The Schelling Globalization

Why is soccer the world’s most important sport? I could write about the sport. Say that it is the inherent unfairness of the sport which makes it so appealing (yes, the unfairness is what is appealing; the fact that a team playing visibly worse football can get a lucky break and score a late goal to beat the stronger team is what makes soccer a gripping emotional experience [1]).

However, to a large extent, we like soccer as individuals because others like soccer. Viewing the games of the World Cup is a great common activity which sweeps up even those who don’t usually watch sports (except for a few philistines). Even following the results is a collective experience, as are betting pools &c. Collectively, we watch the World Cup because we watch the World Cup.

Or, to use a fancy technical term: The World Cup is the global Schelling Point of sports enjoyment.

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In the past, the dominance of soccer was not as great as individual countries often converged on a sport that few others cared about that much and would end up dominating their favorite sport (China can dominate ping-pong without upsetting too many people; which other countries even have ping-pong fans? [2]). In the extreme case, a country could just make up its own sport and proudly dominate it while others looked on amused or puzzled (e.g., American football). [3]

Now, we seem to have converged to a single Schelling point. Yes, the US is a laggard in soccer fever, but even there, 25 million people watched the national team draw with Portugal (which does not even have 25 million people) [4]. There is no going back, the US will become one large soccer market.

I think this is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon: The Schelling Globalization as more and more shared experiences are global. This is not just because the market is larger in the classical sense (Apple can make each phone cheaper when it sells to the whole world), but also in the Schelling sense (either the iPhone is a fashionable accessory or it is not, but it does not become fashionable in some places and not in others — it actually becomes fashionable is some communities and not in others, but these are not defined geographical [5]).

In my generation, most Europeans have not heard of Jerry Seinfeld (as in, never heard of him). However, there are few in the younger generation who don’t know about Game of Thrones. Harry Potter was huge not just by taking advantage of a larger market, it was the Global Schelling point of book reading for young people.

Another obvious global Schelling point is the increasing dominance of the English language as regional languages recede (Europeans of different countries now default to English as their lingua franca, instead of either French [Western Europe], German [Central Europe] or Russian [Eastern Europe]).

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In science, you still seem some old fashion references to “international” and “national” journals. It’s nice and quaint, but seriously, who would publish in a “national” journal? Nobody good publishes there, because nobody good publishes there. Our global Schelling points are Science and Nature.

[1] This is tightly linked to the fact that the sport is a low scoring one. Attempts to make it higher score risk ruining this by making the better team win even more often.
[2] Portugal together with Spain completely dominated quad hockey for generations. As I was growing up, it was still present in the general consciousceness, but has now become a minor sport.
[3] Perhaps this was not the “past”, but just bizarre world of 1950-2000.
[4] I’ve long said the US are an underrated team. They consistently “beat expectations,” which means the general expectations are too low. I expect them to win a World Cup in the next few decades.
[5] For extra credit, re-read this sentence but using Google Glass instead of iPhone as an example.
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