How big is soccer in the States?


Let me just start by saying that it’s football not soccer. Good. That’s cleared up.

On Thursday morning I got back from a four day long trip to the United States of America, where football as we know it has apparently come on a long way in the last few years.

The hype really started when David Beckham, perhaps the most famous footballer of the modern era, signed for Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. Since then, players such as Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and now Steven Gerrard have all moved across the Atlantic, promoting the sport in the US.

One particular souvenir that I was looking for when I was in America was a New York Red Bulls shirt. It would be easy I thought. There are sports shops everywhere in this country, so it must be the same over there.

I was sort of correct. There are sports shops everywhere, places such as Foot Locker and Locker Room. But in these shops there were no ‘soccer’ shirts. There was only merchandise from baseball, basketball and American football.

David Beckham signs for LA Galaxy in 2007.
David Beckham signs for LA Galaxy in 2007.

In fact, I only found one Red Bulls shirt in my entire time in New York, and that was in a gift shop for $100. A price I wasn’t willing to pay.

This lack of soccer shirts surprised my friends and I, especially as I thought the sport was now fairly big in the States. Obviously not. Advertising in Times Square and in subway stations was all about basketball, and by the end of my trip I was sick to the sight of LeBron James.

So my trip ended without the purchase of a shirt. I have ended up buying one on the internet for £45. That’s roughly $69, much cheaper than the one in the overpriced gift shop.

So is soccer actually that popular in the USA?

The country appeared to be struck with a huge case of World Cup fever in the summer as the national team reached the round of 16, surprisingly getting through ‘the group of death’.

The support for the national team was huge at the World Cup
The support for the national team was huge at the World Cup.

For their game against Germany, an estimated 20 million Americans tuned in to watch, president Barack Obama included who watched it aboard Air Force One at 40,000 feet.

They stepped it up again for the Belgium game, as millions of Americans stopped work early to watch their national football team play for a place in the World Cup quarter-finals. Big screens were erected in public viewing areas across the country, including at Chicago’s American football stadium. You can read about it fully in my piece that I wrote at the time: I believe that we will win!

Viewers watching ESPN’s live stream of the Belgium match logged more than thirty million hours, making it the most streamed sporting event yet in the United States – more than the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and the NBA play-offs.

What about the country’s national league, the MLS? A new team – New York City will join when it restarts, whilst David Beckham is in the process in creating a team in Miami.

In recent years, the league has been growing steadily, and, with about six million fans attending matches during the 2013 season, it is already the world’s eighth-most-popular football league. Some U.S. teams attract really big crowds.

New York City will join the MLS in the new season next month.
New York City will join the MLS in the new season next month.

In 2013, for example, the Seattle Sounders, had an average attendance of forty-three thousand, which is more people than the New York Yankees (baseball) are drawing this year at their home games.

These statistics may disprove my findings in New York, which is obviously only a tiny part of America.

There’s no question that the sport can thrive in America. It’s already demonstrated that it can. But will it eventually outgrow one of the other big sports?

The MLS season runs from March through October, with November given over to the play-offs. That means its climax coincides with the heart of the N.F.L. season, which tends to eclipse it.

Despite the signing of new stars and the launch of new teams such as New York City FC, it’s difficult to see this changing. Soccer is popular, but the N.F.L. is huge. In terms of terms of money, fan interest, and viewer-ship, it increasingly overshadows not just soccer but the other big three sports as well.

I hope it’s popularity does increase though, and maybe next time I visit New York, I will actually be able to buy a reasonably priced shirt…


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