Is there a soccer renaissance in the United States?
There is no debate over the rising popularity of soccer in the United States. But perhaps the more pressing question should be: how does it compare to other popular sporting events in the country?
If we are to go by a 2018 Gallup poll, soccer ranked a strong fourth behind American football, basketball, and baseball. Fourth behind these three mainstream sporting giants is not bad, and could only get better even with the continuing challenges of the pandemic.
The game is popular, not just in major league soccer competitions highlighted by some of the world’s finest soccer stars, but also in high school and college leagues that provide opportunities for players of all ages, and ensure growth, fan engagement, and continuous development of soccer in the country.
In New Jersey, for example, a comprehensive soccer development program is in place for soccer-playing boys and girls. The program is intended to produce future players and create a solid fan base for the game. It has also created a safe environment for legal online sports betting in NJ because of the bettors’ improved understanding of the game.
According to Nielsen research, the growth of soccer has not limited to the sport of soccer in general, but also includes Major League Soccer (MLS), the country’s premier soccer league. The research agency noted a 27% increase in public interest in the MLS since 2012.
Analysts believe former English star David Beckham, who played for Manchester United and Real Madrid in the Premier League, is one of the biggest factors that sparked the growth of soccer in the United States. He played for LA Galaxy in the MLS, won back-to-back titles in the 2011 and 2012 MLS seasons, and attracted massive crowds to his games.
Beckham’s pacesetting move to play in the US encouraged other European stars, especially players from nearby Latin American countries, to follow suit, thereby enticing more US-based Latin Americans to watch soccer games in newly constructed soccer fields across the United States. The football legend retired from active competitions in 2013, and is presently an Inter Miami CF co-owner.
Another clear sign of soccer’s growing popularity has been the increasing number of participating teams in the MLS, from 10 teams during its inaugural games in 1996 to 28 teams, including three teams from Canada, in the forthcoming 2022 Major League Soccer season. Further expansion possibilities are being discussed to increase the number of MLS teams to 30.
Plans to construct more soccer-specific stadiums, training facilities, and staff housing are afoot despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, which had reportedly caused $1 billion in losses in 2020, due to game delays, postponements, and eventual cancellations.
Discussions are also up for the construction of an indoor, temperature-controlled soccer environment in Las Vegas, Nevada. The enormous cost involved in the construction of such a facility and an earnest desire to make that come true speak well of the investors’ confidence in the potential of the sport, despite the level of investment it requires.
The league is building on the momentum set by the 2021 season, which saw more teams, younger players, more stadiums, and more fans, regardless of where they were watching from – stadium or television. TV ratings are up, according to MLS commissioner Don Garber.
With 2022 being a World Cup year, the MLS is looking forward to another banner year for soccer, as it had in 1986 when the United States soccer team achieved its best World Cup result with a third place finish behind Argentina and West Germany.
If the US team could duplicate, if not improve, that performance, the game’s popularity in the US would certainly climb to record heights.