Call it soccer: the rise of the world’s game in the United States
While football and basketball continue to dominate the American sports market, soccer has slowly risen to popularity despite long-standing barriers.
Association football, or soccer, has been one of the world’s most popular sports for around a century. As of 2017, it is followed by around 3.5 billion people, or nearly half of the world. Soccer is the most popular for a plethora of reasons, but mostly because it is for anyone. Invented in England in 1863, soccer was an elitist sport for the wealthiest individuals, yet it soon became a game for everyone. No matter the race, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, language, or age, anybody was welcome. In the early 20th century, a child didn’t care about money, technology, or fancy equipment – all they needed was a street, a spherical item, and a couple of other kids to play with.
To most of this world, soccer is more than a sport. It is a large part of certain countries’ national identities, and one game can impact and inspire entire nations. After beating eventual champion Argentina in this year’s World Cup, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz declared a national holiday for Saudi Arabia. When Iceland shocked England at the 2016 European Championship, 8% of their entire population attended the match, 99.8% of Icelandic television viewers watched that match, and nine months later the nation had its highest ever birthrate. While impacting so many, soccer has the ability to build bridges between cultures. People who don’t speak the same languages can always connect by playing the game.
The United States has always done this sport differently in many ways – including in the name itself. Soccer, football, same thing, right? Ironically, the term “soccer,” which often offends so many, was first coined by the very people who invented the game, the British. But why has popularity lacked in the sport so much in the U.S.? This can be boiled down to cultural, economic, and institutional differences.
Some will argue that the existence of so many sports in America prevents the dominance of soccer culture. Baseball was historically “America’s Pastime,” yet gridiron football and basketball dominate fandom in modern day America. While this has a definite impact, the culture in the United States is also much different than that of many other countries. Americans are used to high intensity, action-oriented, fast-paced games with high scores and no ties.
Economically, a capitalist system has hindered the development of American soccer in the past. In almost any country in the world, anybody at a given age can play on any team. The United States has instituted a pay-to-play system, however,where parents have to pay thousands of dollars to send their children to the best programs. There has also been less exposure and promotion of American soccer leagues than other major leagues, and the domestic leagues themselves lack a major quality that is shared by every other nation’s leagues – promotion and relegation – a concept that would never work in America.
Despite all this, soccer in America is finally on the rise. In 2004, just two percent of Americans named soccer as their favorite sport. 18 years later, that figure is up to eight percent. In comparison, while baseball was the most popular sport in 1960 at 34 percent, today it is down to just nine. Soccer is also bound to grow much more, considering its popularity among the younger generation. 11 percent of Americans between ages 18-29 named soccer their favorite sport, only trailing football and basketball.
Steve Gans, an attorney who ran for U.S. soccer president in 2018, believes there are multiple reasons for this recent change. Gans has worked for decades to bridge the gap between the United States and European soccer, and worked on the first U.S. hosted World Cup in 1994. In his interview with the Justice on Feb. 6, he explained: “Americans want to see everything at the highest level, and in regard to soccer, they are able to do so easily now.”American viewership of the best soccer leagues is at an all-time high because of the ease with which people can watch them and their exposure to the sport on a continuous basis.
Gans also cited the decline in certain sports. Football has the most pressing decline in youth participation, because of its dangerous nature, particularly to children. While it is still America’s most popular sport to watch professionally, its lack of participation at the youth level means many households are transitioning to other contact sports like soccer. The same goes for hockey, which he describes still being popular but “regional” in terms of participation. Soccer is the opposite – it is popular in every corner of the Earth, and with diversity continuously increasing in the United States, this continues to have a positive effect.
Furthermore, Gans notes the importance of Major League Soccer (MLS) investing in stars from the European leagues. The first big name that transformed the MLS was David Beckham in 2007, who stood as an ambassador for the MLS. Today, there are dozens of European stars who have graced the league. Most recently, we have heard rumors of World Champion Lionel Messi signing for Inter Miami. These signings were used to improve the quality of the league, as well as serve as a useful marketing technique which has turned it into a much more respectable competition. The growth of the country’s number one league is vital to the development and popularity of the game.
His final explanation for the rise of soccer in the United States relates to the development of players. He points to MLS Next, formerly known as the United States Development Academy, as the youth league responsible for this development. Young players in this league are encouraged and provided with a realistic pathway to move to Europe and try to make it as youth players instead of attending university. It is a big life gamble, and does not work out for many, but overall has improved the quality of American soccer players drastically. The pioneer of this was Christian Pulisic, who signed for German club Borussia Dortmund as a 16-year old in 2015. Nicknamed Captain America, he has served as a symbol of inspiration for thousands of Americans trying to do the same.
Though the most successful World Cup result for the men was in 2002, it is generally clear to Gans that they are “playing a better brand of soccer” today. The women go for a record fifth Women’s World Cup title this summer in Oceania and seek more recognition for their outstanding accomplishments in doing so. As soccer continues to grow in the U.S., 2026 will serve as a target to reach major sport status as they join Canada and Mexico as hosts for the Men’s World Cup.
– Editor Note: Justice contributing writer Josh Gans is the son of interviewee Steve Gans.