I spent this year travelling the United States, a country known for basketball, baseball and American football. While I gained an interest in the NFL, particularly the Baltimore Ravens, I also noticed the rise in popularity of good old European style football.
Fifteen years ago when I first traveled to the United States the only team anyone I met knew of was Manchester United but this year I spent my time among Barcelona, Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester City, Newcastle, Spurs and even a Leeds Fan. Everywhere I looked there were football kits and to my surprise there was excitement for football matches.
This article will examine the increase of popularity of football or 'soccer' in the United States.
1. The Rise of The American Football Player
Fifteen years ago when I first arrived in America, there were very few football stars from the United States. This year, after pondering the reasons for the growth of support in America, I came to the realisation there was also a growth in American players.
The English game has been graced with some fairly good players from the United States in recent years such as Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Brad Guzan.
Additionally, the Germany and Italian leagues have Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. Lastly, the MLS has Landon Donovan to rally behind. None of these players can be considered world class but they are all established players within some of the biggest leagues in the world and players that the American people take great pride supporting.
2. World Cup Joy
The best way to ensure a sport gains support is through success, many begin to follow a sport when their country is successful. The recent success of Irish golfers has led to a revival of support for the sport in Ireland. The recent success of the United States in the World Cup has given many Americans something to cheer about. While the team did not win the World Cup, they did make it through to the knock out stages (topping their group) and produced some memorable performances against the English national team and quarter-finalists Ghana.
The fact the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994 led to an increase in popularity in the country but it is this recent on field success that has led to the rise of the sport in the USA. In fact, there is a positive vibe among many American football fans that the team can cause an upset in the 2014 World Cup. Furthermore, the fact the 2014 World Cup is to be located in Brazil has been a cause for excitement due to the fact it is in South America.
3. The Growth of the MLS
When Major League Soccer was formed in 1993, many doubted its ability to survive and yet today it is a growing football market. The league has grown in numbers, with nineteen teams competing in the league from the United States and Canada.
In addition to the growth of the number of teams there is also a growth in player quality. The arrival of David Beckham heralded in the great age of mega-names join the MLS roster. Since the arrival of Becks, the MLS has seen Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, TIm Cahill and Obafemi Martins.
These big names have boasted shirt sales and interest within the leagues because now the American people can watch players like Henry in their own stadium instead of on ESPN or FIFA. Furthmore more big name signings are likely to follow with both Defoe and Lampard linked with moves to the MLS.
These big name signings, particularly Beckham and Henry had a marketability which had not been available since the MLS was formed. With an increase in big name players came an increase in stadium sellouts and shirt signings. Teams have become so popular that many have expressed an interest in increasing their stadium capacity. One example of this is the San Jose earthquakes who have recently announced the development of a new stadium which will be complete in 2014.
Television success has been another factor which has contributed to the rise of popularity of football in the United States. The MLS is the fast growing sport in the United States in terms of television sponsorship and viewership. The fact the MLS is s growing television success means that more people have been able to watch it and gain a knowledge of the sport. This increase in television success has led to bigger sponsorship deals from television companies which has given clubs an increase in revenue.
An Increase in Gaming
Anyone who has played FIFA will tell you it is a thrilling ride. There is nothing like playing Madrid vs Barcelona and scoring a last minute winner with Ronaldo or Messi. This is something that is not lost on the American people and it has become very common among college kids to play the game during their spare time.
FIFA has seen record sales in the United States and for many, this video game is an gateway into the world of football. My close friend form Philadelphia became a Newcastle fan because of his love for playing Fifa which is a common through the states as ESPN's Roger Bennett has noted.
Football has a long history in England, Spain and France etc and many young men and women grow up supporting the club of their family but in the United States, a country with little football history, playing FIFA has been the most successful tool in converting American children to the sport.
While it is impossible to pinpoint the exact reason that football has become increasing popular in the United States but the increase in popularity of the MLS, the growth of quality American players, the recent on field success of the national team and the success of football based video games have surely been a factor.
It is this blend of reasons that has led to football or 'soccer' being dubbed the second most popular sport for young people aged 18-22 and the most popular sport of people aged 12-16. The increase in big name signing in the future, the continued growth of the MLS and a strong grassroots programme will see a more successful era of football in the future and could see football soon rival some of the other big sports in the United States.
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