Every four years, as World Cup fever grips the United States, Americans ask whether this will be the year that soccer begins to rival our major professional sports—basketball, baseball, and especially football—in popularity. Just as predictably, a host of voices quickly reject that notion, arguing that the game known to the rest of the world as football will never approach comparable popularity here. Soccer’s just not interesting enough for Americans, they say. It lacks the “individual beau geste that marks truly American games,” as one former sportswriter recently put it in the Wall Street Journal. Statisticians pipe in, comparing the TV ratings and merchandise sales of professional soccer with those of the NFL—as ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight.com did before the tournament—to remind us how far soccer still has to go. And late-night comics have their say, as when Conan O’Brien observed that he couldn’t wait for the World Cup to be over, so that Americans could go back to hating soccer.
All this, however, vastly underestimates how popular soccer has become in the United States. More broadly, it misunderstands how cultural trends emerge and reshape society. A sport doesn’t grab the public from the top down, reflected first in TV ratings for those playing at elite levels. Like a political movement, a game gathers adherents from the bottom up, as a grassroots crusade. And at the grassroots level, soccer has sown impressive seeds in the last few decades.
Measured by participation, soccer is already among the big four sports in America. Today, nearly 7 million kids under 18 are playing organized soccer in the United States, according to surveys by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. In this regard, soccer is running neck and neck with basketball as America’s most popular sport. Baseball, with its long and glorious history, trails, with about 5.6 million organized players. Football lags well behind these three, with 3 million participants.
Soccer and basketball do so well, in part, because both appeal to girls in great numbers. Soccer, in particular, benefits from being a latecomer. It didn’t begin to approach the participation rates of the other major American sports until the mid-1990s—just as youth programs began reaching out to girls. Nearly as many girls play organized soccer today as boys. Meanwhile, football suffers from the opposite problem—few girls play it and now, with the sport’s well-chronicled concussion problems, the NFL is struggling to stem a decline in boys’ participation, too. And while involvement in youth sports today has leveled out in the U.S. and is declining among many sports (thanks to the rise of computer games and a general dwindling in physical activity among kids), soccer can still boast some recent gains, including a more than 7 percent increase in high school participation over the last five years. The sport’s growth potential remains strong.
None of this should be surprising to anyone who gets out to have a look. On any given Saturday and Sunday morning in the fall or spring, you’ll have little trouble finding youth soccer matches, whether you’re wandering the lots of urban immigrant communities or the tailored green fields of well-to-do suburbs. Many communities boast both recreational leagues—where local boys and girls compete against one another—and more serious teams, where players take on rivals from other towns.
But the numbers, charted over the decades, also tell us why this participation hasn’t yet produced the blockbuster TV ratings we see for the NFL. We are essentially only one generation into the emergence of soccer as a significant participatory sport in America. How long does it take for that to translate into rich media contracts and endorsement deals for players? Well, for one thing, learning to be loyal to a professional sports franchise filled with players with whom you have no personal connection isn’t easy. American football, for instance, was popular at the college and inter-scholastic levels long before the NFL broke through. The league, formed in 1922 with 18 franchises, most of which have since disappeared, struggled for decades to gain a popular foothold. Today, the NFL’s Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio, is a reminder of the league’s unstable birth—Canton was the site of one of the early NFL’s failed franchises.
Major League Soccer teams face a similar challenge: staying afloat long enough to create a tradition that kids playing the game today will embrace as adults. Talk to a fan of a pro baseball or football franchise, and they will probably tell you how they developed their rooting interest when a relative introduced them to the game. Something similar happens with soccer around the world. Listen to the opening words of English writer Nick Hornsby’s famous soccer (football) novel, Fever Pitch, and you’ll hear a familiar story: “I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically . . . just after my eleventh birthday, [when] my father asked me if I’d like to go with him to the FA Cup Final.” That generational dynamic hasn’t played out for soccer in the U.S.—not yet.
After several false starts at the professional level in the United States, soccer is making gains that reflect its grassroots popularity. Average match attendance in the MLS—founded in 1993 to fulfill an American commitment to create a professional league in exchange for hosting the 1994 World Cup—is now nearly 19,000, up from about 13,000 a decade ago. That might not sound like much compared with the NFL, but it’s more than the NBA and the NHL average per game and more than what a handful of major league baseball teams drew last year, too. The MLS Seattle Sounders, in fact, draw nearly twice as many fans per match as baseball’s Seattle Mariners. The MLS also sports a brand-new $600 million multiyear TV package with ESPN and Fox. Some 40 percent of MLS TV viewers are under 34, young by comparison with sports like baseball.
But charting soccer’s popularity by media deals and professional stadiums misses the point. The Nobel Prize-winning economist F. A. Hayek once wrote that man’s fatal conceit was to imagine he can discern and understand all the currents of society and organize them from the top down. But whether we’re talking policy, politics, or cultural trends, it’s still a bottom-up world—as the rise of soccer in America shows.