World Cup Ratings a Sign of Patriotism, Not Soccer’s Rising Star

Team USA Fans Show Their Spirit

American fans before the US-Algeria match in the 2010 World Cup. June 23rd, 2010 (U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons)

Every four years during the World Cup, the US press fixates collectively on the “will it/won’t it” question of soccer’s future. Each World Cup seems to bring higher TV ratings and more water cooler conversations than the last. Soccer optimists, imbued with fresh hope by scenes of fervent US supporters with painted faces and patriotic apparel, proclaim that soccer is here to stay in America.

Now that the US out of the 2014 World Cup after a 2-1 loss to Belgium, will this year be any different? Have the past few weeks been a sign that soccer will someday find a home as a mainstay of US sports, or are they just part of the same ebb-and-flow pattern that we see every four years?

First, a by-the-numbers look at this year’s World Cup viewership in the US.  According to Variety, the US-Portugal game drew 18.20 million viewers on ESPN; the US-Belgium game drew 16.49 million. Those two games were the two most watched US World Cup telecasts in American history. Through the Round of 16, ESPN and ABC averaged 4.08 million viewers – a record audience for the World Cup, up 44% from 2010 and 122% from 2006. According to the New York Post, WatchESPN (ESPN’s online viewing service) attracted an average audience of 1.1 million viewers per minute during this World Cup.

These numbers are to be expected. Aside from reasons related to the sport itself, this year’s record numbers likely have several major contributing factors.  According to the World Bank, the number of internet users in the US grew by 10.1 million from 2012 to 2013. According to comScore, the number of smartphone users in the US grew 7% from October 2013 to January 2014. Twitter’s userbase alone grew from 183 million at the end of 2013 to an estimated 227 million at the end of 2014 (estimated by CNET). The World Bank pegs the annual growth rate of the US population at 0.74% per year.

These greater numbers of internet users, smartphone users, and social media users mean that more people will hear about the World Cup and share news with their friends by roughly an order of magnitude more than they did during the previous World Cup. I am not making any statistical conclusions here, but I do think it’s fair to say that articles and opinions proclaiming soccer’s inevitable destiny as a major US sport need to be taken with a grain of salt if they tout World Cup viewing statistics as conclusive evidence.

Furthermore, the World Cup takes place during a dry period for other US sports. The NFL is at its least interesting (long past the conclusion of the postseason and about a month past the draft), the NBA has also put its postseason and draft in the rearview mirror, the drama of the NHL Stanley Cup has ended, and the Olympics is long over. The only major competing sport is MLB baseball, which is in the midst of its regular season. Additionally, summer brings a dearth of active TV shows, meaning that Americans have even less to watch.

What about factors related to soccer itself? Are Americans growing more accepting of a sport fundamentally different from the ones it already treasures? This question is tough to answer. Other than a few minor rule changes, soccer is the same as it was four years ago. All of the reasons provided by soccer critics as to why the sport will not catch on in the US (infrequent scoring, too many fake injuries, overly subjective officiating, and lack of sudden death overtime) are just as valid or invalid as they were four years ago. Shifting American sentiment toward soccer would be a result of externalities, and that discussion is best left for another time.

Perhaps one reason is a lack of initiative by the MLS. Recent years have seen the league take an aggressive approach to bolstering soccer’s popularity. According to The Economist, although average MLS attendance per game is down from 2013, it surpassed both the NBA and NHL with 18,600 spectators per match (although both of those leagues play considerably more games per season, making each game less appealing as an excursion). According to Forbes, the average MLS franchise is now worth $103 million, up more than 175% over the past five years. The league had 13 clubs in 2007 and will have 21 by next year. This year’s US World Cup team had ten players from the MLS compared to just four in 2010. Finally, the MLS signed a new eight-year deal worth an estimated $90 million per season that will result in more of its games being broadcast on more TV channels.

My theory is that Americans simply enjoy coming together to celebrate our national pride. Other than the Olympics, no major sporting events have the ability to unite entire countries in support of the same team. Take the support of the Iranian national team this year as an example. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government banned women from entering most sporting events because they deemed the enjoyment of sports by mixed crowds un-Islamic. This year, according to CNN, Tehran’s billboards advertising the World Cup featured only men, and state TV stations used a delay of several seconds to censor images of racy female fans so that viewers at home wouldn’t learn to accept mixed crowds. Nonetheless, some restaurants in Iran defied a national ban on broadcasting the World Cup this year, and men and women enjoyed the games together in public. Does this increased support from the female population indicate that soccer is growing in popularity in Iran? No – it shows that the Iranian people, this year more than ever, are eager to show their nationalism and support gender equality as a reaction to recent actions by the government.

Along the same lines, an ineffective Congress, an inconsistent Supreme Court, and an unpopular president have given US fans an increased longing to show their nationalism in 2014. Most notably, a volatile balance of power on the world stage has left Americans in uncertain territory. Both Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and ISIS’s first steps toward forging an Islamic state in the Middle East this year have spurred a growing national desire to display a uniquely American style of patriotism. Especially in the context of the World Cup, with competition unfolding at an international scale, patriotism is linked more to foreign policy than it is to domestic issues.

Perhaps the recent changes rolled out by the MLS are making a greater immediate impact on soccer than I’m giving them credit for, but I believe that the outpouring of US support for the Men’s National Team this year was more a result of our desire to be patriotic than it was a precursor to soccer’s rise to American prominence. Now more than ever, Americans are eager to come together and celebrate their national pride.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.

The Unknown Power of Shadow Monarchs

Belgian King Philippe and Queen Mathilde

Belgian King Philippe and Queen Mathilde wave to crowds in Brussels after Philippe’s swearing in as the new Belgian monarch. July 21, 2013. Michael Thaidigsmann (via Wikimedia Commons)

Do you know that Norway’s King can legally dismiss the Norwegian government with a simple stroke of his pen? In a world where international norms of democracy seem to reign supreme, it is easy to forget that 44 nations ultimately answer to sovereign monarchs as the supreme heads of state. While the degree of power associated with sovereign monarchs varies according to each type of monarchical system (absolute monarchy vs. constitutional monarchy), these royal sovereigns generally possess tremendous power relative to their countries’ elected officials. Sovereigns in constitutional monarchies generally do not exercise their powers, and their role in democratic countries has become largely ceremonial through legislation or convention. However, these monarchs still possess tremendous reserve powers and can legally invoke royal prerogatives at any time. I call these monarchs, “shadow monarchs,” as their roles and powers appear subservient to their countries’ elected leaders. In fact, this is often not the case as their powers are far-reaching. These often-underestimated sovereigns deserve our attention today – in 2014 – in a world where kingdoms and autocracy are often viewed as relics of the past.

There are generally two types of monarchies that exist today. The first type is as an absolute monarchy, in which the sovereign possesses supreme autocratic powers over his state and people. The second type is a constitutional monarchy, in which a system of government is established by a constitution or convention that mandates some form of an elected government overseen by a monarch. In almost all monarchies, succession is hereditary. Only a few monarchies, such as Cambodia and Kuwait, allow citizens to select a new sovereign from within the royal family. The majority of monarchies have an ironclad succession process. This continuous rotation of power and wealth among a select few royal families ensures the survival of an elite class that is inaccessible to the general population.

Absolute monarchies still exist today, but they are very few in number. These countries include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Brunei, Swaziland, and Vatican City. In these nations, the sovereign has absolute control over his state’s resources and population. Powers include setting the country’s general direction, such as Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, who directed Saudi Arabia’s budget to match his personal priorities of technological and economic progress to modernize society in the 1970s. On the other hand, monarchs may utilize their state’s resources to satisfy their personal needs and desires, such as the acquisition of luxury items such as Oman’s “Super Yacht.” In these societies, there is virtually no opportunity for representative government and all power is concentrated in the hands of one person. No wonder absolute monarchies frequently draw heavy criticism from the international community

Even if an absolute monarch’s dramatic level of power seems foreign and excessive to the democratically oriented observer, this level of authoritarianism is to be expected from such a system of government. More surprising and interesting are the powers reserved for royals of constitutional monarchies with democratic systems of government, or shadow monarchies. There is a diverse set of countries that fall into this category, including Norway, Belgium, Sweden, Thailand, Jordan, and Denmark. Perhaps the most significant and popular shadow monarch of the contemporary period has been the Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (UK), who officially exercises authority over 15 Commonwealth realms in addition to the UK. Official descriptions regarding the duties of the monarch in England suggest a more “ceremonial” role as a symbol of “stability, continuity, and national focus” rather than an executive role. However, England does not have a written constitution, and many of the duties that have been undertaken by Parliament were delegated by the monarchy out of “convention.” In other words, the Queen has transferred some of her official duties as Head of State to the Parliament, although she can invoke her right to royal prerogative at anytime. The legislature in the UK can pass laws, but those possible affecting “the Crown’s interests” must receive the consent of the Monarch. The Crown has invoked the power of the royal consent and veto for at least 39 pieces of legislation in the contemporary period. The Queen also possesses other powers such as dismissing/appointing the Prime Minister and other ministers, declaring war as head of the Royal British Armed Forces (British soldiers swear allegiance to the Monarch), and making treaties. The royal prerogative in the case of the Queen of the UK and other Commonwealth realms is very robust, and her powers are clearly more than strictly ceremonial.

Not all shadow monarchies possess the same degree of power, however. Belgium and Sweden stand on opposite ends of the spectrum of constitutional monarchies. The Monarchy of Belgium is relatively powerful and similar to the Monarchy of the United Kingdom. The King is endowed with numerous powers according to the Belgian Constitution, such as signing and promulgating laws passed by the Federal Parliament, acting as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and appointing/dismissing ministers of government. In addition, Article 88 of the Belgian Constitution states, “the King’s person is inviolable, his ministers are responsible.” This law basically means that the monarch possesses immunity from any type of prosecution. Clearly, the Monarch of Belgium is rather powerful and can dominate his elected counterparts if he so chooses. However, the Monarch of Sweden is much weaker in comparison. Sweden’s monarch was essentially stripped of his executive authority in 1975 by legislation, thus reducing the sovereign to a purely ceremonial role. Therefore, the King of Sweden is no longer considered a chief executive of the government and does not have nearly the same degree of reserved rights or privileges as the King of Belgium.

Besides conventional governmental authority and power, many monarchs also hold a position of religious or moral authority. The King of Thailand, for example, is designated as the “Upholder of the Buddhist religion and Upholder of all religions.” The British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is awarded the title, “Supreme Governor of the Church of England” and is frequently referred to as the “Defender of the Faith.” These roles, while sometimes not well defined, endow various monarchs from across the globe with a sense of moral authority and superiority. By being placed at the head of religious life in addition to political life, these monarchs are afforded even greater power, influence, and legitimacy.

Shadow monarchies that permeate the globe are vestiges of a different era. As the United States seeks to foster a democratic world order, it is rather perplexing that some of these monarchs still possess such tremendous power today. Elected governments of constitutional monarchies seem to be chipping away at the authority of their respective sovereign monarchs through legislation or convention, but much power still rests in the hands of this elite class. Debating the moral implications and efficacy of these monarchical systems is a different matter, but it cannot be denied that the power of these monarchs is certainly underestimated and, perhaps more importantly, unknown.