Despite being the most popular sport across the globe, soccer has seldom enjoyed popularity in the United States.
The fall of 2017 brought a potent reminder of the United States’ lag in soccer relative to the rest of the world when the men’s national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
The team’s absence caused last summer’s American World Cup TV ratings to plummet in comparison to the 2014 tournament, when the United States shocked the world by advancing to the knockout stage.
The NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB have consistently dominated the large and lucrative U.S. sports market. The least popular of these, the NHL, still brings in nearly 10 times the revenue of Major League Soccer, the top U.S. soccer division.
Despite the lack of viewership last summer and the dominance of other American sports, there are hopeful signs of soccer’s future in the American market.
American viewership of the English Premier League has increased in recent years due to NBC’s coverage of each game since the network bought the rights in 2013. Ratings for the 2017-18 season were up 14 percent from the previous year, reaching a record 39.3 million viewers.
The Premier League is certain to get a boost in U.S. ratings next season when 20-year-old American superstar Christian Pulisic joins the league. Pulisic shattered the record for the valuation of an American soccer player Jan. 2 when he signed with English club Chelsea for a fee of $73 million.
The MLS has yet to attract the level of talent of the major European leagues, but its level of interest among the general U.S. population has grown by 27 percent in the last six years, according to Nielsen.
A few local markets have done an excellent job of generating interest in their city’s MLS teams. Seattle has drawn over 40,000 fans per game for the past seven years, while Atlanta set a league record last season with 53,002 fans per game, including 71,812 for its home finale. These cities have succeeded by hosting their teams’ games in large venues where American football teams typically play as well as promoting merchandise sales.
The growth of the MLS, which plans to expand to 28 teams by 2021, is important for soccer’s overall expansion in the American market as it provides the best opportunity for fans to experience the sport firsthand.
While both European and American soccer games still struggle to get the level of coverage in mainstream media outlets that the four major American leagues receive, it should be noted that soccer’s audience in the United States is young. Eleven percent of Americans aged 18 to 34 listed soccer as their favorite sport, compared to one percent of those over 55.
This demographic reality means streaming platforms and social media apps, rather than traditional television coverage, are popular ways to consume soccer content.
Even as many older media gatekeepers ignore soccer, the future of sports viewership is in online experiences, where soccer will more easily compete with other sports.
With a rising American star taking Europe by storm, the growth of domestic teams in the United States and the excitement of the 2026 World Cup coming to North America, there are reasons for optimism about soccer’s growth, even in the only country that does not call it football.