The oldest of the four leagues that comprise the group commonly referred to as North America’s “Big Four” has a history that stretches back almost 150 years, and while the sport that Major League Baseball oversees may no longer have a legitimate claim to the “America’s Pastime” throne, it still sits firmly alongside the NBA, NFL, and NHL in the upper echelon of professional organizations your typical fan feels almost obliged to having a rooting interest in.
Those four sports may reign supreme in the United States but you’ll be confronted with a wildly different landscape in other countries around the globe that are home to athletes who’ve achieved celebrity status by playing a game that would require them to get a second job to support themselves if they tried to pursue the same career in America. However, the tides are perpetually shifting and it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to suggest that aforementioned quartet could transform into a “Big Five” in the not-so-distant future if a less popular pastime manages to catch on and become the Next Big Thing.
Which sport has the best shot at doing exactly that? Let’s take a look at the most (and least) likely candidates.
Not A Chance
Cricket is the second-most popular sport in the world and seems to be all the rage in countries that found themselves answering to the British Crown at some point over the past few centuries. Hell, the captain of India’s national team even managed to crack the list of the 100 highest-paid athletes on the planet last year.
However, there is one very notable exception in the form of the U.S. of A. Why is that? Well, there are probably a few different factors, but based on personal experience, the mental investment required to wrap your mind around the rules serves as an incredibly significant barrier to entry.
Basically every sport is governed by a rulebook packed with an overwhelming number of regulations that even the people who get paid to officiate them for a living routinely forget exist. With that said, cricket is an absolute nightmare for a beginner to familiarize themselves with compared to activities where the point of the game can be essentially summed up as “put a thing in a net as frequently as possible.”
When I was in college, I saw some dudes playing pick-up cricket on campus and stopped to watch them play for a few minutes before eventually realizing I had no idea what was happening and ultimately watching a fifteen-minute YouTube video in an attempt to make sense of it all. From what I could gather from the exhaustive research I conducted, it’s kind of like baseball, as one guy throws a ball to another guy who’s dressed as a catcher. However, that guy is actually the batter, whose goal is to hit the ball and then run back and forth with a teammate a bunch until the opposing team manages to knock a peg off of another peg.
Oh, and this cycle can repeat for days on end until the game is actually decided.
The actual rules are obviously a bit more nuanced than that, but when you consider baseball has already seen a dip in popularity in a nation with a rapidly deteriorating attention span, it’s safe to say cricket has probably missed out on its shot to take America by storm.
Table tennis (or “ping-pong,” as it’s referred to by the uncultured masses) was deemed popular enough around the world to earn a spot in the Olympics in the 1980s, which isn’t really as impressive as it sounds when you consider they also hand out medals to people who excel at walking really fast, making a horse dance, and shooting targets while taking a break from their cross-country skiing outing.
Like cricket, table tennis primarily has Asia to thank for its popularity, as the sport is huge in China and the country regularly cleans up whenever the Summer Games roll around (South Korea and Japan have also earned spots on the podium in recent years, and interestingly enough, Germany has walked away with the bronze on a few occasions).
When you consider how many Americans have a ping-pong table in their basement, you’d think we’d be able to produce some top talents who could potentially drum up interest among their fellow countrymen. However, table tennis will never get any respect in the United States because of the incredible amount of disrespect it’s subjected to by the people who primarily harness the playing surface as a place to store random shit on the 364 days of the year they’re not using it to lay out a smorgasbord at a Super Bowl Party.
On a slightly related note, I’ve long subscribed to the conspiracy theory that no one has ever actually purchased a ping-pong table from a store; they’ve just always kind of existed, whether you moved into a house that already had one or got one from a friend who could maybe tell you who owned it before them but otherwise has no knowledge of its provenance.
They’re like energy: they can’t be created or destroyed. They can only be clumsily moved from one basement to another, waiting for someone to clear off the tattered legal pads that seem to magically materialize when they’re neglected for long enough.
While most NFL fans wouldn’t have much trouble adjusting to the brand of football that’s played up in America’s Hat, there are enough fundamental differences between the two that made me decide to treat it as a different sport. You’re only giving three downs to the twelve players on each side competing on a field that doesn’t even attempt to conform to the Golden Ratio? What kind of madness is this?!?!?
The Canadian Football League attempted to bring its operation south of the border in the 1990s and experienced about as much success as every other organization that’s attempted to go toe-to-toe with the NFL on American soil. Yes, the AAF and the rebooted XFL may have both imploded after less than a season while attempting to provide Americans with a fix during the warmer months of the year but I don’t know if they should necessarily be viewed as cautionary tales.
The CFL not only manages to produce a pretty solid product as far as football is concerned but the aforementioned tweaks that differentiate it from its American counterpart could be the secret weapon those defunct organizations lacked. Both leagues introduced some unique rule changes in an attempt to set themselves apart before collapsing almost overnight but the CFL really turns things up to 11 in that regard, which I think it could use to its benefit.
The league usually kicks off a couple of months before the start of the NFL season, but after being forced to call it off entirely this year, I don’t see the downside in trying to fill the footballless void that will presumably exist next spring if Dwayne Johnson and his investor buddies don’t try to pick up where Vince McMahon was forced to leave off yet again next year.
However, even if that counterprogramming strategy manages to pay off, it’s doubtful it’ll be able to catapult itself into the same tier as any of the leagues in a Big Four where football is already well-represented, so in the “Unlikely” category it goes.
Of all the sports on this list, this is the one that I personally enjoy the most but I can more than understand why most people in America don’t give a shit about it.
Formula One is objectively the pinnacle of motorsports, as it features the most talented drivers in the world piloting a car sporting the most advanced automotive technology on the planet. You’d think those two elements would come together to create a pretty riveting spectacle, but somehow, most of the people I’ve tried to convince to give it a shot seem to think it’s an absolute snoozefest.
I should stress that I’m not attempting to recruit people who would be eliminated from The Amazing Race as soon as they arrived at a stage where they had to drive a stick shift into the cult of F1; they’re mostly NASCAR fans, and for some reason, stock car racing scratches their itch in all the right places while that of the open-wheel variety leaves them clawing for something more.
There are obviously plenty of elements that differentiate the two spheres, but when you consider they both revolve around navigating a track at speeds that would make the average driver shit themselves, you’d think the one featuring faster cars and people with a superior skill set behind the wheel would have the edge. However, that’s not the case in America and I think it comes down to one particular element: passing.
NASCAR drivers are constantly jockeying for position over the course of a race that typically features a number of lead changes that falls somewhere in the high teens but it’s rare to see that total crack double digits during an F1 event. Instead, teams primarily rely on perfectly timed and executed pit stops to swap out the tyres (as the cool kids in Europe spell it) that can play a critical role in shaving valuable milliseconds off of the clock. While these tune-ups also play an instrumental role in how a stock car performs, those drivers have the luxury of making up for lost time in ways those in F1 can’t.
NASCAR is pretty damn popular in the United States but still sits a tier below the Big Four organizations, and when you consider how many people out there seem to genuinely believe being as good at turning left as Derek Zoolander wasn’t is the only asset required to become a professional racecar driver, they’re probably not going to be as intrigued as I was by the Red Bull team’s decision to use the hard tyre compound at the start of the race as opposed to the more traditional mediums that are generally favored due to their ability t—you just got the urge to stop reading, didn’t you?
There’s also nothing people love more than an underdog but shocking upsets are currently all but nonexistent in F1, as you’ll be lucky to see more than three different teams sniff the podium over the course of a season (which could change with new rules that are due to arrive in 2022 designed to level the playing field a bit).
However, if the sport plays its cards right, that could be the perfect time to make a push, as it currently features some absolutely electric personalities behind the wheel, including six-time champion Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, and Daniel Ricciardo, all of whom could make fantastic ambassadors if marketed in the right way. However, NASCAR is also home to some colorful figures with bold personalities—including a reigning champion fans and fellow drivers alike love to hate—that haven’t managed to become household names (at least in most homes above the Mason-Dixon line) so I’m not holding my breath.
Rugby is a crowd-pleaser that has seemingly everything your typical American sports fan is looking for: speed, power, and a bunch of jacked dudes absolutely destroying each other with almost no protective equipment to be found.
It seems like the perfect recipe for success and I like to think it’d be a lot more popular if more Americans played it growing up. However, it seems like most people in the United States aren’t even presented with that opportunity until they encounter the table their school’s club team set up at the activity fair at the start of their freshman year, which have an almost unparalleled ability to attract guys in letterman jackets clinging to the last vestiges of their high school football glory days like moths to a flame.
I also don’t think you can dismiss the very real possibility that people who start playing rugby in college are partially responsible for its inability to really catch on. I don’t know why they’re constantly looking for opportunities to mention they play rugby into every discussion but the only real difference between those dudes and vegans is that the latter don’t eat three chicken breasts for dinner every night.
I think rugby is a pretty dope sport and joining a team in college certainly has its benefits, as it’s a great way to not only meet some new people (especially if you don’t really know anyone on campus) while helping to keep the Freshman 15 at bay. The fact that it’s not particularly popular also makes it a fairly unique interest to have that theoretically makes it a solid conversation starter capable of piquing the curiosity of people who might ask you things like “How did you get into that?” and “Aren’t you worried about your ears getting ripped off?” However, most players seem to have a tendency to handle themselves in a way that results in “Is playing rugby your way to make up for not having any other personality traits?” becoming the only question on the other person’s mind when everything is said and done.
As a result, rugby is facing a bit of an uphill battle in the States, and even if a new generation of parents collectively decides it’d be a good idea to introduce their kids to head injuries at a young age, there’s no telling how long it might take for the overwhelming douche stink it currently reeks of to wear off.
The Front Runners
It seems like people have spent the past couple of decades proclaiming lacrosse is the “sport of the future,” and while that might not be true, it’s arguably the most fundamentally American (or, more accurately, North American) sport in existence when you consider historians have uncovered evidence that suggests Native tribes on the continent started playing it almost 1,000 years ago.
Canadians seem to dig it, but if Americans adored everything to the same extent as their neighbors to the north, you’d be allowed to wear an all-denim outfit to a fancy restaurant without feeling judged and Rush would be the most popular band of all time.
Lacrosse is fast, physical, and offers a healthy dose of finesse, and while it seems like more and more high schoolers have purposefully gravitated to teams that were once largely comprised of kids who weren’t good enough to play baseball, it still has some work to do when it comes to convincing football and hockey players who view it as the most desirable option in the spring to pursue it as their primary passion.
It seems like professional lacrosse leagues have been making strides in recent years, so while the “sport of the future” could eventually transform into the “sport of the now,” I’m not going to hold my breath.
In 1998, the United States men’s national team headed to France for the World Cup four years after America hosted the event and appeared to finally catch soccer fever when the squad representing the Stars and Stripes managed to make it out of the group stage for the first time in 60 years (a span that included a 30-plus-year stretch where they failed to even qualify).
Expectations were as high as the stakes surrounding the tournament, as the sport had plenty of momentum on its side and it seemed like there was a very real chance the American team could tip the scales if it managed to live up to the potential it appeared to have. Unfortunately, this make-or-break moment ended with the United States essentially succumbing to the kind of compound fracture that makes you want to puke on a global stage, as they lost all three games they played in the opening round (including humiliating defeats at the hands of Iran and Yugoslavia) before heading back to a country that was decidedly less enthusiastic about the sport than it had been prior to the trip.
However, there were still plenty of believers and soccer evangelists have spent the past couple of decades swearing literally every year will be the one that sees America finally embrace it with open arms. There’s no doubt it’s seen a surge in popularity over the past decade or so, and while people who own a scarf emblazoned with the logo of an MLS team would like you to believe it’s already established itself as the Next Big Thing, I’d argue anyone who’s already taken a victory lap did so prematurely.
Soccer is undeniably the biggest sport in the world, and even though the MLS has made a fair amount of headway (you also can’t ignore the inroads the Premier League has made when it comes to attracting fans across the pond), it still has a looooong way to go before you can even think about mentioning it in the same conversation as the Big Four.
There are a number of things you can point to in an attempt to explain why Americans are so resistant to soccer, including the perception that games tend to be slow and lack a satisfactory amount of scoring in addition to players who have a tendency to act like they’ve been shot by a sniper perched atop the stadium if someone breathes on them a bit too hard. However, if you ask me, there’s one issue in particular that’s not doing the sport any favors: the clock.
If you’re familiar with soccer, this might seem silly, but when you’re used to watching time wind down on a clock that stops when the action does, it’s a bit harder to process. If games are supposed to last 90 minutes, why does the clock say they’ve been playing for 96 (which is actually 98 when you consider the seemingly arbitrary amount of time that was added at the end of the previous half)? And wait, didn’t the ref just say they were only going to play for four more? What gives?
Soccer needs to figure out this clock situation. If you’re going to use one, you need to use it correctly or pull a baseball and not use it at all. It’s hard to ignore the perks that come with having a set amount of time, as many of the most memorable moments in the history of sports have occurred when someone pulls off a miracle to beat the buzzer. Can you imagine if Christian Laettner had hit that shot and the refs had gone, “Eh, maybe we should give Kentucky another chance?”
The world as we know it is governed by the standardized time that society relies on to function and the fact that soccer seems to think it’s better than that just isn’t a great look. I can’t promise this specific tweak would be the tipping point, but when you consider how long it’s spent teetering on the hedge, it’s probably worth a shot at this point.