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Can Soccer be the next big American sport?

By Julian Bonte-Friedheim
 Getty/ Mario Tama
*Updated 2022
The United States and soccer, the rest of the world’s favorite sport, have always had a complicated relationship. Long seen as a children’s game, professional soccer has been slow to reach the level of popularity it garners in the rest of the world. While it has never reached the popularity that professional basketball or football enjoy, the trend seems to be turning. Soccer ranks as the 4th most popular professional sport, ahead of hockey and just behind baseball. This may be due to renewed efforts to grow American interest in it, most notably David Beckham’s and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s transfers to LA Galaxy in 2007 and 2018, respectively. The US women’s national team 2019 World Cup victory, and its Bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, may have also changed how Americans as a whole view soccer, but the sport still hasn’t caught on in the US as a truly mainstream professional sport. Time will tell if hosting the 2026 FIFA World Cup will tip the balance.
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, more American teenagers are playing soccer than ever before, with the number of US high schoolers playing the game reaching over 800K girls and boys. This large pool of young talent promises further growth and potential success at the adult level. Plus, a Gallup poll shows that because of Milliennials’ love of the sport, soccer’s popularity has tripled in the last decade and currently ranks fourth among all sports. In addition, Major League Soccer, the top domestic league, has seen a 21% boost in interest since 2012.

 

Massive investment and big-name players

The US women’s national soccer team has produced inspiring players both on and off the field, some of whom, like team captain Megan Rapinoe, among other iconic players, are amassing global fans, young and old, which cultivates attention to the sport, especially for young female players. Women’s soccer aside, 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. Long before the pandemic put a damper on attendance at all professional sporting events, the Major League Soccer broke its average season attendance for three years straight. In 2017, it ranked sixth in the world for average attendance, above the Italian and French leagues. With the pre-pandemic establishment of new clubs in LA, Atlanta, Minnesota and Miami, among other cities, and further investment in big-name players and modern stadiums, soccer’s emergence as one of America’s top sports may still happen, especially with 16 American cities set to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

 

America’s Latino population is growing

The United States has a rapidly growing Latino population, of which there were 65.3 million in the country as of 2020. Between 2008-2018, 12.6% of the men’s national team were players of Latino origins. While this year’s men’s national team heading toward Qatar reportedly only has 3 Latino players, it’s hard to ignore this small but potentially growing influence that immigrants have on US soccer. Immigrants specifically from Mexico or Brazil tend to bring along their love for the sport, spreading it to their kids. If more of these future American players will be allowed to play professional soccer, the quality of the national team could increase and games will get more followers. Improving both factors may contribute to the sport’s growth in the US.

 

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 American football, the diving and acting sometimes seen in soccer paints a dishonest and underhanded image of the sport. 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 the baseball World Series in the fall and football on Thanksgiving. The Super Bowl is the biggest sporting and arguably cultural event in the country. Playing fantasy football and following college basketball March Madness unites college fans, families and colleagues all over the country. To many, basketball is a great unifier: it’s seen as an integral part of inner-city culture just as much as it is of suburban America. Through their presence in US history, these sports have become synonymous with being American. Soccer may 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 men’s 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 2014 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 qualify for the 2018 World Cup made Americans even less interested in the tournament. It’s early days, but sources forecast that 45% of US sports fans plan to watch the World Cup 2022. The question will be what sport they’ll return to watching after the tournament ends.

 

The Bottom Line: While 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?

 

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