Traditionally, the U.S. has never been as interested in soccer as other countries. However, the 2014 World Cup has seen a massive spike in American soccer fans, prompting a debate as to whether the U.S. could become a soccer nation.
The New York Daily News reported that the recent game between the U.S. and Portugal was the most-watched soccer game in American TV history. Forbes reports that the USA verses Belgium game on Tuesday had the highest rating for a World Cup match on ESPN or ESPN2, and ESPN’s viewership peaked at 1,500,000 concurrent viewers.
“The number of people who watched Sunday's game in the United States is more than twice the entire population of Portugal,” according to Dan Levy of the Bleacher Report.
The numbers, wrote Levy, have something important to tell us.
“For starters, there is an audience out there of fans who care about the sport of soccer,” he wrote. “And while the numbers aren't as big as some of the more traditional American sports on television, it doesn't have to be for the game to thrive.”
People are paying attention, he concluded, even if the sport isn’t yet as mainstream as American football.
“The World Cup is the biggest sporting event on the planet,” he wrote. “This year, it's really starting to feel that way in America.”
A large part of this newfound popularity is due to the changing demographics in the U.S., reports the Daily Beast’s Kristen Anderson.
“The rise of World Cup soccer in America is being driven by two colliding, massive forces that have been in the works for decades: the preferences of the young and of the growing Hispanic population,” wrote Anderson. “The same forces that have recently reshaped politics, media, and commerce have fed the swell of support for #USMNT.”
Anderson went on to say that after the World Cup ends, “many will wonder if the fever will pass and Americans will go back to being apathetic about soccer. It wouldn’t be the first time that a major national trend, driven by the preferences of a diverse young generation, was dismissed as a fad.”
However, she continued, this new trend is different than those that Americans have seen in the past.
“The difference today is that this isn’t about a single celebrity or fad,” she wrote. “It’s seeds planted long ago that are starting to bloom. If you want to predict trends in America, whether in politics or products, World Cup mania should serve as a wake-up call.”
Others disagree, arguing that the popularity of soccer has been confused with the popularity of the World Cup and other major events.
Basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an article in TIME stating that “The World Cup, like the Olympics, happens every four years, so the rarity factor alone will account for inflated ratings. For a more realistic view of its popularity as a professional sport, we need to look at how many people watch on a regular basis.”
That prognosis, he continued, doesn’t look good for American soccer. The average number of American Major League Soccer viewers is about 1,740,000, compared to the NBA’s average of 2 million and the NFL’s 17.6 million, according to Abdul-Jabbar.
Soccer, he concluded, “though slowly growing, is not nearly enough to overcome the traditional favorites.”
The game doesn’t have enough to offer American audiences, he concluded. “To do that you have to bring something better (than what other sports have to offer),” he wrote. “More excitement. More skill. More entertainment. For most Americans, soccer just doesn’t do that. And once the World Cup is over, soccer in the U.S. will return to its sick bed and dream of glory.”
Additionally, a recent Wall Street Journal poll found that 40 percent of Americans reportedly cared “not at all” about the World Cup, compared to the 12 percent who reported caring a “great deal.”
The poll found that the World Cup was most popular among the wealthy, the educated and Hispanic minority groups. It remains to be seen whether these groups will have enough sway to popularize soccer in the states.
Matthew Futterman of the Wall Street Journal summed up his feelings on the issue in his piece “What Now for America and Soccer?”
“Developing great American players … means creating a culture where kids have a soccer ball at their feet in every spare moment — at lunchtime in the schoolyard, after school in the park, in organized practices but, just as importantly, in pickup games in the playground, where true creativity flourishes,” he wrote. “To commit is to sign on for the journey, not the destination. So, are we serious?”
Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. Twitter: BethanO2