For years, decades even, American soccer fans have been promising that a moment or a tournament would be the year that soccer finally becomes a mainstream American sport just like football, baseball, or basketball. These American soccer fans have pointed to changing demographics and growing global presence of the game. They also point to a quickly growing MLS and the amount of money spent to acquire the rights to the Premier League. Yet the Landon Donovan goal versus Algeria, nor the myriad of successes by the women’s national team has moved soccer into the regular top spots on SportsCenter or the front page of the news sites.
Despite all this, believe me when I say that the 2014 World Cup will be the moment soccer becomes a mainstream American sport.
Set aside the usual arguments and focus for a moment on the tournament itself. This World Cup has had everything to dispel the myths of boring European soccer. For every poor dive that gets the focus of the media, you have a counter of officiating that is exemplary and not falling for acting. Last Sunday’s, late winner for Switzerland against Ecuador was a perfect example. The Swiss played through an obvious foul and the referee allowed to play on for an incredible goal. Scoring is constant and draws are almost nonexistent, which we soccer fans know can be an anomaly, but is good to attract casual fans. Few teams are simply sitting back and playing negative soccer; teams are going for all three points and the matches are exciting.
I did an interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston and have spoken to a number different people who are not soccer fans. During these interviews, we spent more time talking positively about the sport than negatively. The most anti-soccer fans have admitted to me that this World Cup could get them interested in the game overall and they may be eager to watch other matches on TV. Granted this is a small sample of anecdotes, but I suspect that other soccer fans have had similar conversations since the start of the cup.
Is this sustainable? Here is where the demographic argument comes in. Yes the country is becoming more diverse and what is driving that diversity are nationalities that historically watch soccer. While soccer is growing stateside, the NFL is weakening and this could drive long-term change. The concussion issue in football is slowly eroding its support (emphasis on slowly) but it may be the next generation that truly overthrows football. In an NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll conducted right before the Super Bowl, 40% of Americans said they don’t want their children to play American football. While this is not a majority, it is a huge plurality and for respondents in the higher income bracket, the percentage is near fifty-fifty. If fewer American children are playing American football (and we know children’s participation rate in soccer is already high), then American football might slowly fall out of favor with the sports viewing public.
To accelerate this process, there must be a few things that happen in the World Cup. The United States has to advance from the group stage and make a serious run at the trophy. This may be a near impossible ask, but it would accelerate the sports popularity even more. More likely the tournament needs to continue producing memorable, exciting matches that captivate the casual viewers’ attention and make them want to watch even more. If soccer attracts more viewers, and demographics with youth sports drive attention toward this sport, we may look back on World Cup 2014 as the moment soccer truly arrived in the United States.