the lovely, intriguing, and often rather bizarre human individuals who can be found around the globe, that the World Sauna Championship exists. What does surprise me is that there were 110 competitors from 15 countries. You know what that means? The World Sauna Championship is much more popular than the NFL. (In terms of country participation, which is part of the matrix used to anoint soccer as the most popular sport in the world.) After the World Sauna Championship, do we need any more evidence, alongside the plethora of useless beings that live in the Los Angeles area and make up the cast of various brain-crumbling television shows, that popularity is a horrible and potentially traumatic thing? I don’t think the average American NFL fan (oops, there’s a stereotype, please let it slide) actually cares that Slovakians don’t care about the NFL? So why do we care if soccer never increases its popularity with adults in the U.S.? What we should be worried about is the development of sauna competition leagues? Quite simply, popularity is bad. Long live American sports that the rest of the world can’t understand!


I just found out the World Sauna Championship will never be held again.

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4 Responses to “ Americans, Soccer, and the Holy Trinity; Or, the World Sauna Championship is (Much) More Popular than the NFL ”

  1. Melissa Sachs on August 12, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Lack of scoring? If we Americans can put up with baseball that has way more standing around, we should be able to put up with a fast-paced game and scores like nil-nil.

    I’d be interested to know your thoughts on Dave Eggers’ piece, The True Story of American Soccer?

    Also, for the record, I can only stay in a sauna for 120 seconds max before I feel like I’m about to die.

  2. Kiren Valjee on August 12, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    I believe Jesse’s exact quote can be found here:


  3. Matt Erickson on August 13, 2010 at 9:41 am

    I make no attempt to explain why Americans don’t care about soccer (nor why they do care about golf and auto racing), but I can tell you why I won’t watch it.

    I saw 1 1/2 games during the World Cup. For most of that time, I watched people flop on the ground, faking injury, while the ball rolled out of bounds. Someone coughs a mile away and they fall down writhing like they’ve been shot in the face. Vlade Divac thinks they’re pussies.

    I would watch soccer if one rule were changed. If a player acts like he’s injured and it turns out he actually is – fine, give the other guy a flag or whatever. But if he’s not injured, he should have that injury inflicted upon him. If you act like your leg is broken, and it’s not, the other team gets to break it. How fun would that be?

  4. Bob on August 13, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Hear, hear, Matt! I couldn’t agree more. The refs need to punish the “floppers”–espicially with teams like Italy.

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