My brother Joe and I were sitting outside at a cafe next to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence during the summer of 2012. The other guest at the table was a rather portly Italian gentleman by the name of Luigi (naturally). Both Joey and I had grown up in a house where soccer was the main sporting attraction, so we were pretty pumped to be in a country known for its footballing history. We tried testing Luigi’s soccer knowledge, hoping he’d have great stories to tell.
“So Luigi, are you a fan of the local soccer team?”
“No,” he said in a strong Italian accent. “I don’t like calcio very much.” That threw us for a loop. “But you are from America, no? You must-a love basketball! I like the Celtics.”
I can safely say we had never watched a full game of basketball in our lives at that point. No one at the table was living up to their national sporting stereotypes, and it was making things mighty awkward. It seemed strange at the time, but two years later I feel that the perceptions of which sports align with which countries are starting to break down.
I don’t think there’s a better example of this type of globalization than basketball. The professional game is relatively young considering the NBA was only founded in 1946, but it has certainly left its mark on the American sports landscape. That mark has been felt all over the world. The NBA is on TV screens in Argentina, China, Brazil, Italy, Spain, and many other countries. Players from all over the world, like Serge Ibaka and Marco Bellini, came to America to see if they had what it took to win a championship ring. More and more of their fellow citizens are tuning in.
Such enthusiasm has not gone unfelt by domestic leagues in other countries. I was informed the other day that sporting clubs I had traditionally followed solely for soccer also double as basketball superpowers. Judging by their stats, Real Madrid seem to rule the Spanish league with an iron fist. Across the Mediterranean, Maccabi Tel Aviv are doing just fine as reigning Euroleague champions.
Baseball is another example of a quintessential American sport alive and well outside of our borders, although some fans and pundits will point out its growth has been stunted in recent years (here’s looking at you, Keith Olbermann). The Japanese, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans are among foreign baseball’s biggest stalwarts, although the game is slowly growing in popularity in Europe.
Not only do we give, but we also get. Soccer is a sport on the rise in the United States. The U.S. had the largest foreign fan base of any country to head down to Rio at the beginning of this past summer, and World Cup viewership hit a record high: the final match reached 26.5 million American fans. The fact that the MLS has a dedicated and rather large fanbase is a clear indication of where the sport is headed.
The bottom line is that sports aren’t where they used to be. As technology, transportation, and cultural curiosity continue to bring the world closer together, people are continually exposed to new sporting heroes, traditions, and narratives. Don’t get me wrong. Is baseball still America’s pastime? Will soccer ever leave the U.K.? Not any time soon. But as different sports slowly seep their ways into households across the globe, it is inevitable that children will grow up in a different sporting culture than their nationalities would suggest.
Part of the reason I love soccer so much is because I’ve had the privilege to travel around the world, and every time I’ve gone someplace new, one thing has never changed: In the street, in the park, in a backyard, or in a complex, someone somewhere is playing soccer. Given the dispersion over the past decades, there’s no reason that in the next fifty years, other popular sports can’t have the same effect.