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Mulugeta: Soccer's future in the United States

BY MIKAEL MULUGETA | JUNE 23, 2014 5:00 AM

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In case you hadn’t heard, the World Cup has been underway for almost two weeks now. Billions of fans around the world have joined together in excitement, a celebration of the world’s game — overlooking conditions in Brazil. My initial response was surprise that four years had already passed. Perhaps many Americans can relate.

For a few more weeks, the world’s most popular sport will take center stage as FIFA’s World Cup captivates audiences around the globe. But “captivate” might not be the best word to describe American audiences.

Here in the United States, the Big 4 routinely dwarf the public’s interest in soccer. The NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL all attract significantly higher TV ratings, attendance rates, and merchandise sales than the Major League Soccer. Following a burst in popularity in the 2007 season, the average viewership of the MLS has stagnated in the last five years, according to statistics gathered on fivethirtyeight.com, a polling website. From 2009 to 2012, the average viewership hovered between 300,000 and 400,000 viewers per match. In 2013, this number dropped to around 250,000.

However, this coincided with American viewership of England’s Premier League, exceeding 400,000 and surpassing MLS numbers for the first time in this five-year stretch.

On the heels of a down season for the MLS, the United States is presented with an opportunity to bolster interest in American soccer: the World Cup. Ten percent of U.S. citizens reportedly follow soccer, yet this global event has prompted double the number of Americans to tune in. With a strong showing in the tournament, the United States could convert some of the casual observers into lifelong enthusiasts.

Where does soccer currently rank in the hierarchy of America’s favorite sports?

Apparently, it’s tied for eighth. The Harris Poll, which has surveyed adults about their favorite sport since 1985, found that in 2012, pro football led the way with 34 percent of the votes, followed by baseball with 16 percent. Professional soccer was ranked below the likes of college basketball, college football, and auto sports.

So what about bringing gridiron football to the rest of the world? Will we ever get a World Cup equivalent for America’s favorite sport? Get this, there already is one. The International Federation of American Football has held an American Football World Cup since 1999. Due to abysmal international interest in gridiron football, the tournament features competitive play significantly beneath NCAA Division I standards. In the most recent tournament, in 2011, Team USA defeated Canada, 50-7, while fielding a roster of mostly former Division III players. Put another way, if the Hawkeyes competed, their games would make last year’s 59-3 dismantling of Western Michigan seem competitive. But I digress.

A scenario in which the international community adopts gridiron football as a world sport is unlikely. On the contrary, America’s gradual acceptance of soccer into mainstream sports culture seems inevitable because of one important factor. Youth.

Younger Americans are more likely to follow soccer. According to figures from Harrison Interactive, a marketing research firm headquartered in Rochester, New York, millennials and Generation X form the largest demographic of adult soccer fans, while baby boomers gravitate toward baseball and football. This bodes well for a sport whose target audience will be around for a long time. 

If the U.S. national team produces more quality performances, such as its pulse-pounding win over Ghana or its close match with heavily favored Portugal, it could win the hearts of a new generation and set soccer on track to create the Big 5.


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