The 2018 World Cup is around the corner, and billions of people around the world will be glued to the matches.
But what about Americans? The men’s national team didn’t qualify for the global tournament for the first time since 1986.
What’s the state of soccer in the United States?
“Overall, soccer is stronger than it ever has been,” said Michael Kammarman a spokesman for the United States Soccer Federation.
According to a 2014 ESPN survey, the popularity of professional soccer in the United States equaled that of professional baseball among 12 to 17 year olds, a first.
Furthermore, a 2018 Gallup poll found that soccer had eclipsed hockey as the fourth most popular sport in the country, behind American football, basketball and baseball. That survey found that 37 percent of Americans said American football was their favorite sport to watch. That compared to 11 percent for basketball, nine percent for baseball and seven percent for soccer.
Kammarman said the 1994 World Cup, which was hosted by the United States, was the turning point for soccer here.
“It remains the most successful World Cup in history in terms of spectators and revenue,” said Kammarman. “It demonstrated to the world that soccer was serious here.”
In fact, two years after the 1994 World Cup, the professional Major League Soccer (MLS) had its first season.
Since then, the number of MLS teams has grown from 12 to 23, according to Kammarman. He added the league will soon grow to 28 teams. Average attendance in 2014 was over 19,000.
Kammarman also points to the success of women’s soccer as a driver for the sport in the United States. The national team is ranked No. 1 in the world and has won numerous Olympic gold medals and World Cups.
Kammarman added the U.S. women’s national team victory in the 1999 World Cup was another important milestone for American soccer.
Hispanic-Americans, too, are making soccer more popular. According to a recent YouGov poll, 56 percent reported following soccer in non-World Cup years.
Millennials are increasingly interested in soccer, Kammarman said.
“They are seeing a lot of different things to like about soccer. They like the communal nature and the fan experience, as well as the global nature of the sport.”
Technology is also raising soccer’s profile in the United States.
Kammarman said the FIFA Soccer video games, which have been hugely popular among gamers and soccer fans, have made Americans increasingly aware of soccer’s superstars such as Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
He added that soccer was also one of the first sports in the country for which fans went to the internet to follow because there was little coverage on television and in the news.
Kammarman doesn’t see the failure of the U.S. men’s team to make the World Cup as endangering the growth of soccer here.
“It was a disappointment, but not a setback,” he said. “If this had happened in 2002, it could have really stunted the momentum the sport had.”
The U.S. team made the quarterfinals in that World Cup, the first time in 72 years the team made it that far, Kammarman said.
That success, he said, gave young American players inspiration to pursue soccer. Between 1990 and 2014, the number of youth players in the country rose by 89 percent. In 2015, there were nearly 25 million soccer players in the United States, second only to China.