Soccer is booming in the United States
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 US$600 million multiyear TV package with ESPN and Fox. Some 40% of MLS TV viewers are under 34, young by comparison with sports like baseball.
Measured by participation, soccer is already among the big four sports in America. Today, nearly 7 million kids under 18 are playing organised soccer in the United States, according to surveys by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. So we see that soccer is running neck and neck with basketball as America’s most popular sport. Baseball, with its long and exciting history, trails, with about 5.6 million organised players. Football lags well behind these three, with 3 million participants.
It is still very much an experiential sport and a sport of tradition vs a sport that is consistently strong in broadcast numbers in the US, but like hockey, the overall engagement across all platforms, especially for a younger soccer fan in the States, is more important than a Nielsen number. There is also the continuing challenge of converting the global fan of soccer to a fan of the American game and its MLS teams. That is a slow but evolving process, and one which the popularity of this World Cup will not change.
Thanks to Steven Malanga writing Grassroots Soccer Mania in City Journal and to Joe Favorito at www.joefavorito.com.