It is well-known that football and the American people haven’t always been compatible with one another. From the popularity of traditional US sports, their calling the beautiful game “soccer” and American’s inability to effectively grasp the rules, most non-Americans find it amusing when they hear the words “soccer” and “America” in the same sentence. That said, many will be surprised to learn just how much soccer is increasingly in vogue in the US right now.
A recently-released Gallup survey found that 7% of Americans named soccer as their favourite sport to watch. While that may not sound like much, the figure represents a significant, 3% hike from just four years ago. Soccer is the only sport to display such a relatively hefty rise. It appears soccer is trending in only one direction and it is very likely that it will surpass baseball in this survey the next time such a poll is taken.
More striking are the demographics behind those figures. Only 1% of those polled aged 55 or over named soccer as their preference. But among adults aged 18-34, soccer was the favourite sport of 11%, tying with basketball. These encouraging numbers for soccer are even more potent given they came in a year when the U.S. national team embarrassingly failed to qualify for the World Cup just passed for the first time since 1986.
Qualification is however guaranteed in 2026 as the World Cup comes to North America, with the US sharing hosting duties with Canada and Mexico. That year will mark the 30th anniversary of the first Major League Soccer (MLS) season and the progress since then has been both staggering and laudable.
From an initial 10 teams, 23 clubs now compete with attendances rising sharply in the intervening period. The MLS experienced financial and operational struggles in its first few years: The league lost millions of dollars, teams played in mostly empty American football stadiums, and two teams folded in 2002. However, the impressive performance by the US national team in that year’s World Cup resurrected interest in the league and it has gone from strength to strength ever since.
The league plans to expand to 26 teams and there are further plans to expand to 28 teams by 2022. The average attendance of 21,692 in 2016 was a 57% increase over the 13,756 average in 2000. MLS now has the third highest average attendance of any sports league in the U.S. after the National Football League and Major League Baseball and is the seventh highest attended professional soccer league worldwide.
The rise in average attendance only looks to be heading one way. Just this March, in only its second season, Atlanta United broke the MLS attendance record as nearly 72,000 spectators watched them defeat DC United. Smart scheduling has also boosted television viewing figures. By running the season from March to December, MLS avoids competing for ratings with the meaty part of the NFL season.
As can be seen with the Ryder Cup, Americans are fiercely patriotic beings. With American football and baseball being domestic sports, soccer is best-placed to provide a platform for Americans to celebrate sporting success on an international stage and this means soccer is becoming more and more so, “The People’s Game.”
The now seemingly annual foray of Europe’s elite clubs to the US in the summertime is indicative of a country that is increasingly determined to get its soccer fix. Indeed, the 2014 meeting between Manchester United and Real Madrid in Michigan drew a record 109,318 attendance for a stateside soccer game. The Manchester United versus Liverpool game this summer attracted close to 102,000 and only slightly less were present for the Barcelona versus Real Madrid match the year previous.
La Liga recently announced that Barcelona and Girona will contest the first competitive match of any European league outside of the home country when they face off in Miami in January. And if recent crowds are anything to go by, tickets will not be a hard sell. The very concept of staging league games in the US would have been ridiculed even five years ago but such has been the rapid rise in soccer’s popularity stateside, that it is a rare league chief executive who isn’t at least entertaining the decision of copying La Liga.
The acquisition of TV rights by Sky Sports a couple of years also gave credibility to the view that the MLS is now a league to be taken seriously. Up until a few years ago, MLS was scoffed at by aficionados of the major European leagues. And while it is true that the quality on display is significantly inferior to that in say, Spain or Italy, it would be somewhat insolent to scoff at the standard. Big name players who finish their careers in the MLS nowadays have more left in the tank than their counterparts of previous generations. Pele, George Best and Franz Beckenbauer were washed-up has-beens by the time America came calling.
In contrast, David Beckham and Robbie Keane were captaining their countries whilst playing for LA Galaxy. Of more relevance is the fact that none of the 23 teams have fewer than nine internationally-capped players. League One in England does not even come close to matching this strike rate. Unlike, the higher leagues in England, the third tier does not even observe the international break because so few of its clubs are missing players out on national team duty. Soccer is riding the crest of a wave stateside and unquestionably, the football world looks to be the better for it.
By Neil Stokes – Sports Writer