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The number one sport in the world is finally taking off in the United States. With stiff competition from basketball, baseball, and (American) football, many assumed that soccer (known as “football” outside the U.S.) would never grab the attention of U.S. sports fans—but they were wrong.
According to a 2022 Gallup poll, 7% of Americans named soccer as their favorite sport to watch, as compared to the only slightly higher 9% who preferred baseball (which has been dubbed “America’s pastime” for decades). To be more specific, soccer ranked 4th behind football, basketball, and baseball—ahead of other sports juggernauts like hockey, tennis, golf, boxing, and MMA. So the online sports bookies will likely increase their inducement of first-timers with special soccer-related offers, including free promotions like this one to what their appetites.
In recent years American interest in soccer has steadily increased as a general phenomenon. But more specifically, the top domestic league—Major League Soccer ( MLS )—has also seen a 27% increase in viewership in the U.S. since 2012, according to Neilson. Furthermore, a study conducted by the CIES Football Observatory revealed that MLS’ average attendance of 21,358 from 2013-18 ranks No. 8 in the world, barely trailing Italy’s Serie A (22,967) and Ligue 1 in France (21,556).
Soccer’s Surge in the USA
In its debut season in 1996, the MLS got off to a challenging start. The league bled money while it struggled to draw an audience in a sports market that was already dominated by baseball, basketball and American football. However, following its initial growing pains, MLS started to attract a following, with stadium attendance averaging more than 22,000 fans per match in 2018—a league record.
According to Don Garber—who took over as commissioner in 1999 when many predicted the league was destined for failure—the MLS was once shunned by the international football community, but is now gaining respect due to its new stadium projects and steady growth in popularity. Garber has highlighted that one virtue of the MLS is that, due to its salary cap system, any team can win the MLS Cup. This feature has arguably fostered a level playing field that has generated the crowning of ten different MLS Cup champions over the last 12 seasons.
David Beckham’s Pivotal Influence
For a good while, MLS couldn’t pull international, world-class talent. This all changed in 2007 when the L.A. Galaxy signed international superstar (and England legend) David Beckham to their roster. Beckham’s fame and popularity helped spark domestic interest in “the beautiful game” and immediately drew the attention of American fans more towards the technical side of play.
Furthermore, former Manchester United superstars and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney have been two vital reasons why American fans started tuning into MLS games every weekend.
The Distinct Popularity of the Premier League
According to a Morning Consult survey, the Premier League stands apart from other European leagues in its popularity among U.S. soccer fans. As the publication reported in August 2019, 52% of self-described “avid” soccer enthusiasts expressed that England’s top flight was their preferred European soccer league—more than twice the percentage who favored Spain’s La Liga. The top leagues in France, Germany, and Italy fared even lower in the rankings.
During each of the past six seasons, an average of 34.6 million television viewers have tuned in to Premier League broadcasts on NBC Sports—more than twice the 13.3 million viewers drawn during the 2012-13 season on Fox Soccer, ESPN, and ESPN2. This statistic includes viewers like me across the pond who had never really followed soccer before (other than during the World Cup), but have suddenly became obsessed over the past 2-3 years. More and more I’m able to identify American friends who are just as obsessed as I am over Liverpool’s historical run towards hoisting the silver a couple of years ago.
American cable viewership of soccer has increased over each of the last six seasons, and ad inventory has sold out in each of the last three. Undoubtedly, the increase in soccer fervor will boost fan interest in placing bets on matches, whether at brick-and-mortar casinos or by using online betting portals (provided that either method is legal in the relevant jurisdiction).
The Future of US Soccer
MLS debuted in 1996 with 10 clubs, and there are currently 26 clubs in competition; moreover, Austin FC will come on board in 2021. On April 18th of last year, the MLS Board of Governors voted to expand the league to 30 teams “in the coming years”—an increase from its prior target of 28 set in December 2015. MLS’ expansion plans include seven soccer-specific stadium projects, which would lend a level of legitimacy to the league that Garber never dreamt of.
New stadiums are currently planned in Austin, Cincinnati, Columbus, Miami (my hometown!), Nashville, Sacramento, and St. Louis. Since the sport is accessible to poor children, and it is already very popular among the country’s growing Latino population, there’s every reason to think it’s going to continue to grow in popularity here. Kay and I do a few “angel tree” gifts every Christmas, and one of the most requested gifts by children is a soccer ball. I’m always happy to provide one. If that kid has his or her own soccer ball and gets hooked on soccer, that’s a hell of a lot better activity than some they can get lured into.
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 soccer. If we’re going to compete on the world stage, we need to get in it to win it.
As such, the exclamation I expect to increasingly reverberate across the foothills of my nation will be… GOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAALLL!!!