Why The World Cup Will Make Soccer Mainstream

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.

26 thoughts on “Why The World Cup Will Make Soccer Mainstream”

  1. We are not going to convert the non-soccer fans for the most part. This tournament will not make soccer mainstream.

    What very well may happen is that soccer becomes mainstream as a new generation of sports fans take root in the next 10-20 years. While there are only a few other soccer fans i know in their 20s, many teenage sports fans i know are at least interested in soccer and know players like Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney, Ibrahimovic, Neymar, Bale etc.

    As that generation starts to take root i can see soccer becoming a semi-mainstream sport. Problem is MLS is so bad and shows no signs of getting better, so the only good soccer will still probably be overseas for quite a long time at least (unless the less financially restrictive NASL somehow takes flight and overshadows MLS–not extremely likely).

    1. Why do people keep knocking MLS. It is terrific league with many quality players. When it comes to the Premier league there are only 4 or 5 teams with a change to win it. I have season tickets to both the New York Red Bulls and New Jersey Devils but prefer going to Red Bull games. I see stars like Henry and Cahill. Plus I love soccer and watch it live every chance I get. The NHL has become boring to me and my only reason for continuing season tickets with the Devils is because of the friends I have. Support the domestic league or else soccer will not develop in the US.

      1. People knock MLS because it’s a poor product. American’s love soccer, they love the World Cup and they love the EPL (thank you NBC), but MLS is horrid, and it will remain horrid until they start offering real salaries. You get what you pay for and when most of your players make less than I do at my office job you’ll get crap. If America wants to boost it they need to pump money in. $45k average salary needs to be closer to $200k. It’ll be nothing compared to NHL salaries (which is the lowest major in the country besides MLS) but still high enough to attain some decent talent. The structure of the league is there, but the talent is not, and won’t be.

  2. Football… WILL be a top three sport within the next five years


    Because finally you will have broadcasters that take it seriously and do it at the highest level.. Before USA broadcasts were jokey at best… Now you can get the same quality as the domestic international feeds..this is why others sports are are scared of soccer.. That with the immigrant population.. It’s a matter of time

    1. “All immigrants (read: brown people) love soccer” is the new “all Asian people love karate.”

      Your point on broadcasting would have more merit if FOX Sports wasn’t so intent on making Gus Johnson their voice of soccer.

    2. I 100% agree with you. Media was the problem not the polarity. Since the 1960s soccer has been the number participation sport in the US, but got hardly any coverage in the media. That is why many American’s interest didn’t carrying on into adulthood because they never saw the game in the mainstream media. The US networks spent so much money on TV contracts for the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB that they didn’t soccer any coverage.

      NBC was the first network to give soccer the same billing as the US sports with their EPL coverage and it delivered in ratings where some early morning games got bigger ratings than MLB. This was the tipping point because US networks are going to treat soccer with respect as it is the fasting growing sport of young Americans.

      With better media coverage more Americans will understand the game and once that happens it will be at least the number 2 sport because it is already number 2 for Americans under-25.

      The same thing happened in Japan 10 years ago. Baseball used to be the number 1 sport, then the Japanese started to understand the game of soccer and it took over as the most popular sport.

  3. It’s soccer already mainstream if Baseball is mainstream? Didn’t many EPL games get more viewers than MLB games in the US?

    People around the world don’t think Americans like soccer and there is this old generation of Americans who grew up when soccer got no coverage in the US media, who still think it is a minor sport in the US and attack it as being boring because soccer was viewed as an unAmerican sport.

    There is a new generation of Americans who love the sport and are highly informed because they play the FIFA videogames, have grown up with soccer more in the US mainstream media, have a domestic league with the best atmosphere in American sport and soccer is viewed as cooler than the old fashioned American sports their parents love. For Americans under 25 soccer is the 2nd most popular sport to watch and play. Soccer is the of sport young Americans because the internet has made Americans less insular. The English Premier League now gets higher viewing figures than major league baseball on American television and the only sport that gets better viewers than the World Cup is the Superbowl so it is a myth that soccer is less popular than all the major US sports. More people attend MLS games than NBA, MLB and NHL games. It is just US networks have invested so much more money in the traditional American sports compared to soccer, it is in their interest to make soccer look like a minor sport.

    The US team will have the most fans at the world cup and they now have a fan culture with chants, which only came about within the last 10 years. This fan culture is what going to grow the sport in America because it is far more authentic than other American sports.

    ESPN had record numbers for soccer game in America. I think the US has finally become a football nation because too many people watch soccer live and on TV for it to be a minor sport.

    I just find the irony great. In the US soccer was attacked for being an un-American sport, but it is the one sport Americans can express their patriotism most vehemently. This is why soccer is the best game in the world.

    1. The stat about higher attendance for MLS than NBA and NHL is somewhat bogus. MLS teams basically hand out large numbers of tickets to corporate groups, many of which dont even get used but still count toward “attendance”. PPL Park is usually almost empty save for the end where the fan club congregates.

    2. As Flyvanescence said, the MLS attendance figures are a red herring. Like all the ‘major’ leagues in the US, MLS counts attendance based on tickets sold (or distributed), as opposed to butts in seats. So if only 5,000 people show up to a game — sup, Chivas USA? — but the club has sold or given out 10,000 tickets, then they’ll publish the latter number.

      In terms of raw numbers, America does have more soccer fans than some of the traditional European powers have people. I just think the US gets a bad rap as a football nation from from Europe (and elsewhere), because it’s still a second-tier sport compared to baseball, football, and basketball, whereas it’s considered the national game almost everywhere else.

      1. What makes you think that doesn’t happen in other leagues? MLS did not invent attendance inflation.

        More than one former NHL GM has gone on record stating that attendance numbers went bast him before being announced. Conversations often went like this:

        “Hey boss, tonight’s attendance is 12,486.”
        “Looks more like 16,000 to me.”
        “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight’s attendance is 16,486!”


  4. Not going to happen the WC is much like the Olympics. the diehard fans will follow but the average fan will check out for another 4 years. Just remember in four years we will have fox coverage and we all know how they feel about the fan. If the US lost to Ghana this story is not written. Enjoy it and don’t worry about things you can not control.

  5. Soccer is already as popular as hockey in the US. There has been a Big 5 for awhile now. The problem is the mainstream sports media is out of touch. There’s also an inherent reluctance in the US to find interest in anything which happens on foreign soil. That’s why the success of MLS, and I’m talking tv ratings, not just attendance, and the rise of a US star who is not only exciting on the pitch but charismatic off it, is key.

  6. More average Americans could probably name European football players than they could MLS players. If the USA embraces the top leagues around the world as the centerpiece for soccer, the way the rest of the world accepts the NBA as the top basketball league, then the sport will grow and become more popular. I don’t see MLS ever becoming as popular as the NFL, MLB or NBA.

  7. There was an error in your headline. Fixed it below:

    “Why The World Cup Will Make Football Mainstream.”

  8. Not only does the MLS support has to get better but also more support of other leagues. once beIN sports starts to erode, hopefully NBC can swoop in and do for other leagues what they are doing for the EPL and get better exposure

  9. A co-worker commented to me that the US public/people love big events (Olympics, WC, etc). If it’s being played in the US they will go, if it’s on TV many non fans will watch especially if the USA is doing well.

    But once the event is over, the average non soccer (football) person won’t watch league or “regular” games. If a big International team comes to play in the US, people will go, as it’s a special event.

    The co-worker who said this to me is not a Soccer fan, but he said he will watch when the USA plays, probably when Brazil and Argentina play and the final.

    After that he won’t start watching soccer.

    Many of my co-workers (non Latin) feel the same. Don’t know if this is the view of “Main Street” USA.

  10. In order for soccer to be a mainstream sport in this country, you need a league that is popular. The MLS isn’t it. I doubt if it ever will be. Therefore, soccer will be watched by the masses during special events, like the World Cup, Euros, Concacaf, etc.

    More people are aware of where the top players, like Messi and Ronaldo play, so they’ll watch on special occasions when these star players are on show. Americans love sports stars who are the best in their sport. Until there is one who is an American, soccer will not become mainstream. It’s popularity may grow some but it will be far from a mainstream sport until there is an American star on show. And he has to be as good as the best in the world.

  11. One thing that will help is if more teams in CONCACAF were better and well known you would have another major tournament besides the WC that Americans would get into. That is why I think CONCACAF should be made up of Canada, US, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean and then join with CONMEBOL. I can’t wait to see the viewing numbers for Centennial Copa America in 2016.

  12. I’ve always wondered why people care so much about whether soccer is mainstream or not. It’s already mainstream enough to see every second of every EPL game and all the La Liga, MLS, Serie A, League Un, Liga Mx, etc. that I could every want.

    That being said, I think there are some positives about this world cup, but we shouldn’t get too excited just because our co-workers all filled out brackets.

    Some of it is demographical and it will take time. I’m not talking about immigrants. We’ve always had immigrants in the United States. What’s different now as compared to when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s is that kids who played soccer growing up can also WATCH soccer on TV. When I was a kid in the 80s, lots of kids played soccer, but there weren’t any Manchester United fans. They vaguely knew who Pele was, but soccer wasn’t on TV and it wasn’t really feasible to be a soccer FAN. That is SO different now. Kids play soccer on Saturday morning and can watch soccer all weekend. They wear shirts to school. That NEVER happened in the 80s. Now kids will have an outlet for soccer as they age and don’t play as much.

    The other factor is that new fans still have to get over that hurdle of, “What do I watch next?” Soccer is baffling for the uninitiated. There’s just so much stuff on TV. I became a fan as an adult via the World Cup route, just like this article hopes. There are only so many hours in the day. What do you watch? I pretty quickly latched onto Manchester United because I really liked that Rooney kid (weird, huh?). But, even then, I had to figure out the differences between “league play” and “European games” and was the League Cup different from the FA Cup and what the hell is this Community Shield and the Club World Cup? For someone coming in from watching NBA/NFL/MLB, it is a lot to learn. It is possible to learn and I did (Thanks Wikipedia!), but you have to work for it a little bit.

    So, anyway…..I think we’ll get there. The sport is good. The things that excite us will excite everyone else. I just wish “we” didn’t sound like we needed to have our fandom validated by everyone else liking what we watch on TV.

  13. Even with the massive accessibility to soccer in the US now it will never be mainstream when you can’t even see the national teams World Cup games on free tv. To me that is a shocking scandal. By all means let’s show Algeria and South Korea on ABC, but put U.S. and Portugal on ESPN in order not to disrupt the news or America’s Funniest Videos.

    Could you imagine that in England? Germany? Brazil? Italy and so forth?

  14. Think the story is an old one. That is its last years headline. The real question is now that soccer has entered the mainstream of American sports how does it stay there. How does it avoid the downward slope that you have seen with MLB, NASCAR, and may be just may be the NFL if off the field issues and injury concerns begin to erode the interest.

    Part of the effort must include getting the biggest stars on the tv screens of American mainstream tv regularly. NBC, ESPN, ABC, NBCSC, & FOX etc. must give the US viewer the likes of Messi, Rooney, & Ronaldo each week. The best teams need to be shown each week on US mainstream TV. MLS has to have more players with names known to the American public. Bringing a big name player in the prime of his playing days becomes critical soon! Keep American stars of the World Cup playing the MLS ie: Dempsey and Bradley.

      1. Why would u want World cup games to prempt programming from local affiliates?? Thats not gonna happen thats why its on Cable during the week

  15. Just curious. How can the major networks make money from Soccer on TV if there are really no chances for commercials during the game? I think that is why MLS jerseys have advertising on them because that is one of the few chances for revenue.

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