The sport of soccer in the United States is now one of the most popular, despite what you may hear or think.
Soccer is still a long ways behind the “Big 4” in North American sports, but those days may be numbered. According to a recent poll by ESPN, soccer is the second most popular sport among Americans ages 12-24, outstripping the MLB, NBA, and even College Football.
Now, Major League Soccer is still less popular than international soccer, but this trend is also changing. The study says 10 percent of all Americans ages 12+ are avid MLS fans, the highest level the league has ever reached, a long way since 2000 when the league really bottomed out with just 2.8% of Americans who were considered avid MLS fans and had the worst attendance numbers in their history, averaging about 13,700 fans per match.
“Soccer awareness in the United States grew drastically when the New York Cosmos brought over players like Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer to play in the United States. But when they left, soccer once again became irrelevant once again,” says Brazilian soccer star Zico. “Since that time, a new generation of players has made soccer relevant in the United States once again.”
Rich Luker, the 59-year-old social scientist who took the poll, also discovered that three soccer players — Lionel Messi (16th), David Beckham (20th), and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo (24th) — rank among the 50 most popular athletes in America.
NBA fans will be shocked to know that Lionel Messi (16th) ranks ahead of Miami Heat superstar, Dwyane Wade.
“I see the same amount of kids playing soccer in United States as I do in England,” says Fort Lauderdale Strikers forward, and England native, Mark Anderson. “The difference is that in the United States kids fade away [from soccer] as they get older.”
As a kid, soccer is the most popular sport you can play. You interact with kids, exercise and have fun. But as you grow older, soccer becomes the sport girls play and so kids in middle and high school fall into peer pressure and decide to stop playing soccer and opt for football instead.
For years, football had dominated the scene. Let’s be honest, nothing can compete with a Homecoming Football game. Nothing comes close to being more “manly” then men tackling each other.
However, the sporting tectonic plates are shifting. Due to America’s cultural diversification, increasingly globalized outlook, and widespread access to the Internet, soccer is being benefitted more than the other more traditional American sports.
You can easily go on YouTube and search for highlights of the latest European matches, or watch ESPN’s SportsCenter for highlights of European matches and even MLS.
“In the last two years, Americans have been exposed to elite soccer on a very regular basis, which has allowed us to appreciate the sport and develop a savvy about it in a way we could not before,” says Luker. “Based on the way it is trending, I believe global soccer [in the United States] will soon be four or five times bigger than it is today, and MLS’s fanbase will triple or quadruple.”
“Soccer is growing and has excelled to levels no one would have imagined in the States,” says Anderson.
This renaissance of soccer in the United States began in 2010 when the United States Men’s National Team exceeded expectations in the tournament when they tied powerhouse England, a game they were supposed to lose. By its match versus Slovania, interest had risen as the USMNT was robbed of a victory and had to settle for a 2-2 draw. It seemed as if fan support was at an all-time high.
In its third match in group stage, all sorts of television record were broken.
The match versus Algeria was the highest-rated and most-watched soccer game in the history of ESPN networks with 6,161,000 viewers. For the first time in the history of the United States, bars filled to standing room only as Americans watched Landon Donovan score the dramatic stoppage time goal to send the USMNT to the Round of 16 and their first group stage victory since 1930.
Excluding holidays, ESPN’s coverage of the U.S.-Algeria game ranks as the most-watched weekday morning telecast ever for ESPN.
“The 2010 World Cup boosted the interest of the common soccer fan to an all-time high,” explained Zico. “The world watched as Landon Donovan single-handily put US Soccer back on the map.”
Since 2010, soccer has taken a change for the better; Last year alone, MLS ranked third in attendance behind the NFL and MLB at 18,807 fans per game and in front of leagues like the NBA and the NHL.
This was the second consecutive year in which MLS has set new marks for attendance. Overall, the league average grew more than five percent, coming in at 18,807. This bettered the 2011 mark of 17,844 by nearly 1,000 fans per game.
MLS regular-season attendance in 2012 topped the 6 million mark for the first time ever, with a total of 6,074,729 fans. For the fourth year in a row, the Seattle Sounders averaged 43,144 fans per game – a league and team record.
Four other clubs averaged more than 20,000 fans per game, another league record. Eight clubs averaged more than 19,000 fans, up from five in 2011. MLS also finished seventh in global average attendance.
Its second division counterpart, the North American Soccer League, has also reached attendance highs this past season.
Regular season attendance for the North American Soccer League, the second division of soccer in the United States, increased from 3,779 in 2011 to 3,810 this past year, despite the Montreal Impact (who averaged over 11,500 fans) moving to MLS following the conclusion of the 2011 NASL season. The San Antonio Scorpions led the way this past season as the expansion franchise averaged 9,176 fans per game.
Despite the growth of soccer in the United States, MLS still does not get the coverage it deserves. However, Major League Soccer has accomplished great things since its 1996 Inaugural season.
In 2012 NBC Sports signed a three-year deal with MLS to nationally televise 40 matches per year. That isn’t a lot of coverage, but it’s better than nothing.
The problem with this deal is, only three regular season MLS matches are televised on NBC. The other 37 regular season matches are televised on NBC Sports Network, a paid channel not many people have.
To make soccer more relevant in the United States, MLS needs to have more homegrown players, and keep these players in the league for their entire careers.
“Recognition for college soccer needs to grow,” says former Chivas USA and current Fort Lauderdale Strikers defender Scott Gordon. “When you’re a kid, playing soccer in college isn’t as enticing as playing college football or college basketball.”
Why is that? Because, the biggest problem with making soccer an attractive option for American college kids is that, unlike most American sports where college athletics provide the best training environment for aspiring professional athletes, competition for spots on professional soccer teams comes from all over the world. And in foreign countries, the best players don’t go to college, they train in professional environments.
“There needs to be more incentives for soccer players to stay in the United States and play college soccer,” says Gordon, who played for Lynn University in Boca Raton before being drafted by FC Dallas.
Currently, soccer in the United States is like a rocket ship waiting to be launched. Almost all the pieces are in place, only thing missing are the fans. This new generation of kids will be the ones to launch soccer into the National eye, and make the sport one of the most popular in years to come.
“This new upcoming generation of young people is the key for soccer to succeed in America,” explained Zico. “What a player like Donovan has done for soccer in the United States is sensational,” added Zico, the Brazilian soccer legend that played most of his career for Flamengo. “He decided to come to MLS and help grow the sport and hasn’t left since he returned in 2001.”
“Twenty-five percent of Americans are avid NFL fans first and foremost, 14.4 percent are basketball fans, and MLB comes third with 13.9 percent,” says Luker.
Soccer’s avid fanbase is 10 percent, which does not sound like much until you realize that 10 percent is about 33 million people.
“Soccer is definitely growing in popularity in the United States,” says Gordon. “These kids have grown up playing soccer and now wear jerseys of players like Messi, and Ronaldo. When I was growing up, we never had that.”