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Soccer Is America’s Sport of Now

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For more years than most of us would care to remember, soccer has been trumpeted as America’s “sport of the future.” The belief was that one day (perhaps because there was once a World Cup here, or perhaps because so many of us spent our formative Saturday afternoons running aimlessly around fields nominally playing the game) the country would come to embrace soccer the way the rest of the world has for the better part of the last 150 years. It was an open-ended prediction (“the future” remaining undefined) but came with the strong implication that “the future” was not that far away. Soccer was coming.

What the prediction failed to convey was just how slow the process might be, or how even the most sports-attuned observers could miss signs that the game was growing. The growth of soccer was never obvious outside of MLS, and considering how slow mainstream outlets have been to embrace the game, it’s easy to imagine that soccer’s future is still years away.

Then this: According to a scientifically conducted poll by social scientist Roger Luker in partnership with ESPN, soccer is now the second most popular sport (behind the behemoth NFL) among Americans ages 12-24. In one sense, that means soccer’s promise is being fulfilled; in another, it emphatically defines when the previously undefined “future” might be.

It’s starting, right now. If you listen, you might even be able to hear the “woosh” as the sports zooms into undeniable national relevance.

In Luker’s opinion, the transition of soccer from niche sport to full-blown mainstream powerhouse will be swift.

“”We are talking generational change,” Luker said. “A generation of kids have now grown up as having MLS as part of their reality. Give us one more cycle and that is all it will take. One more generation.”

That 12-24 generation can’t remember a time before the United States hosted a World Cup. Only the oldest among them has any recollection of an America without a top-flight professional league. For the entirety of their lives, professional soccer has been a prominent part of the sports landscape, certainly much more prominent than during the early years of generations before them. Now in their teens and early twenties, this group can flip on their TVs and find soccer somewhere on the dial nearly every day of the week, 365 days a year. They simply don’t carry the same prejudices against the sport that older generations do. The internet allows them to connect with fellow fans, stoking the flames of interest. More than anything, the digital revolution of the last 20 years is responsible for an entire generation of Americans evolving, in very short order, from the antiquated attitudes of previous generations.

After decades of waiting for the youth soccer culture and the pro spectator culture to connect, we have tangible proof that it’s happening. Previous generations played but didn’t watch and left the game behind in their high school years, creating a stark incongruity between the number of Americans who played (millions upon millions) and the number of Americans who followed the sport at its highest levels. The large number of registered players was one of the largest reason soccer got the “sport of the future” label; it seemed logical that all of those kids that played would one day grow up to be fans, pushing soccer into the spotlight.

So maybe it took longer than we thought or hoped. It wasn’t ever a simple as it was portrayed anyway, the facile declaration about soccer’s future hanging in the air, ready to be swatted down by people with antiquated notions of popularity. The sheer number of entertainment options available in the modern world, multiplied by the expansive nature of soccer, made it difficult to pin down the game’s popularity. MLS is only one part of a vast tapestry of leagues and competitions that have adherents in the U.S., so pointing to league TV ratings or attendance (which is good and getting better) as evidence of something is flat wrong. It doesn’t help that so many of the national sports media decision-makers are older and do not appreciate soccer, skewing the picture of the sport’s popularity by keeping it out of the nation’s most visible media outlets.

My take away from the results of the ESPN Sports poll is that soccer is both “underground” and “mainstream” at the exact same time.

If the results of Luker’s poll are anywhere close to reality (and we have no reason to believe they’re not), it’s time retire soccer’s old label of “sport of the future.” The future is now. Soccer, America’s sport of the now.

Jason Davis is a freelance writer who covers soccer and other sports for outlets like The Guardian, ESPNFC, The Score, and others. He lives in Virginia.

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Comments (10)

  1. It’s FOOTBALL.

    • actually it’s SOCCER. Even most Brits will acknowledge that our term “soccer” is actually more correct. Read the excellent book Soccernomics for more on this. Most (but not all) websites have it wrong.

      • Actually, they’ll acknowledge it’s existence as a word but they’ll still call that game football in casual conversation, and will never call the NFL game just “football” – not a chance. In fact I know many Americans who understand or at least realize the logic behind calling soccer “football” even though they still differentiate the, in the way they knew growing up.

        • PS: It is never wrong to call soccer “football” as it uses the feet far more than the NFL game ever would/could to drive the ball in a game. If any sport should change its name, it should be the NFL’s brand of “football”, not the other way around. ;)

          • 2nd PS: It’s a matter of pure commonsensical logic that dictates right from wrong in this case, and this is a case where the majority of the world DO get it right! There’s no other way to explain why the word football stuck when referring to “soccer” football…

          • 3rd PS: I highly doubt you’ve met a real Brit for that matter. Anyone who’s known them will easily see where I’m coming from with the posts I’ve made in response to you.

          • 4th PS: Look at all the NFL press releases and press conferences that they aim at the rest of the world. They will refer to their game as “American Football” and never just “Football”, unlike they would when addressing an American audience. Why? Cuz they fully acknowledge in their own way what I’m trying to get at here.

    • Really? That was your ‘contribution’? Lame.

  2. Even if these findings are true I tend to disagree with this fact purely based on my own experience. I am a huge soccer fan but amongst my co-workers and friends the vast majority of sports related conversations are anything but soccer. Soccer’s popularity in the USA has definitely risen over the 20 years that I have spent here but it is hard to imagine soccer ever passing or even equaling American Football (NFL) in popularity.

  3. The popularity of the FIFA video game cannot be underestimated in terms of reaching this demo. I think it is way more of a factor than MLS