Stepping Off the Bandwagon: Why hasn’t professional soccer caught on in the US?

I had a great time following Team USA as they battled through the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup in Brazil last summer. I can honestly say that I had never been interested in watching professional soccer, live or on television, but nonetheless became caught up in the hoopla of it all. Suddenly, it seemed like everyone I knew developed a passion for a sport we had never appreciated at the professional level. Groups of people were seen walking around Ann Arbor decked out in patriotic red, white and blue repeating the adopted chant of US fans, I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!” It was all very exciting, and I happily took my place on the bandwagon.

Many of my friends and family are huge sports fans; logging uncountable hours attending professional sporting events and/or watching them on their monitors of choice. At the start of the 2014World Cup few of these obsessive sports fans in my life could name a single player from Team USA and most could only recognize the names of Lionel Messi (the undisputed best player in professional soccer) from Brazil, or Cristiano Ronaldo (appreciated as much for his good looks as his formidable play) from Portugal. But for a few weeks last summer, we couldn’t get enough. In his article “Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games” author A. Bartlett Giamatti refers to sports as “an opiate to the masses”, and we were all high on the FIFA World Cup.

Ronaldo
Messi

After the US team failed to capitalize on a late comeback and was knocked out by Belgium on July 1, the hoopla died down and I began to wonder, “Why hasn’t professional soccer taken off in popularity in the US?” Professional soccer is huge in other countries. Some estimate that there are 3.5 billion soccer fans across the globe, five times as many fans as baseball and football combined. The viewing audience of the final game of the World Cup between Germany and Argentina is said to have topped 1 billion people, the most to ever to tune in to a sporting event in history. In considering the question of why professional soccer has not achieved the popularity it has in other countries, part of the answer undoubtedly lies in professional soccer’s media presence and marketing strategy in the US. While much network and cable television programming in the US is dedicated to baseball, football and basketball, relatively little air time is spent broadcasting soccer events. With limited leisure time in our lives, we choose those activities that provide us with the most pleasure. As discussed in Giamatti’s article, the “only ceremony or festival is in the eye, heart, emotion, rooting, of the beholder”. Marketers of professional soccer have perhaps not done its part yet to create the “festival” in our eye, heart or emotions. We needed more background stories on the US players (Who are they? How did they get to where they are? What, perhaps, did they overcome?) to feel truly invested. I think another reason that we Americans have not embraced professional soccer is based partly in our ego-centric nature. We seem to hold tight to our perception of what is American sport (baseball, basketball, football) and what is not (soccer, cricket). Although more and more diverse at the professional level (based on the nationalities of MLB players), we still think of baseball as “America’s Pastime”. American teams are the only ones who compete in the “World” Series – not exactly a global competition. While an American team is guaranteed to win the World Series, we have never achieved dominance on the soccer field. The truth is, other countries field stronger, faster, and more experienced FIFA teams. Most are (or have been) “better” than us, and that doesn’t make us feel very good. Perhaps Giamatti was right when he expressed that, “Winning for players or spectators is no simply outscoring; it is a way of talking about betterment, about making oneself, one’s fellows, one’s city, one’s adherents, more noble because of a temporary engagement of a higher human plane of existence.” In America we like the underdog, but we do not want to be it. Another possibility is that prior to generation Y, most American children grew up playing and watching baseball and basketball, not soccer. My dad has often told me about his memories of hiding his AM radio under his pillow on summer nights to listen to the Detroit Tigers games while his parents thought he was asleep. There were few professional soccer teams in the US for which to cheer for at that time, and soccer cannot take America’s older generation back to their youth like baseball can. Unlike our parents, many of us were raised playing youth soccer in numbers never seen before. Athletic or (as in my case) not, we were suited up every Saturday morning to learn how to dribble, pass, kick and defend. According to statistics published here by US Youth Soccer, over 3 million children registered to play soccer each year since 2000, an increase of over 300% since 1980. I think that our generation, which identifies with soccer as an integral part of our childhoods, will raise the popularity of the sport in our own country. I think we can appreciate the unique skill of the game because many of us were trained in it. I feel a change is on the way. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I want to experience the thrill of professional soccer again, the World Cup was a fantastic and memorable ride!

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5 thoughts on “Stepping Off the Bandwagon: Why hasn’t professional soccer caught on in the US?

  1. As you stated in your post, the “hoopla” of the World Cup was amazing and I, as well as many other Americans hopped on the bandwagon and followed soccer during the World Cup. It was amazing to see the country band together and root for a sport that usually never gets an publicity. Unfortunately, the reason why we never get any publicity is because we don’t have the premier athletes for the sport. In every other sport; football, basketball, baseball, and hockey, we represent the best league and competition. The players from all over the world flock to the United States to compete at this high level and unfortunately for soccer, our league is very sub par to the powerhouse European leagues. There is talk of a new Major League Soccer team in New York, which has already done some recruiting of European stars, however many of these players are past their prime competing age. Although these players will definitely bring publicity and buzz around soccer, like how David Beckham did with the L.A. Galaxy, we will need an infusion of talent in order to get soccer to catch on in the United States.

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  2. I, as well, was one of the many “bandwagon-ers” who followed the World Cup this past summer. My love from American football, basketball, and baseball is so much more than my passion for soccer, like many Americans. Personally, I loved your reasoning behind why soccer or actually “futbol” never seemed to thrive in the United States. However, I feel the the reasoning behind why Americans do not love soccer is a little different. Coming from a town where all my high school friends were on the soccer team and FIFA 13 was the top video game, the prevalence of soccer in the US is not because it is just not accessible. Americans are competitive. Americans love to win. The fact the regular season and even playoff games in soccer can end in a draw is a big “turn-off” to say the least for many American fans. We like results. Also, the fact that a team can play a 90+ minute game and end up the same as if they never played at all causes disgust to Americans. Likewise, the fact the a game can end with a shootout, a fun mini-game remotely associated with the actual game, causes anxiety for many Americans. Lastly, the levels of competitions in soccer vary drastically. Unlike basketball, football, or baseball, a soccer team like Barcelona or Real Madrid can completely dominate a game making upsets nearly impossible for some games. The rules of soccer just do not mesh well with the ideologies of many Americans. Unlike the new generation like you said can adjust to these ideologies, America will have a tough time loving the world’s “pastime.”

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    1. Such a great article! I am a huge soccer fan, and I definitely agree with everything you just said. I am actually from Kansas City, and soccer is a huge deal over there. Everybody has such a high level of pride for the sport, and during the World Cup, we hosted some of the largest watch parties in the entire nation.

      I think the reason why Kansas Citians are so big on soccer is because Sporting Kansas City (our MLS team) is really our only sports team that is consistently competitive on a yearly basis. Especially after we won the MLS Cup last year, the level of passion for soccer has strongly increased.

      Also, our soccer stadium is state-of-the-art. It was just built 4 seasons ago, and it was basically a large revamping process of our franchise. I think if other cities would invest in such projects, soccer would be a much bigger deal here in the USA.

      But I truly think we’re headed in the right direction. In America, I see soccer as more of a youth sport. Most of the fans are Millennials. As we become older, soccer will be more prevalent, as more and more sports-related conversations will be about soccer. And obviously, we will do our best to get our kids into soccer. Hopefully, the media will pick up on our interest for soccer, start to broadcast more soccer games, and have more news segments about soccer.

      Nice work!

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  3. I grew up playing soccer and always have followed teams in the MLS and La Liga. I think that soccer is one of, if not the most, beautiful game to watch. I do agree with your blog post in the sense that this year the fan support for the US National Team drastically increased since the last World Cup. I feel that the reason for this is that our team is actually getting more competitive and had the potential to do really well. I was actually in Europe during most of the World Cup and wore USA gear almost every day. I feel like instead of being regarded as an American who knows nothing about the beautiful game, I was actually treated with respect for supporting soccer. I still think watching games in Europe is different than in the US because towns literally shut down so that everyone could watch games that their countries weren’t even competing in. I wish I had experienced a viewing party in the US so I could directly compare, but when I was in France when they won people were throwing smoke bombs, dancing in the streets, music was everywhere, people were crying, and I am pretty sure that did not happen in the US. I’m hoping there is even more US support in the next World Cup not just for our team but for the sport of soccer.

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  4. I loved your post! I have always been an avid soccer fan and am hoping that soccer increases in popularity. Recently, Manchester City and the New York Yankees co-founded a new MLS team, New York City F.C. They have marketed the club very well and have been able to bring over two very well known European players. Their first two signings were David Villa and Frank Lampard. During their introductions, both players illustrated that they came to the MLS in an effort to influence soccer into the United States.

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