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Dispelling The Myth That Soccer Is Not Big In America

soccer is boring Dispelling The Myth That Soccer Is Not Big In America

I was on an online chat last weekend with 1,200 people watching a second division U.S. soccer game streamed online. All of a sudden a soccer fan blurted out on the chat that ‘soccer wasn’t big in America.’

Soccer not big in America? You’ve got to be kidding me.

Twelve hundred people watching a dodgy stream with cringeworthy commentators may not be the sign that soccer has arrived on these shores, but it’s still a significant accomplishment for a lower league game streamed online. But where soccer has really taken off is on the national scale. TV ratings are higher than ever before. U.S. businesses are spending more than a billion dollars for World Cup TV rights. And soccer is played by more citizens than any other sport in this country.

In the past, I would have agreed that soccer is not big in America. But I believe it’s high time that we soccer fans stick up for our favorite sport and not let that stupid criticisms go unanswered. It’s one thing for American baseball or football fans to say it, not knowing the facts, but when it’s the soccer community saying it, that’s inane. Sometimes people are their own worst enemies.

If you’re not sure whether soccer is big in America, consider the following facts:

  1. TV ratings are up, way up. The 2010 World Cup Final between Spain and Holland was watched by an audience of 24 million people on ABC and Univision — 10 million more than the average primetime audience for the 2011 baseball World Series. Game 7 of the World Series was the only one that eclipsed the World Cup Final with 25 million viewers.
  2. Premier League and Champions League soccer are being shown on free-to-air network TV. This year is the first time that Premier League games are being shown on FOX, the free-to-air network, while the permanent home for Champions League Finals is now FOX where the network continues to bring in record TV audiences. More than 2.4 million people watched Man United against Chelsea on U.S. television two months ago.
  3. Average attendances for MLS games are now higher than NBA and NHL. In the 2011 MLS season, America’s top division achieved their highest attendance number in their 16-year history with more than 5.4 million people attending games. In comparison, 4.2 million people on US TV watched Barcelona win the 2011 Champions League Final against Man United.
  4. More than 17 million Americans play soccer. Soccer haters like to denigrate soccer by saying that it’s played mostly by children. While true, there’s a growing number of adults who play the sport. And soccer remains the number one most played sport in this country among youth.
  5. Even MLS TV ratings are showing some sign of life. For the June 26 game between New York and Chicago, 622,000 people watched it on ESPN. Over at ESPN2, 41o,000 people watched a game between New York and Seattle (June 23).

If you look at every level of soccer in America, you see growth. The 2011 Women’s World Cup Final was watched by 13.5 million people in the United States. And there’s growing interest in the second and third tiers of US men’s soccer. The women’s league, meanwhile, is still hanging on by a thread.

Soccer haters love to rub it in that soccer is not a major spectator sport. But if MLS gets higher average attendances than NBA and NHL, and capacity crowds of 75,000, 80,000 and 90,000 pack American sports stadiums during the summer when foreign teams play stateside, does that not make soccer a major spectator sport?

You’ll usually find that it’s the old guard who tells people what to think. The washed up American sports writers who talk about “the good old days” and look at soccer as “a foreign sport.” Thankfully most of these old school columnists are fading away and being replaced with more worldly writers who have an open frame of mind.

“Soccer isn’t big in America” is such as subjective opinion anyway. When is a sport considered big, and who defines that? Is MMA not big? What things are big anymore anyway? Everyone’s tastes in this world are so splintered anyway. We’re not all sitting down watching the same prime-time programs anymore. The choices are endless. The big, the mainstream, isn’t as big as it used to be. The edges are where people are at. Playing video games, watching Japanese cartoons, surfing the web or reading niche authors.

So the next time you hear people say that soccer isn’t big in America, tell them they’re wrong. Debate them. Enlighten them. Ask them what they’re basing their information on. Remind them how soccer is big in America.

And lastly, if you run into obnoxious fans of American football who don’t want to admit that soccer is big in America, ask them if they know how many minutes the ball is in play during a typical NFL game. The answer: For a three hour broadcast, 11 minutes. Yes, you read that correctly. Eleven measly minutes. Ninety minutes of interrupted pleasure (other than half time) is greater than 11. “Soccer is boring”?? Give me a break!

This entry was posted in General, Leagues: EPL. Bookmark the permalink.

About Christopher Harris

Founder and publisher of World Soccer Talk, Christopher Harris is the managing editor of the site. He has been interviewed by The New York Times, The Guardian and several other publications. Plus he has made appearances on NPR, BBC World, CBC, BBC Five Live, talkSPORT and beIN SPORT. Harris, who has lived in Florida since 1984, has supported Swansea City since 1979. He's also an expert on soccer in South Florida, and got engaged during half-time of a MLS game. Harris launched EPL Talk in 2005, which was rebranded as World Soccer Talk in 2013.
View all posts by Christopher Harris →

39 Responses to Dispelling The Myth That Soccer Is Not Big In America

  1. Joe says:

    The average attendance comparison with NBA and NHL doesn’t quite hold water for two reasons: arena size and amount of games. The Seattle Sounders can fit nearly 40,000 in for a game, which is more than twice the size of any NBA or NHL arena. There are also over 40 home games per year in those leagues, compared to 17 (?) in MLS.

    Also, I’ve heard the “eleven minutes of action” argument over and over, and the fact is the NFL is about much more than the brief amount of time that play is actually happening. If you watch a game on TV, you’ll see replays of the last play, showing you players, blocks, and movements that you missed in the hectic pace of real time. When a play is about to start, an astute viewer will note the different formations of the offense and defense. There is a lot of thought that goes into actually watching a game that occurs outside of those eleven minutes. I like both sports for their own reasons.

    • The Gaffer says:

      Good point Joe about the larger arena sizes, but when NBA or NHL sports fan say that soccer is not a big spectator sport, the fact is that MLS outdraws those two leagues.

      Cheers,
      The Gaffer

      • ckilla says:

        The number of spectators a league “draws” has nothing to do with popularity. Baseball draws farrr more fans to games than football because each team has 81 home games per year. But football is farrr more popular in America than baseball, despite baseball being a big sport. The NBA and NHL far exceed the MLS in filling their respective arenas. The MLS sell their tickets at low demand prices and don’t sell out as often as very pricey hockey and basketball games. Besides, TV dictates popularity. You are a fake intellectual dunce. So is the writer of this article.

        • The Gaffer says:

          It’s based on the average attendance, not cumulative attendance

          Cheers,
          The Gaffer

        • Guy says:

          “You are a fake intellectual dunce. So is the writer of this article.”

          And you, troll, are redundant……but you wouldn’t know that.

        • BD says:

          “Fake intellectual dunce”? When you pressed submit, did you suddenly get a cold shiver down your spine that your comment will no longer hold any validity because of that incredibly stupid insult? No one will pay attention to anything you said before……fake intellectual dunce. Good job, you plastic Einstein Gump.

      • Harry says:

        And with the lockout drawing on, how many fans will the NBA have to work hard at winning back once it ends??

    • Reba says:

      Your point about the arena size is a good one. However, I think the point about the comparable length of time a game lasts to the actually amount of playing time is still a valid argument. In soccer, there is (theoretically) 90 minutes of movement. Analyzing a game is a much more complex and time consuming process that can’t be properly done within the confines of the game itself. Commentators try to given general thoughts about the follow of the game and take the time to break down a goal, but the hard part is explaining why goals AREN’T happening. And this, in my opinion, is where American (or those not used to watching the game) get lost. They think “nothing” is happening when goals aren’t being scored. It’s sort of like that old philosophical cliche about the journey verses the destination. The goal is the destination, but the joy (and the GAME) is found in the journey – and you have to approach it with the understanding that far more often than not you’re going to get lost on way and never make it to the goal.

      • Reba says:

        Why is it that you can read a post multiple times, but only see the typos AFTER you hit “Post Comment”???

        UGH!!!

      • Joe says:

        But by that same token, a “real” NFL fan knows that a good game is about more than touchdown after touchdown. I’d much rather watch a tough 17-14 grinder than a 50-40 TD-fest. It’s fun sometimes, but usually just means the defense is lousy.

    • Daniel says:

      Joe,

      I don’t know the actual numbers, but based on the guesses you made:

      40,000 x 17 = 680,000

      20,000* x 40 = 800,000

      That’s still 85% as big as our major sports — that’s not too bad.

      * Being generous here as you said, “more than twice the size”.

  2. Eplnfl says:

    Have to say Amen to everything Chris. Soccer has crossed over into mainstream sports in the USA. The haters of the game are few now and the game at all levels is gaining attention in the mainstream media. We lag behind in a lot of areas no doubt. For instance radio coverage of many MLS teams does not exist and in the large number of sports talk shows in the country few devote time to soccer.

    However their is no retreat from the increase in popularity of the sport in the US and we can take pride in the fact that women’s soccer has a great following here and has increased interest in the sport while in other countries the women’s game is still looked down on.

  3. Carmello says:

    I was in a diner last night in NJ and they were showing the Man United v. Otelul Galati Champions League game on their TV. Granted, the diner is owned by a legitimate person of Greek nationality, but I was super amazed that the game was on at all in a DINER. Mysself, and a guy sitting at the bar, blurted out a noise of surprise when Rooney’s goal was deflected and went in. That was the high point. Then some people in a booth across from me started talking about soccer together and the father of the group kept saying, “I wish there was more fighting. Then I might like it.”

    Does anyone else get as incensed as I do when “your fellow man” starts talking about soccer like this? Does the man like SPORT? Or just FIGHTING? I feel like a lot of American sportsfans have this attitude. Not all, but a lot of them.

    • MG says:

      He’s probably a hockey fan.. haha. But still cool that it was playing in a diner, like you said.

      • Carmello says:

        Yeah he probably is. And hey, hockey is ALMOST soccer. The fighting in hockey makes sense though. It has a purpose for the flow of the game. I just don’t see any justification for rule-bound fighting in soccer though hahaha. My main gripe is that this man just wrote off soccer simply because there was no fighting. I COULD SEE IT IN HIS EYES! hahaha

  4. tonyspeed says:

    What has changed? I believe it is the influx of foreigners into American society, especially the latin american community. When you feel like you’re not the only person who likes football then you are more likely to continue having an interest in it when you get older. Secondly, I think MLS has had an affect. People naturally tend to be loyal to their hometown despite the availability of broadcast TV games. Plus some people like to go to the stadium. MLS uses these two feelings to it’s advantage. Third, I think what the UMNT did in the last WC was overall good for publicity. I think it made some people take notice of a sport maybe they would have ignored if they know Americans sucked at it.

  5. tonyspeed says:

    Finally, I think the USWNT finally maybe got some ok publicity from the last WC. They have been good for a LONG time, dominant actually, but I think beause of what the USMNT did, they were noticed a little bit more even if the end result may have been disappointing. Then we have Hope Solo who is not bad looking showing girls that you don’t necessarily have to be completely masculine to like football or even pursue it as a career. All in all good developments.

  6. CTBlues says:

    Anybody see the piece on PTI when they were talking about the Redbulls FC Dallas wildcard game? They were trying to talk about the Henry goal and Tony Kornheiser was saying that Henry was cherry picking and was offside, but he didn’t know what the offside rule is in soccer. They even started to say why are we talking about this if we don’t even know the rules. We really need to see a bigger turnover in the the press to actually help the game here. I listen to ESPN Radio NY on my way to and from work and the only time I ever heard anything about the Redbulls on the station was when they bought and ad to sponsor the “Sports Center” segment of the Micheal Kay Show to tell people about the Redbulls vs Galaxy playoff game and I believe that was the Friday before the game. The whole week leading up to the game they didn’t talk about the game at all not a peep in the Sports Center segment saying oh there is a playoff game for a sport on ESPN2 but they made time to talk about the NBA lockout almost every day. God I hope the whole season gets canceled!

    • D Dub says:

      yes i saw it. that was attrocious.

      That said i love the NBA. I’m a huge bulls fan. I lived in chicago for quite a while. And i 1000% want the NBA season back. But i back the players so they gotta do what they gotta do but. my love for soccer doesn’t equate to a hate for NFL or NBA and i surely don’t want the season canceled.

      But back to espn i rarely watch that show. In fact i only saw that part when i was flipping channels and when i passed i noticed they had Henry’s image and was like wtf are they babbling about. Like i expected typical pti stupidity.

      But that show and the stuff they talk about is truly a mark of how soccer is not ” big” here. As much as i hate it ESPN caters to the masses of sports fans in america and what the masses want is NFL, NCAA football, NBA, Baseball, and then other, after that it’s hockey and barely hockey (only playoffs) and everything else. If Tiger Woods is playing and winning he’s “big” but Golf is not anymore. Nascar on the decline too. But in terms of popularity Soccer isn’t discussed because the majority of people don’t care. I do but i’m not the majority.

      People i Wyoming, an Georgia, MIssissipi, an Florida, and rural illinois, west texas etc don’t care about soccer like we do. sure some people do. But not at the level of the other sports.

      like i was interested in the Galaxy game yesterday. But the USC game just cut off and all the bars were full, and i just got home and my neighbors threw a party. They do that for every USC game. There was almost none of that for the Galaxy game. Everybar wasn’t full of Galaxy fans. That’s the difference. And this is L.A. it ain’t even a good sports town. How do people think it is in Georgia when Georga Tech plays or Alabama when Alabama plays. Anybody think they are as interested in that as they are a DC United game? Hell Dallas in MLS isn’t as popular as Texas Highschool football among the general Texas population. I don’t say that to be mean. I love football. I say it because it’s a fact.

  7. Todd says:

    Good write-up. I do not think that soccer will ever surpass tossball, basketball, or baseball as far as popularity though. The difference between the rest of the world and the USA is that those country’s best athletes all play soccer first, whereas in America, all our best athletes are far more likely to play tossball, basketball, etc.

    • Rebxrn says:

      “all our best athletes are far more likely to play tossball, basketball, etc”

      That will change when the pay rises.

      • Todd says:

        True, money talks, but it will be decades before the MLS has the kind of money the NBA or NFL can offer. Plus it’s a culture thing; Sunday football seems to just be a part of most people’s pastimes. High school football is huge for that same reason.

        • CTBlues says:

          I would say it depends on where you from man because high school football means almost nothing in Connecticut, but it you drive 2 hours west to PA the 11pm news on friday is 10mins long then a 20 minute high school review show/ highlight show.

    • Jerry says:

      The people who argue…”our best athletes don’t play soccer” just don’t understand the game. The best player in the world stands 5’6″ and weighs 145 lbs. The same goes for the greatest names in history…Maradonna, Pele, Cryuff, Ronaldinho, etc. all would have never have been good baseball/football/basketball players. The best team in the world is comprised of a bunch of short Spanish guys who regularly outplay bigger, faster, and stronger opponents. You don’t have to be 6’2″ and 220 lbs. of muscle to be great at soccer. That’s the beauty of the game. In fact, the lower your center of gravity, the better dribbler you will be and the quicker you can cut on a dime. Vision, first touch, creativity, are much more important than being able to bench 300 lbs. or run a 4.4 40 yd. dash…

  8. thomas says:

    This past weekend, I asked my friends to come watch an early game with me. Arsenal vs Chelsea on ESPN 2 at 7:45 AM, and on friday, they all said sure. Saturday morning, nobody showed up, and I was presented with one of the best and fun soccer games I have ever seen. Ofcourse, I am a gunner as well, but you can’t ask for better.

    What I am trying to say is, they won’t give it a chance. So they will never know.

  9. Doug says:

    I think the relevance of the “11 minute” stat is that all sports have their rhythm and to appreciate a sport you have to appreciate the pace as well as have a sense of what is happening other than putting points on the board. It’s the jouney/destination concept. Without that, how could people watch a baseball game and the numerous opportunities for dead air (pitches fouled off, conferences at the mound,, …). When listening to a baseball broadcast, it’s remarkable how much time is spent NOT talking about the game. There’s also the historical aspect that links generations. MLS is building that such that people can debate which of two teams or players of different eras were better.

    I’d also be curious to know the stat that says what percentage of the fans of a given have played the game. I’d guess that for soccer, it’s high. For hockey and football it would be low. So participation doesn’t always equate to being a spectator.

  10. Thomas says:

    It’s definitely a big sport in America. One thing, and this is very anecdotal, is that in men’s leagues, you get a lot of people who play for fun fitness, but are also highly likely to follow other sports as well.

    I think the attendance figures speak volumes about the sports growth.

    I think the 11 minutes of action comment towards American Football is silly. It’s a totally different game. But personally, the amount of interruptions (more commercials versus actual stoppage of play) bothers me about the NFL, and has decreased my interest in it. In fairness, attending a HS game, for instance, gives a much more fluid viewing experience. Also, I think it’s extremely counter productive to engage non-soccer fans by attacking their sport. “Football is all commercials and pauses” is likely going to spark a response like “what about the flopping and diving”.

    the Soccer_Wave may have finally caught on…but honsetly, I kind of like where it’s at now..most people who are fans are informed, and not having everyone love it keeps away the idiots and masses from dlilluting it a bit. Right now it’s as accessible as you’d want ,but you can still go about enjoying it without every idiot having 2 cents to chime into a discussion.

  11. dcudiplomat96 says:

    Ofcourse soccer has grown on its own right, but let’s get realistic, its not at American Sports standards when it comes to Viwership, and the fanbase is mostly foreign influence. Soccer isn’t heard to talked about in most or on the top rated sports news shows a lot, and in A way its kinda in its own lil world. I dissagree that Soccer is Mainstream Nationally in sports. But remeber the !merican Sports Scene is Huge, so not all the good things of soccer especially would get the decent exposure

  12. Mark W. says:

    The “11 minute” argument doesn’t hold water. First, American football is the ultimate team sport – a play doesn’t succeed unless all 11 players do heir jobs well. Second, the strategy in American football is far more complex than soccer, again because all 22 players on the field are directly involved in each play. Thirdly, each pay run has the potential for a thrilling moment, as opposed to watching yet another left back passing the ball back to his goalkeeper to move the attack to the other side of the field

    That said, I watch more soccer on TV than the NFL, but please don’t tell me about how exciting the “journey” is when a team sits on a one goal lead, or when one team can’t put together more than two passes in a row.

    Barcelona is a joy to watch. It shows how good soccer can be, but the quality level of other pro leagues can often prompt a viewer to keep hitting the “skip 30 seconds” button on their DVR.

    Soccer is in fact getting more popular in the US. But that’s because it has nowhere to go but up. The Sounders games are the place to be in Seattle, but most other MLS cities still have a ways to go before the game becomes the equal of the NFL, MLB, or NBA (assuming of course that the billionaire owners and millionaire players can come to some kind of collective bargaining agreement in the not too distant future).

  13. Steven says:

    Soccer is not big in America, it is HUGE. US television networks pay more for WC rights than any other country in the world. Fox and Telemundo (NBC/Universal) just paid nearly a billion dollars for the rights to the ’18 and ’22 cups. NBC/Universal also just paid tens of millions for MLS and Disney have already invested hundreds of millions in rights fees for world cups, MLS, and USMNT games. That’s well over a billion dollars invested by 3 of the 4 major media conglomerates in soccer in just the past few years.

    Why?

    Soccer is very popular among two explosive demographics. First, Millennials. Millennials (ages 10-30) are the largest generational cohort in American history (85 million). Many of them have played soccer and they are interested in televised soccer. A yougov poll during the last world cup found a third of millennials reporting that they were following the cup (almost 30 million people). Only 40% reported not following it at all, a number similar to other sports, excepting NFL and the Olympics. These figures reflected roughly twice the interest of older generations. When it comes to media buys, the youth market rules. The income-bracket demographics of Millennial soccer viewers are also very attractive.

    Second, Latinos. The United States has over 40 million Spanish-speaking residents, more than any other country in the world except Mexico. Yes, more than Spain. And that number is growing.The #1 sport for the vast majority of that population is soccer. There are at least half a dozen networks that broadcast soccer in Spanish, including Fox, Disney, and NBC-owned outlets.

    Audiences for televised soccer may seem small, numbering in the hundreds of thousands and breaking into the millions occasionally, but those numbers are quite comparable to regular season cable telecasts of NBA, MLB, NHL, and NCAAB games. The difference is that soccer’s tv audiences are continually trending up while the others are stagnant or even contracting. Big media is placing big bets on soccer and the reason is that they are looking at the numbers and the numbers all add up.

    • CTBlues says:

      I just can’t wait to see FOX ruin the WC with their awful sports coverage! It’s going to be awesome to have Joe Buck and Troy Aikman annoucing all the big matches and have Tony Siragusa on the sidelines. Pre, half, and post game showes with Curt Menefee and Eric Wynalda will so informative.

  14. Guy says:

    Gaffer, I’m not sure what “big” means, but I would agree that soccer has at least reached a stage in the U.S. where it is firmly established. I think the building of soccer-purpose stadiums in the MLS has been a huge step in that process. Inarguably, TV coverage of many leagues has become standard fare and continues to expand. This morning Sports Center had a nice piece on the MLS playoffs, no snickering, and a post-match interview with Becks. Things can only get better.

    I closely follow three sports….college football, soccer (EPL) and rugby union. There is more coverage than I can handle, so I’m fine with where soccer is right now. I’ll leave the BIG definition to others.

  15. Nick says:

    Thanks for the article. Fox soccer grows at over 60% a year. The trend is more important than where soccer is on this day, and the trend is a sharp upward curve. I grew up in the 70s and there was no soccer on TV. Now on cable there are multiple soccer networks! In addition there is ESPN3 and Foxsoccer.tv, so I can gorge on soccer. Every morning I religiously listen to the Football show on XM/Sirius 207, which with a live feed from SportTalk in London means my nights and days are filled with watching and listening to soccer– even in my car. I think the 11 minutes of action in NFL is the most important. Once you get into soccer, it’s hard to watch an NFL game, because of the avalanche of commercials. Some Americans say soccer is boring, that’s because they are not rooting for a team. Once you are a fan of a particular team, the games have meaning– you want your team to win, and the team they are vying for a place in the standings with, is the team you want to see defeated on the weekend. When you root for your team in it is 90 minutes of tension and the goals are unlike scores in other sports as they are a combination of relief of the tension as well as the joy you get in other sports.

  16. D Dub says:

    I love soccer. i’m passionate about it. Have been for 35+ years. But…

    Yes, i’d agree “Big is subjective.”

    But No. Soccer is just not big in the united states. Sure there are improving but relative to “big” sports in the states tv numbers are paltry. Interest outside of urban areas, like rural america, is pretty low. I mean in terms of viewers of NBA, NFL and even baseball (which i loathe) MLS doesn’t compare. They do vastly bigger tv numbers, vastly bigger merchandising sales, vastly bigger advertising revenue. Kids playing isn’t proof it’s popular outside of kids playing. Hell China is full of bike riders. It doesn’t mean the Tour De France is big in China or they’ll have the next great cyclists. Knowing how many minutes a ball is in play in American football be it 11 or 12 or whatever does not make soccer big. That fact is irrelevant. It’s may be interesting. Doesn’t make soccer big. I still love it. But I long ago stopped trying to evangelize like the christian right on behalf of “soccer.” I don’t care what other people say. I don’t care if they watch. I don’t care if they think it’s big or small. It’s enough for me that i can watch and enjoy a game. They don’t need to like it or watch it. I don’t need people to like what i like.

    Soccer as a spectator sport has made great strides no doubt. It’s much more popular and accepted then it has been in a long time. The internet has allowed for much more exposure the global nature of the game and leagues beyond we ever could have seen live or in highlights before. But that progress does not remotely put it on par with the big sports in this country like college football, NFL, NBA.

    So the next time someone says “soccer is not big in the U.S.” I’m not going to argue with them. I’m not going to debate them. I’m not going to “enlighten” them. I’ll just go “uh huh” and carry on with my own business. And go back to drinking my beer and talking to friends. Because i’m concerned with me. I don’t care what someone else thinks.

  17. Shaun says:

    You forgot to mention GolTV, among others. I live in NYC, and I subscribe to most of the International packages that my cable provider offers. I get to watch most Italian matches on RAI, and I can see some Spanish games on TVE using the Spanish package. Hell, even the 2009 and 2011 CL Finals, respectively, both had more US viewers than the Superbowl and “World” Series in baseball. Not sure if this is an accurate statistic, but it is what I have read on various websites throughout the web.

    So it’s not just Fox or ESPN that is carrying the mantle for soccer’s growth in America. But, of course, heaven forbid you mention anything that doesn’t have to do with the EPL.

  18. Aaron says:

    I wouldn’t mind if soccer never gets big in America… I like the current cult following it has.

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