If fifteen years ago, you were to ask the average American what they understood about soccer, you would likely receive a variation of the same answer: “They play it in South America and Europe”; “it’s a sport that people play when they’re young”; and so on and so on. That’s no longer the case. Today, soccer is the fastest growing sport in the country and is fifth in popularity behind football, baseball, basketball, and ice hockey. The idea that soccer could one day be more popular than any of those sports would once be considered a joke, but not so anymore. If soccer continues to grow and grow, it might just threaten the sports that have had a stronghold on American television and discourse.
A New View
What then, has made soccer more popular in the United States? It’s a question that has no clear answer, though plenty have been put forward. Instead of focusing on this or that, it’s better to look at the ideological shift that has taken place in the minds of Americans. The root of the sport’s popularity has to do with the changing attitudes that have made the country more open to a sport that was once thought of as ‘non-American.’ Thanks to the success of the national team, greater exposure to European soccer, and perhaps a smattering of people becoming disillusioned with the big sports in the country, soccer has slowly but surely built a core following of fans and players – and the numbers are rising all the time.
We have, however, been here before. Soccer has been popular in America before, most notably in the 1970’s and then during and following the World Cup of 1994, which was hosted in the States. So it’s understandable that some people still consider the current wave of popularity only to be temporary; the popularity of soccer in the past came and went quickly. It’s important to note the differences between these periods. The previous instances of popularity came on the back of high-profile events: stars such as Pele playing in the states in the 70’s, and the World Cup mania of 1994. This time is different, as there isn’t any individual catalyst for its growing popularity. Instead, the interest stems from sustained, multi-pronged factors. It’s not resting only on one factor for success: it’s coming from multiple, layered sources.
If you want to see the extent of soccer’s growing popularity, look no further than the domestic league, the MLS. Sixteen years ago, the league was close to capitulation. It was heavily in debt, and two of the clubs in a league of only twelve clubs were forced to shut down. Things were in disastrous shape, and it took a last minute deal to save the league from closure. It was a gamble to keep the league going, but one that paid off handsomely. Interest in the domestic league has never been higher, as evidenced by the eight-year deal the league made with sports broadcasters to show the games. Internationally, MLS is seen as a blossoming, credible league, a far cry from the old views.
The international reaction to the MLS has been helped significantly by its ability to attract some of the world’s biggest soccer players. When David Beckham joined LA Galaxy, people raised eyebrows. Why was a player who had served Real Madrid and Manchester United – arguably the two biggest clubs in the world – moving to play for a team that competed in a non-competitive league? But Beckham gave the league credibility, and now more and more stars are crossing the Atlantic from Europe to ply their trade in the league. Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane, two high profile players from the Premier League, both following Beckham to LA. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ashley Cole will both be playing in the league this season. Once, these European stars would have been head and shoulders above the other players on the field: now, thanks to improved competition, that’s not the case.
USA Soccer Stars
It’s not just Europeans who are lighting up the MLS. Americans are starting to make a name for themselves in their own right. Two stalwarts of the Premier League in recent years – Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard – have been American (they’re both now playing in the MLS), while the future of the national team looks promising, with some rising stars coming through. It’s been a long time since Freddy Adu, once the hope of the national team, failed to live up to potential, but there’s now a couple of real deals in the pack. Christian Pulisic is getting rave reviews, and he’s doing it for a big team in one of the world’s best leagues – he plays as an attacking midfielder for Borussia Dortmund in Germany’s Bundesliga.
The National Team
Of course, soccer in the States did need that spark to ignite the nation’s interest, and it came in the form of the national team – both the men’s and women’s. A surprisingly strong performance from the men at the past two world cups – including a ‘performance of the tournament’ showing from goalkeeper Tim Howard – helped boost television numbers and interest, especially as the games they were involved in were exciting, full of end to end action. The United States won the 2015 Women’s World Cup, and there were plenty of eyeballs on hand to watch the event: some 25 million people in America watched the final, making it far and away the most watched soccer match in history.
Of course, the domestic league won’t draw in everybody: it’s a growing league and is still some time away from being as competitive or exciting as other leagues across the world. It’s the European leagues that are having the most influence, especially as for the past few years the English Premier League was shown on NBC. An established league, arguably the best in the world, was beamed right into viewers homes each Saturday and Sunday morning. The executives of the Premier League have marketed the league brilliantly, selling the quality and action on the field and the passion in the stands. From next year, the EPL will only be aired on a subscription basis. Whether this will dent the viewing figures or give a cash injection that will persuade other networks to place a greater emphasis on the sport remains to be seen.
If youth interest in a sport is an indicator of the health and future prosperity of that sport, the soccer is in safe hands. Some three million youngsters are playing in youth soccer leagues, and in fact, among teenagers, it’s only basketball that is more popular than professional soccer. The increased participation and interest in the sport is down, in part, to an increase in soccer facilities across the country. Full-size soccer pitches, five a side pitches, and facilities with flood light installations have made the sport accessible year round, and this is reflected in the number of youths participating in the sport. Over a ten period, the number of children playing soccer grew by 50%; at the same time, the number of children playing baseball and softball both dropped.
You can focus on the top end of the pyramid – the MLS and National Team – but the real indicator of the soccer’s strength in the United States lies below the surface. The minor leagues are also faring very well; Grand Rapids FC were able to draw five thousand fans to their game, and they were playing in the fifth division. As well as the actual playing, let’s take a look at the financial health of the league, which is always a safe way to look at whether growth will continue. The league signed a deal worth nearly $800 million to show games in the US, and they’ve sold further rights – worth much less, obviously – to more than a hundred countries around the world.
A Global Game
So why now? There’s always been money in the game, and people have always played the sport. What’s different in 2017? There’s one argument that suggests that the US is simply catching up with the rest of the world. Football is the world’s game; it’s popular more or less everywhere, but not the US, With the barriers between nations tumbling (or so goes the idea), it’s logical that it should be now that the sport begins to take off. America exists within a global economy, why not join the global sport, too?
To the Future
It remains to be seen just how long this wave of popularity will last. There’s a view that the ‘football bubble’ might burst in Europe, that the influx of cash that has taken the game into the stratosphere might soon run out. It’s not unthinkable that it’ll happen. If it does, the glitz and glamour of the sport might be removed, and if the money goes, you’ll see much less investment and interest in soccer.
For now, though, let’s enjoy the excitement and growing enthusiasm for the sport. If current trends continue, we might just see the US as a major player on the world soccer stage in the near future.