Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, I used to record World Cup games on VHS tapes to watch in the four years between tournaments. I had few other options between the 1986, 1990 and 1994 World Cups. During those years, there was almost no soccer on American television. I would often pull out a cassette, pop it into a VCR and rewatch the same games I had seen many times before.
Now, with the 2014 FIFA World Cup underway, soccer has a very different place in the United States. Interest in the game is at an all-time high. Fans in the U.S. bought more World Cup tickets than any other country aside from those in host Brazil. And in the years between World Cups, soccer no longer disappears from American televisions and consciousness. In fact, it’s often easier to find soccer games on TV in the U.S. than it is in Europe.
For years, soccer has been touted as the sport of the future in the U.S. But unlike previous times when it appeared poised to take off, soccer has finally made it in the U.S., and it is here to stay. In the 1970s and ’80s, the game appeared ready to become a mainstream sporting event. Phil Woosnam, commissioner of the now defunct North American Soccer League (NASL), used to tell anyone who would listen, “The United States will be the world center of soccer.” The NASL even brought soccer legends such as Pelé and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer to the U.S. but still failed to develop a sustained fan base. The league’s ambitions pushed spending beyond its limited means, and short of cash, the NASL folded in 1985.
The NASL did, however, help spur the growth of youth soccer in the U.S. Beginning in the 1960s, the sport boomed in America’s sprawling suburbs, and interest in a domestic professional league helped stoke its rise. In 1974, when the United States Youth Soccer Association was founded, the youth wing of the national soccer federation had 100,000 registered players. In 2000 it had more than 3 million players. Soccer has slowly moved from the fringes to the mainstream. It is now second only to basketball (above baseball and football) in youth participation numbers.
To be sure, the sport’s promoters still struggle to convert youth players into adult soccer fans. When Major League Soccer (MLS) was established in 1996 as a professional soccer league in U.S., in a clumsy and ill-conceived decision, promoters focused on rallying the so-called soccer moms, the archetypal suburban mothers ferrying their children to practices and games, always at the ready with halftime orange slices. But in recent years, the league has switched its approach, focusing instead on its growing flock of hard-core fans. Cities as diverse as Kansas City, Philadelphia and Portland, Oregon, have seen supporter clubs rise at the grass-roots level, creating a spectacle that attracts even casual fans. Rich Luker, who conducts research on sports fans, notes that until recently, “there was no connection between [the youth] game, which everyone plays to learn the basics, and MLS.” Now among 12-to-17-year-olds, the popularity of MLS is on par with that of major league baseball.
MLS is not the only soccer that American fans follow. For 12-to-24-year-olds, soccer is the second-most-popular professional sport, behind only football and above basketball, baseball and hockey. Think pieces periodically extol the rising interest in European leagues among creative types. Bars in Brooklyn fill up on weekends, full of fans getting their fix of the English Premier League (EPL). And then there are the millions of fans who tune in to European leagues at home, leading NBC to pay $250 million last year for the rights to broadcast the EPL in the U.S.
Unlike previous generations, Americans today understand the game because they grew up playing it. Almost 90 percent of soccer fans in a recent survey said they have played the sport or have an immediate family member who does. In addition to the many Americans whose parents never kicked a ball but who have become converts to soccer, there is a large and growing group of fans whose parents come from the soccer-mad countries of Latin America. Latinos are among the most dedicated soccer fans in the United States. According to Luker, MLS is thesecond-most-popular American pro sports league among Latinos, behind only the NFL. Many Latinos in the U.S., including second- and third-generation residents, also follow soccer from their families’ home countries.
Liga MX, the Mexican professional league, consistently gets U.S. television ratings above those of some American sporting events, including baseball on ESPN, hockey playoffs on NBC and even some March Madness games on TNT. The Mexican national team, recognizing a business opportunity, plays more of its “home” games in the U.S.than it does in Mexico.
Soccer in the United States is not just about one league. MLS is important, but so are Liga MX and the EPL (not to mention other European leagues, the Champions League and the World Cup). That so many soccer leagues get the attention they do in the United States is vindicating for longtime American soccer fans. Trends in sports preferences change over time (horse racing and boxing have steadily declined since their peak in the early 20th century), and soccer’s popularity has been increasing for years now and is likely to continue its growth.
Brazil’s World Cup is getting unprecedented attention from American media. ESPN has expanded its coverage of the tournament, bringing in top announcers from the U.K. to work the games, employing 11 analysts to give their takes and doing a six-episode documentary on the U.S. team as it prepares to head to Brazil. The sports media giant recognizes an untapped business opportunity in bringing soccer to a booming American base. Along with Fox Sports and Univision, ESPN recently purchased MLS television rights for $90 million per year through 2022. As ESPN president John Skipper put it, “It’s a futures deal. We’re buying pork bellies. We think they’ll become more valuable over time.”
The World Cup will wrap up on July 13, but, unlike before, soccer will go on in the United States. MLS is in the middle of its season. Liga MX’s begins five days after the World Cup final. The EPL returns in August. Many longtime American soccer fans wondered if the sport could ever truly make it in the US. Finally, it has. Can I interest anyone in some VHS tapes of the 1990 World Cup?