As the Confederations Cup comes to a close and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil nears, the time honored sporting question of “why is soccer not popular in the United States” rears its head. But with television leading the way to a new generation of fans, it may be time to bury this discussion once and for all.
Soccer in the United States has slowly been building momentum since the 1994 World Cup. It is one of the most popular youth sports. Yet there exists a chasm somewhere in an athlete’s early teens and late teens when they not only stop playing the sport, but turn it off completely. This divide remains one of the big questions for the game. Enter ESPN.
Similar to the Olympics, the World Cup is the best marketing tool for a sport to reach the United States audience. Sporting popularity in the United States begins with television, namely through the branding and marketing reach of ESPN. But like the sports that make up the Olympics, soccer had a difficult time holding people’s attentions in off years, relegated to channels like Fox Soccer or Gol TV that made up the backwoods of cable subscriptions. The 2010 World Cup marked a significant change. Not only did ESPN add more promotion to the fast growing MLS (it has the 8th highest average attendance in leagues around the world), they began broadcasting the English Premier League. Its effect cannot be understated – every weekend, viewers, especially the youth, could see the best players in the world. Their talents filled imaginations, transcending the sport from halftime oranges to an art form.
NBC plans to take the foundation ESPN set to new heights. NBC bought the rights to the Premiership for the next three years. Their plan looks like soccer broadcasting on steroids. Championship Sundays; every match broadcasted or streamed; over 600 hours of content; this, in short, is what soccer fanatics have been waiting for, and the culmination of a plan 20 years in the making.
With the worldwide reach of the sport combined with a “skies the limit” growth in the states, soccer may be the most dynamic area of marketing growth in the next couple decades. This blog has already covered Nike’s Neymar bet. Perhaps the question people should be asking isn’t “why isn’t soccer popular” in America, but “how popular can soccer be?”