Americans’ interest in soccer is about three times higher during the World Cup than it usually is, judging by how often they search for the sport on Google. But that isn’t true for other countries. In England, where the English Premier League will kick off its season on Saturday, club play is followed almost as enthusiastically as international competition. The same is true in Spain, Italy, Brazil and Mexico.
What accounts for the international appeal of soccer? One factor may be the comparative simplicity of its rulebook. Product designers have long appreciated the value of simplicity, which offers a gentler learning curve and fewer opportunities for mistranslation.
I downloaded the FIFA Laws of the Game along with the rulebooks for the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball. Then I counted the number of words in each one, excluding indices. This is a simple proxy for the complexity of each sport.
Soccer is doing more with less; FIFA’s rulebook has just over 20,000 words. By contrast, the NBA’s has 30,000, MLB’s is close to 50,000, the NHL’s is nearly 60,000 and the NFL’s is 70,000.
The correlation between the simplicity of a sport’s rulebook and its global popularity is almost one to one. Soccer, with its simple rulebook, is followed in almost every country. Basketball increasingly is, too. The more complex sports have less global appeal. Baseball is popular in the Americas and Japan but not yet elsewhere. Hockey fans are almost exclusively concentrated in the U.S., Canada, Northern Europe and Russia. American football has few fans outside America itself.
Philosophers have also long recognized a connection between simplicity and beauty (indeed, long before soccer came to be known as “The Beautiful Game,” it was known as “The Simplest Game” instead). This June, when I attended a couple of World Cup matches at the Maracanã, in Rio de Janeiro, I was struck by how rich the experience was with so few frills. There was no 60-yard-long Jumbotron — there were hardly any scoreboards. There weren’t many words spoken, on or off the pitch.
Soccer can get away with this minimalist presentation because of the simplicity of its rulebook; you don’t need Ed Hochuli to come out and explain the difference between offsides and encroachment and a neutral zone infraction.
Instead, when Chile scored against Spain in their Group B match, it sounded something like this (sorry about my shaky camera work):
Beautiful, ain’t it?