“Soccer is the sport of the future.” We’ve been hearing this sentiment in the United States for nearly five decades now.
From the all-too-fleeting glory of the original North American Soccer League and the explosion of youth soccer in the 1970s, up to the present day, the sport has perpetually been perched on the edge of mainstream status in minds of US media and sports fans. But in reality, soccer has cemented itself as one of the biggest sports in the country for some time now.
When the status of soccer as a major sport in the US is brought up, it’s usually through the lens of the successes and failures of our domestic league(s), primarily Major League Soccer, and to a somewhat lesser extent the US men’s national team. That may make sense in a vacuum, but soccer doesn’t exist in one.
Unlike the “Big 4” sports – the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL – MLS is not the biggest league in the world in its sport. The aforementioned four are indisputably home to the best teams, best players, and best infrastructure on the planet in their respective sports. MLS is undoubtedly the best pro soccer league the US has ever seen, with a high level of play and attendance comparable to, and higher than in some cases, MLB, NBA and NHL teams . But it is easily outclassed on the field by numerous European and South American leagues, as well as Mexico’s Liga MX.
On the international side of things, while the US women are four-time World Cup champions and have been incredibly successful, the men on the other hand are a historically middling side. They (usually) qualify for the World Cup out of a relatively weaker confederation, but rarely make significant progress in the tournament.
The reality that our domestic soccer product is not the best in the world is the main contributing factor to the culture of dismissal that permeates the media and general population of sports fans. But if you look at the popularity of the sport overall in the US, there is no doubt soccer is here – and it resides near the top of many sports fans minds.
Here are six reasons why soccer is the sport of now, not the future:
1. Soccer is already ahead of hockey
Even by the standard metrics of attendance, viewership, and polled popularity, soccer is ahead of the NHL – and nearly as popular as baseball.
When it comes to the sport’s accessibly and participation, soccer blows ice hockey out of the (frozen) water. Hockey requires hundreds of dollars in specialized equipment to play, and dedicated facilities to play in (even for the roller hockey variation). Soccer, on a basic level, requires nothing but a ball.
If you dig deeper into demographics, the average age of soccer fans skews younger compared to hockey and other traditional American sports.
2. Youth movement is huge for the sport
According to research, professional soccer is the 2nd most popular sport amongst those aged 12-24, behind only the NFL.
As these fans grow up with the game – which for over a decade now has included easy access to almost every game featuring the best players and leagues in the world on TV and via streaming – soccer will only continue to rise in popularity.
Kids from 6-17 years old make up about 11% of the Premier League audience on NBC, compared to 4.6% of the World Series audience.
The FIFA video game series has also no doubt factored into the cementing of soccer into the public consciousness. The popular game has introduced millions of people to leagues, teams and players from all over the world, often at a young age.
3. Soccer features a melting pot culture
The US has always been a mixture of peoples and cultures from all over the world, so it’s not surprising that the world’s most popular sport would have a foothold here. But in the 21st century it goes far beyond the local ethnic leagues and teams that sustained the game in the USA through much of the 1900s.
Amongst hispanics in the US, soccer is far and away the #1 sport of choice. Leagues such as LaLiga and Liga MX have dominated Spanish-language TV ratings for years. And more recently, leagues such as the Argentine Primera and Brasileirão have secured English-language streaming deals, making every match available in the US for the first time ever.
4. Soccer is still growing fast
Recent reports show that soccer, while very much entrenched in the lives of many Americans for years, is still on an upward trend.
As of 2019, 52% more adults considered themselves soccer fans compared to just 7 years prior in 2012. In that same span, gridiron football saw a 7% decline in fans (perhaps due in part to the fact that in American football the ball is actually in play for only around 11 minutes during a game, while soccer sees around 55 of the 90 scheduled minutes with the ball actively in play).
5. Soccer is a money maker
Soccer is a massive business throughout the world, and the USA is a big cog in that machine.
In addition to our domestic professional men’s and women’s leagues and international teams, huge US media rights deals in recent years for big European leagues have earned those competitions hundreds of millions in revenue.
The American soccer fan looms large in the minds of many soccer executives around the world, as the USA is a key market for broadcasting, branding, and off-season tours. The global revenue for soccer was over $40 billion in 2019, twice what the NFL took in.
6. Fútbol is a really, really big deal
Over half the population of the entire planet watched the World Cup in 2018, and surely the 2022 edition will pull similar numbers.
Amongst Hispanics in the US, having their country win the World Cup polled as the second most important event in their lives, just behind the birth of a child. And on the club side, the annual UEFA Champions League final is one of the most watched events – far outpacing the American NFL Super Bowl. The 2021 UCL final drew in 700 million viewers worldwide, while the Super Bowl that year pulled 112 million.
While you still may not hear much about soccer on your local TV news report or sports radio talk show, there’s no doubt the sport is as important as any in the USA. Just count the jerseys the next time you visit your local mall. Count the fans packed into stadiums each summer for big name friendlies and international tournaments. Count the millions of viewers who watch the plethora of soccer that is available live almost every day of the year in this country.
The 1994 World Cup was the beginning of soccer’s revival in the United States. World Cup 2026 will surely be the definitive statement to the world that its game is as beloved on these shores, if not more, than anywhere else.
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