In the days after the United States Women’s National Team winning the 2015 World Cup, I’ve been reading and hearing many bold proclamations (and/or hot takes) about how this victory means that soccer is on the rise, and it won’t be long before soccer surpasses one of the “four major sports” (football, baseball, basketball, hockey) in some manner – viewership, attendance, fans, etc.
Let’s just slow down for a minute.
Yes, soccer is arguably bigger in America than it has ever been. The game has grown in popularity over the last 20+ years, and that growth shows no sign of stopping. And yes, the World Cup final drew a huge TV rating, notably surpassing the viewership from Game 7 of the 2014 World Series and the decisive Game 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals.
First, let’s address those TV numbers. More accurately, let’s acknowledge that comparing the Women’s World Cup championship to the other two broadcasts is an apples to oranges comparison. Yes, all three are “fruit” – decisive, championship games in their collective sport. But the difference lies in the teams. The World Series featured the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants. The NBA Finals had the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Women’s World Cup had The United Freaking States of America.
I would argue a decent (if not sizable) percentage of the WWC audience tuned in not because they are soccer fans or because they enjoy watching soccer played at a high level by amazing athletes. They tuned in because it was a chance to see America to win a prestigious global competition.
Who was the primary audience of Game 7 of the World Series? Fans of the Giants (6th largest US television market) and the Royals (31st largest). For Game 6 of the Finals, you have Warriors (again, 6th largest market) and Cavs fans (17th largest). For the WWC, your primary audience is fans of America in EVERY market with a Fox affiliate.
It’s the same reason why NBC shells out billions of dollars for Olympic broadcast rights: Americans love to watch other Americans competing (and winning) at a high level against top international competition – no matter the event. I’m not saying that a U.S. versus Japan competition in say, water polo, would draw the same numbers as the World Cup final. But I am saying the nation’s love and support for the red, white, and blue greatly surpasses the nation’s love and support for the Kansas City Royals.
Until the MLS Championship draws more viewers than the World Series, Stanley Cup, or NBA Finals, stop with this comparison.
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Without question, soccer is growing in America. I won’t argue that. But where is the peak? You’ll find many credible voices who say soccer could become the “national pastime” or supplant baseball or hockey in the “big four” of American sports.
I disagree, especially in the short-term.
Soccer interest, at least in America, tends to be cyclical. Setting aside the loyal fans of MLS and European leagues, a person who identifies themselves as “liking soccer” will get into the big tournaments (men’s and women’s World Cups, Olympics, etc.). After those events end? The interest tends to wane.
An article in the Seattle Times referenced a marketing-research study on “fan engagement” of Americans towards soccer, conducted after the last four men’s World Cup tournaments. Every time, there was a significant drop off in interest after the tournament ended.
“You see the same pattern,’’ said (Robert) Passikoff (of Brand Keys), who added that his surveys are accurate within 3 percent. “You get high interest, high numbers during the tournament and then it’s ‘Thank you very much and goodbye.’ ’’
With other sports, he added, the numbers climb a bit during playoffs and championships but “you don’t see as high a fluctuation.’’
Personally, I wonder if the growth and expansion of soccer will follow a similar pattern to NASCAR. There was a point in 1990’s / early 2000’s where NASCAR experienced phenomenal growth, with some saying that the sport was poised to join the big four. Fast forward to the mid to late 2000’s and NASCAR’s popularity hit a big bump, with attendance and TV ratings taking a dive. Obviously, that is not a perfect comparison – most notably, the millions of kids in youth soccer should help to sustain soccer’s rise – but NASCAR’s failure to join the Big Four should serve as a cautionary tale for soccer fans seeking to join the big time.
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So where will soccer be 15 or 20 years from now? I fully expect that MLS will still be going strong, with 32 teams across the country playing in soccer-only stadiums in front of passionate crowds. World Cups – both men’s and women’s – will still be events that grab headlines and national attention (especially when the U.S. is winning). I would not be surprised if the United States has a true soccer superstar who is on par with the greatest players in the world.
But I don’t expect soccer to have bumped MLB, NHL, NBA, or especially the NFL from their perch as America’s favorite sports.
And that should be okay.