The number one sport in the world is finally taking off in the US. With stiff competition from basketball, baseball and (American) football, many assumed that football (known as “soccer” outside the US) would never capture the attention of US sports fans, but they were wrong.
According to a 2022 Gallup poll, 7% of Americans named football as their favorite sport, while only a slightly higher 9% preferred baseball (which for decades was called “America’s pastime”). More specifically, soccer ranked 4th behind soccer, basketball, and baseball, ahead of other sports such as hockey, tennis, golf, boxing, and MMA. So, online sportsbooks are likely to increase the incentive of their first players with special football-related offers, including free promotions like this one to their appetite.
American interest in soccer as a general phenomenon has steadily increased in recent years. But more specifically, the top domestic league, Major League Soccer (MLS), has seen a 27% increase in U.S. viewership since 2012, according to Nielsen. Furthermore, a study by the CIES Football Observatory found that MLS’s average attendance of 21,358 from 2013-18 ranked 8th in the world, just behind Italy’s Serie A (22,967) and France’s Ligue 1. in (21,556).
The rise of soccer in the United States
In its debut season in 1996, MLS got off to a rocky start. The league was bleeding money while struggling to attract audiences in a sports market already dominated by baseball, basketball and American football. However, after its initial growing pains, MLS began to gain a following, with stadium attendance averaging more than 22,000 fans per game in 2018, a league record.
According to Don Garber, who took over as commissioner in 1999 when many predicted the league would fail, MLS was once shunned by the international soccer community but is now gaining respect thanks to its new stadium designs and steady rise in popularity. Garber emphasized that one of the advantages of MLS is that, thanks to its salary cap system, any team can win the MLS Cup. This trait has undoubtedly fostered a level playing field that has produced ten different MLS Cup champions over the past 12 seasons.
David Beckham’s key influence
MLS has long been unable to attract international, world-class talent. That all changed in 2007 when the LA Galaxy signed international superstar (and England legend) David Beckham to their roster. Beckham’s fame and popularity helped generate domestic interest in the “beautiful game” and immediately drew the attention of American fans to the technical side of the game.
Furthermore, former Manchester United superstars Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney have been two major reasons why American fans have started attending MLS games every weekend.
The sheer popularity of the Premier League
According to a survey by Morning Consult, the Premier League stands out from other European leagues in its popularity among US soccer fans. As the publication reported in August 2019, 52% of “die-hard” soccer fans said England’s top flight was their preferred European soccer league, more than twice as many as Spain’s La Liga. The top leagues of France, Germany and Italy are even lower in the rankings.
NBC Sports’ Premier League broadcasts have averaged 34.6 million viewers over each of the past six seasons, more than double the 13.3 million viewers for Fox Soccer, ESPN and ESPN2 in 2012-13. This statistic includes viewers like me who didn’t really follow soccer before (except during the World Cup) but suddenly got hooked in the last 2-3 years. More and more I’m finding American friends who are as obsessed as I am with Liverpool’s historic run to lift silverware a few years back.
American football television viewership has increased in each of the last six seasons, and advertising inventory has been depleted in each of the last three seasons. Undoubtedly, the increase in soccer fervor will spur fans’ interest in betting on games, whether in brick-and-mortar casinos or through online betting portals (provided either method is legal in the relevant jurisdiction).
The future of US soccer
MLS debuted in 1996 with 10 clubs, and currently 26 clubs compete; Furthermore, Austin FC will launch in 2021. On April 18 of last year, the MLS Board of Governors voted to expand the league to 30 teams “in the coming years,” an increase from the 28 teams set in December 2015. MLS’ expansion plans include plans for seven soccer stadiums that would give the league a level of legitimacy Garber never dreamed of.
New stadiums are currently being planned in Austin, Cincinnati, Columbus, Miami (my hometown), Nashville, Sacramento and St. Louis. Because the sport is accessible to poor kids, and it’s already very popular among the country’s growing Latino population, there’s every reason to think it will continue to grow here. Kay and I do a few “angel tree” gifts every Christmas and one of the most requested gifts from the kids is a soccer ball. I’m always happy to provide one. If that kid has their own soccer ball and is into soccer, it’s a much better activity than some they might be tempted to do.
And maybe one of those kids will score the Golden Goal when USA Soccer wins the World Cup in 2034. I’m tired of us being mediocre in international football. If we’re going to compete on the world stage, we have to show up to win.
As such, the cry I expect to be heard more and more at the foot of my nation will be…