Everyone under the age of 35 in America has played soccer.
So why is it a surprise that the sport is popular?
Television executives, and soccer aficionados, still have reason to be ecstatic. So what is causing the jump? First, you must give ESPN its due. The network poured more money into its World Cup marketing campaign…than it had for any other single event in the network's history. "For the casual sports fan, ESPN is a gauge of what's important," says Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "And if you have arguably the number one sports brand telling you this is important, the numbers are going to trend in a higher direction."
That was Time Magazine discussing the incredible ratings of the World Cup. The last World Cup. That hasn’t stopped nearly every newspaper and website in this country to write some variation of the “Is soccer going mainstream?” article.
These discussions obscure the fact that soccer has been mainstream in the United States for the past three decades.
If you’re under 35, think about your childhood. You certainly played soccer, whether it was for a team or in gym class. Soccer is the easiest sport to start playing. All you need is a ball and something to mark off goals. That’s it.
While the sport is far more complex and intricate than simply kicking the ball around – that’s all it is when your six years old. It’s the perfect starter sport. There isn’t a mountain of rules like in baseball. You don’t need to change the dimensions like in basketball. It’s just grass and a ball.
I remember as a child in elementary school playing for a town soccer team in eastern Connecticut and showing up to tournaments where there would be dozens of games going on at the same time – hundreds upon hundreds of children playing soccer and their families watching. Does it get any more mainstream than that? Does it get any more American than that?
In a Wall Street Journal article on the decline of organized youth sports, it found that close to 7 million kids were on organized soccer teams. That figure was twice as much as football, a million more than baseball and neck and neck with basketball.
The “mainstream” narrative around soccer that pops up every four years around the World Cup ignores, well, just about everything. The success of this World Cup has been impressive, but the 1994 World Cup Final and the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final held viewership records for nearly two decades. The popularity of soccer is not a new phenomenon – even the success of the U.S. Men’s National Team is not that new, considering it made the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002.
The “America doesn’t like soccer” meme has been driven by a generation of baby boomers and their parents who held disdain for the sport. One of the more interesting theories floated about this came from George Vescey, who chronicled his World Cup coverage in a new book.
From a Grantland article on Vescey and the book:
Anti-soccer sentiment among his generation, the children of World War II, wasn’t because they didn’t know Europe. It was because they knew Europe too well: “A fear of mobs and stomping boots in the generation that was young during World War II and the Holocaust and the Cold War and nuclear proliferation.”
Today’s generation – people like myself, at age 32, and younger – are two generations removed from World War II. We have little, if any, memories of the Cold War or hating everything foreign, like fear mongers such as Ann Coulter want us to. There is nothing about the European or South American-style of the sport that is off-putting to us.
The World Cup ratings were a perfect storm of American success but should not have been a surprise. We have already seen the success of soccer in America. The Premier League has being doing fantastic ratings as part of NBCSN’s gamble on European sports. Fox has leveraged the Champions League to produce some of the best Fox Sports 1 ratings in its short history.
Likewise, Major League Soccer has finally showed signs of becoming a major American sport. The league just signed a landmark deal with ESPN and Fox for its television rights. It’s not in the vicinity of other major sports, but it has graduated from its niche sport status.
The growth of MLS and the explosion of club football on American television is why the rising tide of soccer has finally hit the shores of the mainstream media.
For kids of the 1980’s, soccer was not a viable option for a professional sporting career. If you were an exceptional athlete, unless you loved soccer with an unhealthy devotion, there were better options. You could not play soccer professionally in the United States. Top European leagues ignored U.S. talent. Unless you were one of the very, very best and competing for a National Team spot, soccer was not a smart pursuit.
Likewise, it was exceedingly difficult to be a soccer fan in the United States and watch soccer until recently. Even though the Fox Soccer Channel existed for a decade, it only reached nationwide clearance in its last couple of years before Fox killed it. NBCSN didn’t exist five years ago. Bein Sport – another new edition – has only been available in the United States for a couple of years, giving soccer nuts the ability to watch La Liga and Ligue 1 every week. Fox Sports recently acquired the rights to the Bundesliga.
Now, the game has changed.
If you want to play the game, you now have options domestically. If you want to watch the game, you now have options on your cable box.
Soccer has been mainstream for years. The mainstream media finally figured it out.
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