I’ve been reading about the World Cup a lot lately, and almost every magazine or newspaper article has asked some form of that question (most of the blogs thankfully seem to have moved on to actually talking about soccer). But, really, that’s the wrong question.
Of course soccer is popular in the U.S., it’s just not as popular as most other professional sports. The average attendance at MLS games was a skosh over 16,000—and the Seattle Sounders FC had a total attendance of almost 500,000. And the notoriously poorly rated broadcasts averaged a 0.2 rating (250,000 or so viewers) weekly.
The point is, people are watching soccer—live and on TV. Whether enough people are watching is above my pay grade to determine.
So, no, these articles aren’t really asking whether soccer is popular in the U.S. What they are really asking, while pointing out the $400 million investment by ABC/ESPN and Univision, is whether soccer is finally mainstream in the U.S.—has it caught the attention of the average citizen, not just the soccer nut?
The answer to that question is “no.” It may well be that more Americans than ever are watching this World Cup. But I predict that soccer—real, international soccer—will never be mainstream in the U.S. until we win a World Cup.
The sad truth is that we prefer winners. If there is more U.S. interest in the World Cup this year (fans from America bought 160,000 tickets to matches, more than any country but South Africa), how much of that is due to U.S. mens’ strong showing in last year’s Confederations Cup?
The baseball team with the most fans in the Yankees. The football team with the most fans is whoever won the most Super Bowls recently (or the Cowboys, which makes me sick as a Redskins fan). I have no idea who the most popular NASCAR driver is, but I bet he wins a lot.
But, as much as I like the beautiful game, it will remain slotted somewhere below obscure winter Olympic sports and above getting run over as an American pastime. And even if we do ever win the World Cup, the best soccer enthusiasts can hope for is to have the same general level of interest as other Olympic events we’re good at.
Who knows, maybe someone will invent an X-Games version of soccer and the next Shaun White will play that.