Fans' View

Fans’ View: Has soccer “arrived” in the US?

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

For years, predictions have been made that soccer was set to be the next big thing in American sports, yet it never quite seemed to get over the hump for a variety of reasons. Professional leagues like the original North American Soccer League (NASL) folded, cynics pointed out that Americans couldn’t learn to love a sport with little scoring and games that could end in a 0-0 draw. Even the early years of Major League Soccer were a struggle, with financial troubles, ugly uniforms (Tampa Bay Mutiny, anyone?), and a perception that MLS was a retirement home for former international stars.

A lot has changed in recent years, and with the fervor surrounding this year’s USMNT and the World Cup, has soccer finally “arrived” in America? I believe it has.

US National Team (and beyond)

Clearly, the World Cup reels in the more casual fan, just like the Olympics do every few years. Like most Americans, I get sucked in by curling, beach volleyball, or modern pentathlon for a few weeks, then mostly ignore them for the other 3 years, 11 months, and 14 days until they return. Something feels different with soccer these days. Yes, the World Cup peaks interest – Jonathan Tannenwald’s article on this week broke down some impressive statistics. The USA versus Portugal game on Sunday averaged 18.2 million viewers on ESPN, another 6.5 million on Univision, and 500,000 who watched the game online. The ESPN tally makes the USA versus Portugal game the most viewed English language soccer broadcast in American history, and the 24.7 total viewers ties it with the 2010 World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain.

And we can’t underestimate the importance of having a competitive national team to watch now. The mentality has shifted –- we’ve gone from being happy to get out of CONCACAF qualifying to being stunned and heartbroken when we outplay Portugal for the better part of 90 minutes and end in a tie. I don’t believe that most Americans’ passion for soccer switches on and off as World Cups come and go any longer.  The beauty now is that there are plenty of options to fill the void between World Cup cycles, both domestically and abroad.

NBC, NBC Sports, and other NBC channels broadcast every single Premier League game each week. Can’t find the time on a Saturday morning? Those same games are available on demand, at your convenience. Champions League matches are easy to find on TV, and Bundesliga, Serie A, and La Liga games aren’t too far away with the right TV package. It’s getting pretty difficult to go out and about these days and not see a kid in a Real Madrid jersey, a group of friends at a bar watching the Merseyside Derby, or a local men’s league team wearing Borussia Dortmund or Chelsea jerseys. Americans, in the last few years, have continued to embrace leagues around the globe, and it is easier than ever to follow those teams and players.

MLS grows up

Major League Soccer has come a long way, and the league’s growth certainly is tied to an increased interest in soccer in the US. In recent years, the league has pulled in star players like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Tim Cahill, but more importantly, has become the home of many US internationals. When top talents like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey return home to play in MLS, and 5 of 11 USMNT starters in a World Cup game are from MLS, it’s a testament to a league that has clearly climbed in stature and quality.

As fans, we want to see the best players playing at the highest level. We’re privileged to be the home of the top professional leagues in baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. MLS certainly is not in the same stratosphere as the top European leagues, but it has become a league with talented international players, a nice mix of US national team players, and one that can serve as a launching pad to overseas opportunities for top talents (e.g. Geoff Cameron, Brek Shea).

MLS has also notably carved out its place alongside the “big four” with American fans. In 2013, MLS average attendance bested that of both the NBA and NHL. While MLS will never be the NFL, and television ratings for MLS games still lag behind, attendance across the league is evidence of a stable league with staying power. The vast majority of teams now have their own soccer specific stadiums. Expansion continues, with many teams being born (the Union) or elevated into MLS (Seattle, Orlando City) largely due to exceptional grassroots efforts from local supporters.

America: Soccer has arrived

  • Americans are attending and watching games with increasing frequency, and 2014 US World Cup games are among the most watched games ever
  • Our domestic league, MLS, is stable, financially sound, expanding, and delivering a much higher quality product
  • Games from MLS and major leagues around the world are readily available on major networks and soccer highlights regularly make SportsCenter
  • Youth soccer is alive and well, with only youth basketball exceeding soccer’s participation numbers nationwide
  • “Hashflags” are everywhere on Twitter these days, and social media feeds are full of World Cup chatter and support for the USMNT
  • We have a national team with the talent, coaching, and mentality to go toe-to-toe with anyone, a team no longer content to simply park the bus and exclusively looking to counterattack

Soccer is no longer the next big thing in the U.S. I believe it’s here.

One Comment

  1. Me, Grimlock says:

    I think the casual enthusiasm will die down a lot after the World Cup, as it usually does, but those NBC TV deals are definitely peaking peoples’ interests. Aside from playing, watching the EPL is how I really started following soccer 10-15 years ago. I just hope that the rise in popularity of the major foreign leagues translates to interest in the MLS. Over the last few years, I’ve had more than a few people tell me that they wouldn’t go to a Union game because it’s not like being at Anfield or Ibrox or Camp Nou or (take your pick). Well, yeah, I guess not. There is very little chance that they REALLY know what it’s like to be in attendance at those stadiums, anyway.

    I was once a Eurosnob. I still follow the EPL closely. When the Union came around, though, that was it for me…..a local team to watch live every other Saturday was, and still is, the bee’s knees. I’m hoping that the unprecedented access to soccer on TV still (eventually) gets people to PPL Park, and doesn’t keep them away from it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *