Kane Webb: These Questions Need Answers – The Magic 8 Ball Mailbag


So many sports questions, so few certain answers. To better understand the summer’s passing scene, we’ve enlisted the help of the undisputed oracle of sports wisdom: the Magic 8 Ball.



Ask and shake…

Based on the coast-to-coast interest of the World Cup, what with massive viewing parties and big TV ratings and fellas in Duck Dynasty caps at the local bait shop who can actually name the USA goalkeeper, is soccer finally going to rival American football in this country?

Magic 8 Ball says . . . “Very doubtful.”

C’mon, not even a little bit? Repeat after me, Magic, “I Believe! That We Will Win!”

Magic 8 Ball says . . . “Reply hazy. Try again later.”

Like in another four years. Actually, make that try again (and again and again) over the next four years. Something surely happened this summer when it came to Americans and soccer. The collective mood at least went from fascination to infatuation. Could passion be next? Consider this excerpt from a typical exchange of text messages during the USA’s knockout loss to Belgium last week: 

Howard is a monster!!!!

Is Belgium getting tired?

Wondo you F****!!! How do you miss that?!?!?

OK, got that out of my system. Wondo gonna make a big play in OT. Let’s do it.

[Belgium goal]

Well f***.


Too bad but inevitable, right?

Game ain’t over.

Still time.

[Belgium goal]

Damn. Gotta wait four f****** years!!

Great goal from the kid!!! Still alive!

I stepped away!! How much time?

12 minutes.

Liked their grit late.

We had our chances.

And so it went, game after game, even during those matches that didn’t involve the Americans. It was the kind of text-message performance my buddies and I usually reserve for big Southeastern Conference football games. That ain’t nothin’.

How to explain it all? A story. A few days later, my brother-in-law R and I were talking about our kids and their intellectual ease with any and all electronic devices. It wasn’t a standard-issue parental rant about kids wasting their time and minds by being engaged solely with techy things. Not really. It was more of an admiration for the facility with which they adapt to technology — from apps on smartphones to editing movies on a Mac.

R submitted that today’s kids — ours are 15, 14 and 13 — having grown up virtually and at times literally plugged in, are rewiring their brains, and that their attention spans show it. This isn’t to say that, with maturity, the ability and desire to contemplate and think deeply and at length won’t emerge, but it is to suggest that this generation can keep up in a way that we couldn’t. A good thing. It is also to suggest that this generation regularly needs new stimulus. Not always a good thing.

How does all this play into America’s metastasizing interest in the world’s game? The connecting thread is new stimulus.

As a society, we love change. We love new. We love what’s next. When it comes to soccer here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., it’s change, new and what’s next. Change in that it was a significant something different from the usual summer sports grind post-NBA playoffs and pre-football, when the long, lazy national disinterest in baseball’s regular season settles in. New in that, having not engaged much in European football over the past, oh, 238 years, America is collectively, effectively, learning a new game. (Raise your hand if you finally came to understand what “offsides” in soccer means during the World Cup.) And what’s next in two ways: The World Cup represented the next Big Event on the sports calendar, thus ensuring the over-coverage expected of an immersive spectating experience; and the World Cup held out the titillating possibility of what’s next among sports passions. Everybody could cite the reasons why: an influx of immigrants who grew up on the game, a generation of kids held out of more violent sports for the concussion-free lure of a mostly contact-free game played primarily with one’s feet, and an almost morally required outrage at what’s happening in football, where the players are bigger, faster, hit harder and break more bodies and brains.

All of these contributing factors about who we are now brought us en masse to the World Cup. (It also helped that these games were held in Brazil, and match times — late morning, early afternoon, early evening) — worked ideally for viewers in this country.) Throw in a dash of patriotism, and it’s really no surprise that Cup fever took hold in the unlikeliest places — like here in Little Rock, Ark.

What does it all mean? Do the symptoms of soccer fandom simply come and go? I admit that, with the USMNT bounced from the round of 16, my soccer passion has waned. Although I still check the scores, and even “watched” the Argentina-Belgium game on my ESPN smartphone app, I haven’t seen a match start-to-finish since Belgium broke our hearts.

I’m sure I’m not alone. And yet, I can name players. I listened to several post-mortem podcasts on the Belgium game. I’ve read every story on Tim Howard, the USA’s spiderman of a goalkeeper, that’s come across my computer. I’m sure I’m not alone there, either. Another tell: Americans bet on futbol like it was football. Or the NCAA tournament. And it’s easier to beat. As of this writing, with semifinal matches on tap, the favorites have won every match in the knockout round. 1

It’s hard to keep up the momentum of an infatuation over four long years. It’s a bit like trying to drum up a real interest in horse racing based on a springtime crush. Even now, we’re having trouble remembering why California Chrome made for such an endearing story. (That is, before one of his owners went all call-in-show crazy.)

In a year, if Tim Howard is still in the news and folks still snarl over the mention of Chris (Wondo) Wondolowski or argue the merits of Michael Bradley as a midfielder, then maybe times have changed.

Did the 2014 World Cup mark the emergence of soccer as a must-see sport for Americans?

The answer is not Hell No. And that is progress.

Then is the NFL is still king on these shores?

Magic 8 Ball says . . . “It is decidedly so.”

The proof is in the viewership. Check out the Nielsen ratings from 2013. Of the top 10 single-telecast programs, nine were NFL games. The outlier? The Oscars at No. 7. The top three telecasts were the Super Bowl, the Super Bowl “delayed” telecast, whatever that means, and the Super Bowl post-game show.

One talking head on sports guy Bill Simmons’s podcast, the BS Report, suggested that an Argentina-USA match in the quarterfinals would have rivaled Super Bowl viewership. That’s approximately 108 million viewers. And that’s hard to imagine even in our big-event, of-the-moment society. Then again, the USA-Belgium match drew 25 million U.S. viewers. Say, wasn’t that a 3 p.m. weekday start? Get back to work! 2

This NBA free agency madness with LeBron and Carmelo and the “opting in” and the “opting out” and the ESPN obsession with it all. Do we really care?

Magic 8 Ball says . . . “Without a doubt.”


If I may, Magic 8 Ball. This is just another form of recruiting, which is all about the suspense of a will-he? or won’t-he? and which has become a spectator sport of its own. It’s like watching soap operas crammed full of faux tension, emotional transference and relationship wants. Who can resist? Only the NBA soaps come to us, blessedly, without the hideous theater of watching an oversized teenager choose which school/team cap to put on. 3

The Hogs play their first football game of the season next month, Aug. 30 at Auburn. Are they going to be significantly better this year? How many victories? A bowl game? Which one? Is Bret Bielema building something special, or is he just a placeholder for the next Most Famous Man in Arkansas?

Magic 8 Ball says: You ask a lot of questions. But, really, Magic 8 Ball says . . . “Better not tell you now.”

Magic 8 Ball, you’re so coy. But we’ll be back soon, oh great Oracle. Very soon. And we want answers. 4

* * *


1 Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site breaks down the odds of predicting World Cup winners here. You could make a case — in fact, I will — that until Americans find a way to bet, easily and often, on certain sports, our interest just isn’t fully there. Exhibit A would be the rise in popularity of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at about the same time Office Pools became ubiquitous and the use of the word “bracket” annual spring slang.

2 An interesting study here of our television viewing habits as a whole. In short, we love physically demanding reality shows (football, Dancing with the Stars) and NCIS.

3 I like this suggestion from Nebraska’s head football coach, Bo Pelini: Eliminate national signing day and let the kids sign as soon as they’re offered a scholarship. Binding? You bet. To quote Pelini via ESPN: “Why does there have to be one specific day? And it will get rid of some of the stuff that goes on, kids pulling the hats and so forth.” As for the NBA, I love its off-season. Unlike the 82-game slog to the playoffs, this is actually interesting in a human-nature kind of way. Recommended reading: “The Trade Rumor Era” by Bryan Curtis on the always-entertaining and usually informative Grantland.

4 In the meantime, read an interesting analysis of the Auburn-Arkansas matchup here. Pay especial attention to the recruiting graphics. Forgive the author his misstating the first name of Arkansas’s Brandon Allen.

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