For the last few decades, hardcore soccer fans in the United States have been trying to tell people that soccer is “going to take off in a few years” in the country.
“It’s on its way up!”
If hosting the World Cup in 1994 introduced the game to the United States (in a sense), then the 2014 World Cup stormed into the room, making its presence known.
But after the United States Men’s National Team’s performance in the World Cup filled stadiums and almost any public space that can fit a projector and a screen, those fans declaring the rise of the sport may be right. Through the World Cup semifinals, about 115 million people tuned in to ESPN to watch the games.
About 17.3 million people watched the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina on ABC and 18.2 million people watched the USMNT’s group stage match against Portugal with another 10 million more streaming the game online.
“You can see everything coming together” -David Waldstein
Last year, over nine million people watched the first five weeks of the Barclays Premier League last year on NBC Sports Network, over double the total in the same span in 2012 and the BPL’s opening day this year was one of the most anticipated season openers of the year (the NFL kickoff is the most anticipated as usual.)
It won’t overtake the NFL or the NBA at any time, however you can’t go anywhere without passing a bar that is showing a Barclays Premier League game in the mornings on weekends or that will show a USMNT game with the friendlies coming up. You will see more people in soccer jerseys, more people on the soccer fields playing and more people going to games in general.
According to Sean Brown, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard who’s studied the sociology of sports, the attitude of the US press changed “from ‘this is an event that no-one cares about’ to ‘this is an event we kinda care about.”
“This is finally the moment that soccer is making it; this is the tipping point,” he added.
During this summer’s Guinness International Champions Cup, Manchester United drew over 300,000 fans in just their first four games, including drawing a record 109,318 fans at Michigan Stadium earlier this month against Real Madrid.
It’s not just the interest in the international game that has gone up as more fans begin to watch the Barclays Premier League here in the United States on NBC Sports Network and NBC itself. Major League Soccer has enjoyed a boost of interest as well.
“You can see everything coming together,” journalist David Waldstein said. He adds that if inner-city kids begin to play soccer that “the US will dominate. Be one of the top four countries in the world.”
Over 64,000 people went to see Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin in Seattle in their MLS return against Portland in July. In fact, as of July, the Seattle Sounders have hosted six games with an attendance over 60,000.
MLS will see its 20th and 21st expansion team, New York City FC and Orlando, kick off in March 2015 with Atlanta joining in as the league’s 22nd team in 2017. There are also several options for a 23rd team with David Beckham’s group trying to land a stadium deal and USL PRO teams like Sacramento Republic FC looking to make the jump to MLS.
The league has also started an eight-year broadcasting deal with ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision that’s reported worth $90 million annually.
“This is finally the moment that soccer is making it; this is the tipping point.” -Sean Brown
With a new collective bargaining agreement coming next year, MLS clubs are expected to raise their $3.1 million salary cap next year, allowing MLS to attract more talent, instead of losing them to clubs overseas.
But where it matters most, as Waldstein kind of pointed to before, is in the youth.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, participation in high-school soccer has soared. Less than 50,000 kids played soccer in high school in the 1970’s, however around 410,000 boys and 370,000 girls played high school soccer in 2013. Membership in the United States Youth Soccer Association rose from 103,432 in 1974 to just over three million in 2012.
Will it become the top sport in America anytime soon? No. And it doesn’t need to be the “top” sport in order to gain respect. However, whether people want to admit it or not, the popularity of the sport is definitely on the rise.
Its time to start getting to know the new cool kids on the block.