Soccer’s seat at the table
For the last 10 years, I’ve spent most fall or spring weekends, and eventually weekdays as well, on the sideline of some soccer pitch watching teams that evolved from those identified by shirt colors to club teams to now even one high school squad. I’ve watched teams that were flat-out God awful and others that won their flight. I’ve sat through everything from what felt like a Nor’easter to games that needed water breaks because of a heat wave, and I’ve worn through enough lawn chairs and bought enough cleats to stock a Walmart. And in that time, I’ve gone from soccer ambivalence to what can only be called unadulterated soccer fan. Beyond my own kids’ games, and that’s easy, I also watch Premier League and Serie A and know the difference between Man City and Man U. I understand relegation and can almost tell you when something should or shouldn’t be a foul – although that does still get a little nutty. I’ve taken my kids to a PSG match in Paris, and we go to a whole lot of NYCFC games every year. I am, by all accounts, a soccer convert.
It seems I’m likely not the only one. According to recent market research and lots of economic data, soccer is now the fourth most popular professional sport in the US, passing hockey and potentially reclassifying what’s often termed the big four. The numbers are fairly clear. 49% of Americans reportedly like soccer, vs. only 37% who like hockey. The numbers for participation are even more stark, with exponentially more Americans playing soccer than hockey. Obviously, this doesn’t tell the whole story, especially if you believe Mark Twain’s insistence about damn lies and statistics. Hockey fans can be a fervent bunch – or sticky, as we might say. Making that 37% oversized in importance. But even if numbers may be deceiving, money rarely is. Which is why Comcast has over doubled the amount spent on its new contract for American broadcast rights with England’s Premier League over its last contract. And attendance numbers for the American MLS remain robust, not some passing fancy like the ill-fated NASL of the late 70’s and 80’s. Add in solid attendance for the National Women’s Soccer League and what we expect to be insane interest in this fall’s World Cup, and I believe that soccer in the US has truly and perhaps permanently entered the American sports zeitgeist.
To be clear, we’ve been talking about this for decades, since the days when I spent Saturday mornings eating orange slices at halftime. The argument was that as American kids played the beautiful game, we’d finally evolve to the global norms that preferred football to American football. And yet year after year, decade after decade, we treated soccer like the metric system. Fine for everyone else, but we’ve got our own thing, thank you. It remained the sport that kids played until they didn’t and largely never spoke of again, the pastime of American suburbia and minivans.
So what happened? Everything, that’s what. The Internet, that brought top flight superstars from across the pond into our living rooms. Social media, that allowed young Americans to consume goals and celebrations on Instagram. Immigrants, who brought soccer with them to the US, laying the groundwork for soccer from Central and South America, Mexico, Europe, and beyond. And massive professional clubs that established true academies in the US to grow interest and talent that used to go to football and baseball and everywhere else American sports kids went.
To be clear, this is not an obituary for traditional American sport. Football, not futbal, remains king in the States. And contrary to a left-leaning vernacular, it’s ain’t going anywhere. The NFL still prints money, and it seems like concussions don’t matter anymore. Basketball is still the place for American royalty. And baseball, for all its critics, still draws more fans than anything else – granted, with an inventory of 162 games. But still.
It just seems that this time, soccer is finally here to stay. Its economics are real, and the fan base is growing. Soccer finally has a seat at the adults table. Which is really interesting, considering how many years I’ve spent watching kids play.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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