The United States drew with Portugal in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil on June 22nd in heartbreaking fashion. It was also the highest rated soccer game ever broadcasted in America, and the highest rated ESPN broadcast that wasn’t an NFL or college football game. The U.S. thrilling victory over Ghana prior to that also garnered a ton of interest for a national team, an event, an entire sport, that has never seen so much discussion for it in the United States. Soccer’s growth in American has risen tremendously, and it will only keep growing in the years to come.
One factor I think plays into this growth is social media, and not just its use in both this and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where the United States’ amazing 1-0 win over Algeria really kickstarted the sport’s boom, but also its use in overcoming America’s old social stigma against the sport.
“It’s for kids after school.”
“It’s not very tough like football.”
“So boring, 90 minutes of just running around.”
“Too many ties, this sport just isn’t for me.”
…and so on. For years, decades, these and similar phrases basically dictated soccer’s presence in a crowded American sports market that sees football – “American football” as it were – remain its king and NBA basketball, er, its prince. However, I’m under the belief that there always has been a strong contingent of soccer fans here in America, who have mostly remained silent throughout the years because of the stigmas American culture had produced over it. The advent of social media have allowed these people to toss aside those stigmas and let loose just how much they love this sport and advertise its greatness to others in ways never before possible. In fact, the social media landscape is now as such that if someone notable – a writer or athlete – disparages soccer, they’re going to catch a lot of flak across the social landscape. The social landscape is no longer “soccer isn’t cool”, its “hating soccer isn’t cool”.
Another factor comes from the decline in the importance of locality. For instance, the NFL and other popular sports had been aided in popularity by the fact that their North American-based leagues are the best leagues in the world for their particular sports, and so Americans are treated to watch the best in the world play basketball, baseball, hockey, etc. right in their national borders (or Canada). That just doesn’t happen with soccer – the best leagues are in Europe, and the local league (Major League Soccer) is the equivalent of AA Minor League Baseball or Division II college football. However, thanks again to social media, many fans are no longer bound by local or national boundaries to their sports fandoms and happily and actively root for teams across oceans. It’s not uncommon now to see people who root for the full slate of, say, Philadelphia’s sports team as well as Manchester City. Whether it’s the cause or an effect, the increase of national broadcasting of English Premier League games nationally has only broadened interest locally as well. Sure, most people here will have trouble actually attending an EPL match, but as long as networks show them the games they’ll be more than happy to root for Liverpool and their local teams in other sports.
It also helps that soccer hasn’t really done anything to damage its reputation nationally just yet. The NFL has had to deal with controversies with concussions and head injuries in recent years. Baseball is still struggling to get out of the wretched “steroid era” which had plagued it so. Fans of most NHL teams can say they’ve seen more crippling lockouts (3) than they have Stanley Cups (only two teams have won at least 3 Cups since the first lockout in 1995). While soccer isn’t without its complaints (numerous reports of corruption at various levels, and all of that diving), those haven’t really hit home yet and thus its many fans in America haven’t become weary or jaded by the sport’s misgivings just yet.
So then, how will the sport continue to maintain this popularity growth in years to come? As social media has helped it become as popular as it is now, the two are linked. As social media continue to develop and as it continues to increase its role in American society, soccer’s growth will continue as well. Really, at this point the only way soccer loses ground is if social media starts to fall apart, and I just don’t see that happening any time soon. I know it seems kind of odd to say, if you generalize it “soccer is popular thanks to social media”, but there’s no denying how much the latter has helped grow the sport in these last four years and its role going forward is critical to the sport’s continued growth.