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The Rising Popularity of Soccer in America
On June 22nd of 2014, the United States men's soccer team drew with Portugal in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, with Portugal coming back in the last second to earn that draw. The heart-wrenching game was 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 showcased a ton of interest for the national team, the World Cup, the entire sport of soccer, that has never seen so much interest or passion for it in the United States. For a number of reasons, soccer's growth in the United States has risen tremendously, and it will only keep growing for the next several years.
One factor that definitely 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 nationally, Social media has also aided the sport in overcoming America's old social stigmas against the sport. Stigmas such as:
"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 dictated soccer's presence in a crowded American sports market that sees football - "American football" as it were - remain on top by an incredible margin. However, I believe that there has always been a strong contingent of soccer fans here in America throughout the years, who have mostly remained silent as a result of the stigmas American culture had produced regarding 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 criticism and scorn across the social landscape. The American general viewpoint towards soccer is no longer "soccer isn't cool", rather, its now "hating soccer isn't cool".
Are you a fan of soccer, and are you American?
A Global Sport for a Globalized Nation
Soccer's growth in the United States can also be attributed from the decline in the importance of locality. By which I mean, fewer and fewer sports fans take stock into rooting for local teams - and the leagues which have teams in their local areas - and will openly and freely root for any team, in any league, based anywhere. This is simply because technology today has allowed people to do just that, whereas in the past all people had was local TV coverage of local teams, restricting access to fans to just those local teams.
Additionally, the NFL and other leagues in America 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 now 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 as opposed to going to the ball park to catch some baseball, but as long as networks show them overseas soccer, they'll be more than happy to root for Liverpool no matter where they live.
It also helps that soccer hasn't really done anything to damage its reputation nationally just yet. The four "big" leagues in the United States have done multiple things to discourage interest in their sports, including:
- The NFL has had major problems with controversies surrounding concussions and head injuries, both with the lack of prevention towards them in the past, and the now over-zealous efforts to stop them in the present.
- The NFL also has problems with discipline. Strict rules are in place where a player must be suspended 4 games for being found smoking marijuana - even though its technically legal in two states now - but there's no such rules in place for other legal issues. Giving Ray Rice a 2 game suspension for beating his then-fiancee has trigged angered across the sports world.
- Baseball has spent nearly a decade now dealing with steroids and how void many of their players and their relevant statistics may of become. Baseball has also become a sport enjoyed by a mostly older crowd (much older average age than any other sport), which could greatly affect its popularity in years to come.
- The NHL has had three lockouts since 1995 - only two teams have even won at least three Stanley Cups in that span - completely draining interest each time and ruining fan trust with teams and players.
While soccer isn't without its problems (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, at least not 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 have become somewhat linked. As social media continue to develop, grow and expand its role in American society, soccer's growth will do the same. 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. Even then, the mindset towards soccer in this country has changed and even the downfall of social media may not be enough to stop its rise. Of course, I make it sound like its some kind of sleeping behemoth that needs to be sealed again, but soccer is a sport that is finally getting the recognition in America that it enjoys nearly everywhere else in the world, and that momentum definitely isn't slowing down just because the World Cup is over.