Prediction: Soccer Will Become a Mainstream Sport in U.S. This Summer

Photographers take pictures of the FIFA World Cup trophy upon its arrival at Tokyo's Haneda airport during the Trophy Tour

I’m ready to make a bold prediction. It’s a simple one, but it has gigantic implications. It’s this: Soccer will finally break into the mainstream and will  evolve from a niche sport to a mainstream sport in America this summer thanks to World Cup 2010.

How popular it will become is based on several variables. Most importantly, how well the United States men’s national team does during the tournament in South Africa will make a big difference in the TV ratings. If the US fizzles in the early rounds, that will deal a mighty blow to mainstream America who will want to cheer for and bond with the US of A. We are, after all, a very patriotic country. But even if the US doesn’t advance to the latter stages of the World Cup, there are still plenty of diverse ethnic groups in the States that will help increase ratings.

The other important items that will help the World Cup reach critical mass in the States this summer are:

  • the excitement level the tournament generates: Mainstream America hates boring 4-5-1 nil-nil games,
  • the lack of controversial incidents that tarnish the game: Mainstream America hates injustice (a la the Henry handball incident),
  • the stories.

The stories are perhaps one of the most magical aspects of the World Cup. And this summer’s tournament in Africa, the first one ever for the World Cup, will have a ton of stories that will captivate many viewers in the United States. Those water cooler conversations are a critical part of helping the tournament to spread by word of mouth.

But what’s different about this World Cup compared to previous ones? In other years, we’ve had similar ingredients such as soccer-mad ethnic groups, exciting tournaments and a plentitude of stories, as well as a US team that has done well (2002 being the best example).

The answer is ESPN.

Never before in the history of soccer in the United States has one network put so much money and so much air time on bringing the sport of soccer to mainstream America. The sheer magnitude of their coverage (250 hours of it this summer) won’t be completely felt until the tournament begins in 17 days. But once it does, mainstream America will find it difficult to stay away from the World Cup. And, as we’ve discussed on this site before, give sports fans a taste of the World Cup and it’s hard not to get hooked.

ESPN’s Executive Vice President John Skipper has definitely put his neck on the line by investing so much time, resources and money on banking that the 2010 World Cup will be a success for the network in terms of TV ratings and advertising dollars. Skipper has pulled out all of the stops by hiring the best commentating team on the planet, and spending more money on this tournament than any other sports competition in the history of the 31 year-old sports TV network.

Other than not naming a US commentator to lead at least a few World Cup games on TV this season, ESPN hasn’t made a mistake yet. They’re treating this World Cup as it’s supposed to be which gets to the heart of what soccer fans love about it. While appealing to the die-hard soccer fan, they’re hoping that the rest of the nation will latch on. I’m confident that many of them will and we’ll see record breaking TV ratings this summer for the World Cup. Skipper is predicting a ratings increase of between 25-50% compared to the 2006 World Cup. As a comparison, the 2006 World Cup Final was watched in 16.9 million households.

I believe the World Cup Final can achieve even more of a ratings jump than even Skipper is predicting.

Ratings aside, I believe that the next two months will be known as the “summer of soccer” in the United States when the sport finally breaks into the mainstream. The NFL, NBA and MLB are still light years ahead of soccer, but I’m confident that the sport will officially become a mainstream sport in the country by July. You can already sense the level of buzz in the States now with less than three weeks to go before the tournament kicks off. Part of that is because of the Internet. Blogs and social media are the perfect mediums to help soccer go viral online. But I can also see and hear the enthusiasm in public here in the States — more than I’ve ever done before except for World Cup ’94 when the tournament was on our shores.

As America’s demographics change over the next decade, soccer will become even more popular across the country. This summer’s World Cup will be the tipping point. The timing will be perfect for the tournament to be a massive success in the United States. Everything is set. Now all we need are the players from the 32 countries to show us the beautiful game the way it was meant to be. I cannot wait.

Over the next several days, I’ll be publishing several of my World Cup predictions. Not necessarily which countries will advance from each group or which one will win the tournament, although I may throw one or two out there, but the predictions will more so be focused on other World Cup-related topics.

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