Why Is Soccer Not As Popular In The U.S.?

It’s by far the most popular sport on the planet, so why haven’t Americans taken soccer – or football – to their hearts in the same way as much of the rest of the world?

In the countries where it is the number one sport, it’s often referred to as ‘the beautiful game’, yet in America, it remains a niche sport – and several people have put forward their own theories as to why they believe this to be the case.

There are a handful of possible reasons why soccer hasn’t taken off in the US, and some, while obvious, are somewhat perverse.

Let’s start with one such example:

Americans Aren’t Number 1 at Soccer

In a nation that is obsessed with being the best at everything, the fact that so many other countries are so much better than it at soccer really rankles with many Americans. Variants have been played for many centuries, and there’s no real reason why soccer hasn’t struck a chord with Americans and established itself at the grassroots in the same way as it has elsewhere.

Then there are a few considerations arising from the way Americans like to watch sport, such as:

Soccer Games Are Too Long

A soccer game lasts too long, with just a half-time break – and when other interruptions do come, they’re unpredictable: Americans are hard-wired to take their sports in short bursts, with ample opportunities for the action to cut away so that commercial breaks can be fitted in. American football, basketball and ice hockey all have rules which lead to regular breaks in the flow of the game, which make them ideal for slotting in a quick ad. If broadcasters tried to do the same with soccer, followers would miss big chunks of the action, and the game just wouldn’t be the same, because the action often comes thick and fast, and even when a free kick or penalty are awarded, they are usually taken very quickly. That means the TV networks can’t book anywhere near as many lucrative slots for big businesses to advertise their products to the captive audience watching a game in the same way as they can with, say, American football or basketball. They can, of course, rake in the money for the slots at the beginning and end and at half-time in each game, but then, there are big chunks of action between these breaks which don’t let brands push their products relentlessly to the audience in the same way as with the sports Americans love more. Also, a half-time break in soccer, at 10 to 15 minutes, is long enough to enable spectators to do other things, most notably get themselves some refreshments.

Less Leisure Time

Americans have less leisure time, so attending a soccer game – or just watching it on T.V. – is a big commitment: Soccer fans around the world tend to build their schedule for the whole day around watching a match. In many countries, such as Germany, France and Spain, traveling to watch your team in an away match often involves a journey of several hours, so if you want to follow your team seriously, this is a logistical necessity. Because of this, the fans may also combine going to a soccer match with other leisure activities. They will, as the British say, ‘make a day or a weekend of it’, just as they might do when they attend music concerts or other major events. With fewer large windows free in their schedules, Americans just aren’t used to making the kind of plans needed for example when traveling to watch your football team play an away game, and the sheer size of the U.S.A. means most sports fixtures are largely attended by fans of the home team.

Other reasons for soccer not being able to establish such a grip on the American consciousness include:

No History

Little or no history of families and communities passing down a tradition of supporting a particular team: Of course, all professional sports teams draw a large element of their following from the local area around their home base. But soccer fans are known for taking their love for a particular team to the extreme – and once they have built an affinity with that team, nothing will break it, even if they move away from that team’s local area. Also, certainly at the elite level of the English Premier League, every team spends massive sums in trying to attract fans from outside their immediate locality, and importantly, every team gets good levels of exposure thanks to every match being broadcast widely, be it on radio, T.V., or online. So it’s perfectly reasonable for a neutral fan, who might not have a local team to follow, to latch on to another team, and follow that team in preference to any other over a long period. In the U.S., by contrast, because of the long distances involved and major differences between the larger cities where soccer is played, it is very difficult for any of the Major Soccer League teams – or indeed any team at a lower level – to pick up a following outside their immediate catchment area.

There Isn’t Always A Winner

No guarantee that one team will be a winner: Americans like things to be clear-cut. A draw is no good for anyone as far as their sports fans are concerned, yet that is regularly the outcome after two soccer teams have battled it out for 90 minutes. That’s not to say, of course, that soccer doesn’t love a winner – on a week-to-week basis, of course, the teams which win the most games will take the top honors and win the trophies on offer. 

But equally, in soccer, there is much credit to be earned by a team that fiercely plays a defensive game for 90 minutes, and manages to prevent its opponents from scoring a goal or, ultimately, winning a game.

As far as Americans are concerned, a draw is always an unsatisfactory outcome – in the world of soccer, it can often be a result that earns a team some credit.

Americans Like Big Numbers

American sport is often all about big numbers: Basketball, baseball and American football are all marked out by the fact that the scorelines feature some big numbers, yet by contrast, a game of soccer will regularly be won by just a single goal, or can even end as a 0-0 draw. That just won’t do for most Americans, and soccer teams’ natural tendency to start to defend once they have established even just a lead of a single goal weakens the appeal of the game to them. That can, and does, lead to some teams winning a game when the quality of their play has not really merited it – and Americans can’t stand an undeserving winner.

Soccer Welcomes Underdogs

Even an underdog can enjoy soccer (sometimes): Americans grow up in a culture where winning is everything. Yet many soccer fans follow their team regardless of how badly they are playing, and for how long they fail to win a game. Supporting a soccer team involves at least a degree of fatalism, in knowing that your team is very likely to lose at least as many games as they win, and that even the most lauded player will have an off-day at some point and be made to look very ordinary.

This mixture of fortunes is part and parcel of football in general. And while, over time, it does result in more fans gravitating towards the teams which have the most success, the strength of football overall lies in the fact that its fans are so loyal to their team, and often become conditioned to being philosophical and realizing that they will never be as good as those in the game’s elite.

The Rise of Theatrics

The rise of the professional foul, and petty theatrics: This merely helps create an image of soccer as a game in which the major stars are a bunch of overpaid prima donnas, who will try to con the referee to get their way. The fact that players often resort to fouling another to stop them from running past them and scoring a goal is another factor which Americans find a turn-off.

A Crowded Market

Fighting to find a space in a crowded market:  With baseball, basketball and American Football, plus ice hockey in the winter, all jockeying for T.V. slots, and having got in there first, there are few opportunities for soccer to carve out a place in the schedules, which means it is at a disadvantage when it comes to even getting a chance to prove that it can be a good watch. 

Old Soccer Perceptions

Soccer has a perception of being run by old men: There is a clear hierarchy in the game, with, at the global and international level, the highest-profile governing bodies, F.I.F.A. and U.E.F.A. seen as holding a great deal of power, yet often finding themselves embroiled in controversy and scandal. These organizations also appear, to many outside the game, to be run by elderly men whose association with the game is, at best, tenuous. The structures of these bodies also appear to many to be opaque, with little accountability to the fan who watches the game week after week.

MLS Perceptions

The perception of MLS as a retirement home for once-great players from around the world, and the lack of home-grown talent reaching the highest level: However well such renowned players as Pele, Inter Miami striker Gonzalo Higuain, Colombian superstar midfielder Carlos Valderrama, and David Villa and Andrea Pirlo, who made a formidable striking pair for New York City, do, they will always face accusations that they have come to America for one last big payday before retiring.

Yet There Is A Light At The End Of The Tunnel

And that is in the fact that soccer is growing in popularity at both youth and women’s levels.

Parents are often happy to let their children play soccer at school because they believe that it’s safer than either baseball or American football.

The game has also made huge strides among women, the U.S. having won the women’s version of the World Cup three times. Somewhat ironically, some of the best American women players have enjoyed careers that have really taken off once they have moved to clubs in Europe, but which they could not have done had they not first enjoyed some domestic success.

Football’s world governing body, F.I.F.A., has also decided that the sport’s ultimate international event, the World Cup, will be staged in 2026 across the U.S.A., Canada and Mexico.

It would not have taken this step if it did not believe there was tremendous scope to use the tournament as a catalyst to greatly boost its popularity across the host nations.

With the might of American marketing behind it, and the prospect of the world’s best players all putting themselves in front of a new audience, it could be that the event will finally give soccer the impetus to really establish itself in the biggest market it has so far failed to conquer.