While soccer is globally accepted as the most popular sport, it still has yet to reach the same level of popularity in the United States. Roughly 8,000 sports fans were surveyed between July 2021 and June 2022 and asked which sports they followed; football, basketball, baseball, boxing and hockey were among the top five, with soccer being notably absent.
The exact reason behind this surprising lack of popularity is a bit unclear. Some possibilities include the subpar performance of the U.S men’s soccer team in international competitions, as well as TV rights limitations and a lack of skill in Major League Soccer (MLS) players and teams. Whatever the reasons may be, with some help from this past World Cup and the recent expansion of MLS to new areas, soccer has turned things around and is quickly becoming the fastest-growing sport in the U.S.
Invented by ancient Chinese and Mayan cultures as a substitute for war, the first evidence of a soccer-like game dates back about 3,000 years ago. However, it was in England in the early 1840s that the sport really took off, with a variety of British schools creating a tournament style of play that allowed for consistent game rules between all schools. Ironically, the term “soccer” was coined by the British themselves, not the Americans who still use it today. The game initially developed via the formation of local clubs and associations, and despite upper-class players wanting the sport to remain amateur, the world soon saw the rise of the first professional players and leagues.
By 1904, the sport was beloved by millions around the world, thus bringing about the creation of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Four years later, the sport debuted in the Olympic Games, and in 1930 the first FIFA World Cup was held in Uruguay, with the host nation taking home the inaugural trophy. Fast forward to the modern-day, and soccer is the most popular sport in the world, with over 240 million players worldwide and viewership in the billions.
Going into the World Cup this past winter, the expectations of the U.S. men’s team were fairly low, specifically because of the talent we held as well as the level of competition we were set to face. The powerhouse of England and the under-discussed but skilled Wales were set as early opponents for the U.S. and were expected to wipe the floor with them. However, things turned out surprisingly well for the Americans, with both matches ending in draws. All that stood in their way of a Round of 16 appearances was the talented Iranian team fresh off a victory against Wales. A win in a back-and-forth match would grant the U.S. an unexpected ticket forward, even a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in that round surpassed expectations and showed that they were the real deal.
The excitement over America’s success certainly bled over into TV ratings, as the 2022 World Cup final reached 16.8 million viewers on FOX and an additional 5.5 million from Telemundo, making it the most-watched World Cup match in American history. The growth of soccer has been slow for the past few decades; in 2004, just 2% of Americans named soccer as their favorite sport, but the number now has risen to just over 8%. Additionally, 11% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 named soccer as their favorite sport, a number only trailing basketball and football.
Big names investing in the MLS have spurred this rise in popularity, the most famous being former European player David Beckham. Beckham recently took part in the creation of an expansion team, Inter Miami, and even brought rumors of bringing world-renowned superstar Lionel Messi into the squad. In recent years we’ve seen more European stars come to the league for a brief stint, Wayne Rooney, Gareth Bale and Zlatan Ibrahimovic come to mind. This has not only led to a rise in viewership, but it has fostered a growing market for the players coming in and out of the U.S. soccer academies.
Regarding the academy players, it was a few years ago that American player Christian Pulisic signed with German team Borussia Dortmund at just 16 years old. This led to a wave of American athletes signing overseas, such as Tim Ream and Anthony Robinson both signing on to English club Fulham F.C and Gio Reyna, son of American soccer legend Claudio Reyna, signing to Borussia Dortmund.
Another contributing factor to the rise in the popularity of soccer is safety. When polled, 86% of parents said they were comfortable with their kids playing soccer, while the number dropped to 51% for football. As a parent, would you rather have your child kick a ball and run around or be subject to head and full-body injuries each time they step on the field? Surprisingly football has just over a 200,000 person advantage over soccer for high schoolers who play the game, a gap that has closed demonstrably from a 700,000 person gap in the 1980’s and a 400,000 person gap in the mid-2000s. Simply put, soccer is right on football’s tail.
What better way to capitalize on this boom in popularity than by having America host the upcoming World Cup in 2026? Not only will this draw soccer fans from all over the world to America, but many casual viewers will tune in and go to games for the first time to experience what soccer has to offer. There’s no denying that soccer is making its way into the hearts of Americans, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes our next favorite sport.
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