The US and soccer, the rest of the world’s favorite sport, have always had a complicated relationship. Long seen as a children’s game, soccer has never reached the popularity that sports like basketball or football enjoy. Renewed efforts have been made to grow American interest in it, most notably David Beckham’s and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s respective transfers to LA Galaxy in 2007 and 2018. However, it still hasn’t caught on as a truly mainstream sport.
The following are arguments for or against soccer’s potential as a big sport in America.
Three reasons why Soccer will get bigger
Growing among children
Soccer has been America’s favorite sport among children for years now. The suburban ‘soccer-mom’ who drives her kids to practice in an SUV has become a staple in American life. In fact, the US has a higher amount of registered under-18 players than any country in the Americasor Europe, according to a FIFA report. This large pool of young talent promises further growth and potential success at the adult level.
Massive investment and big-name players
After Beckham, stars such as Ricardo Kaká, Thierry Henry and Steven Gerrard crossed the Atlantic. Such arrivals, coupled with significant investment in new stadiums have increased the number of Americans attending games. The MLS (Major League Soccer) broke its average season attendance for three years straight. It ranks sixth in the world for average attendance, above the Italian and French leagues. With the establishment of new clubs in LA, Atlanta, Minnesota and Miami and further investment in big-name players and modern stadiums, soccer’s emergence as one of America’s top sports may simply be a matter of time.
America’s Latino population is growing
The United States has a rapidly growing Latino population, of which there were 58 million in the country as of 2016. The national team features several players of Latino origins, reflecting the influence that immigrants have on US soccer. Especially people from Mexico or Brazil bring along their love for the sport, spreading it to their kids. As more of these future Americans play and watch soccer, the quality of the national team is bound to increase while games get more followers. Improving both of these factors will contribute to the sport’s growth in the US. Just like with cuisine and languages, America is slowly importing Latino soccer culture.
America already has other favorite sports
Diving has tainted its reputation
Already seen as a kid’s sport in most of the country, soccer’s reputation among Americans has been tarnished by the many examples of diving, the act of feigning or exaggerating injury to have an opposing player disqualified. Particularly to fans of a more hands-on sport like football, the diving and acting sometimes seen in soccer paints a dishonest and underhanded image of soccer. Many Americans have difficulty getting behind a sport that, to them, encourages cheating.
Americans prefer their own more culturally ingrained sports
Sports like basketball and football are deeply intertwined with American culture. It has become a family ritual to watch football on Thanksgiving. The Super Bowl is the biggest sporting and arguably cultural event in the country. Playing fantasy football and following March Madness unites colleagues all over the country after work. Basketball is seen as an integral part of black inner-city culture while the houses of suburban America are lined with basketball hoops. Through their presence in US history these sports have become synonymous with being American. Soccer will never evoke such feelings of history, identity and pride.
Enthusiasm fizzles out after every World Cup
Americans like to get together to see their country win, particularly on the world stage. However if the US team had not taken part in the 2014 World Cup, viewership statistics would have been much lower. The final of Euro 2016, between France and Portugal, got an average viewership of 5.89 million on ESPN’s English and Spanish channels, far below the 18.22 million that watched USA-Portugal in the last World Cup. People in the US will casually follow a World Cup in droves, only to go back to watching football or basketball during the season. The fact that the US didn’t quality for the 2018 World Cup will make Americans even less interested in the tournament, meaning the MLS will miss out on this much needed popularity boost.
Bottom line: Soccer is still relatively new as a mainstream American sport, the excitement generated during World Cups is far from being seen outside of those events. But the fact that so many millennials play the sport indicates that it will be a bigger part of American culture as it grows with them. Are you a soccer fan? Do you imagine yourself becoming one?