I am a big soccer fan. When I was pretty little, I watched the 1994 World Cup and I fell in love. I’ve watched the last six World Cups, nine of the ten last UEFA Champions League finals, a huge amount of EPL and a good amount of MLS. Still, I couldn’t help wonder, why isn’t this sport more popular in this country? It’s got everything you’d want in a sport: fast action, lots of games, huge personalities, a massive amount of different playing styles, a rich history, passionate fans, I could go on.
Here’s what I found looking into the question. In the early days of codified soccer (in the mid 19th century) soccer was actually fairly popular in the US, at least compared to the mid-20th century. A few things happened.
First, other “American” sports became much more popular. Well-organized “professional” soccer started to spring up around the world around the end of the 19th century. This is reflected in the names of many German football clubs: the “96” in Hanover 96 refers to being founded in 1896, similarly FC Hanau 93 was founded in 1893. By that time, there were already dozens of professional baseball teams, starting back to nearly the Civil War, and American Football had spread widely via college teams. In this way, America’s sports culture was already created by the time soccer arrived. A similar thing happened in Australia and Canada.
Second, the United States has mostly lacked a high-level, professional league. The US has had a spotty record of fielding top-level leagues, partly because of the early popularity of “American” sports. America’s first attempt at a high-level league, the “North American Soccer League“, started only in the late 1960s and folded. US didn’t get another league with reasonable following until the 1990s when the MLS was started, and it has had some rocky periods in its history as well. The MLS looks to be part of the American sports furniture at this point, but it’s still a relatively minor one.
Relative to countries, the US has had a dearth of youth development programs, which has meant the best American athletes go into “American” sports. There are literally more than a million high school football players, and something like 60,000 college football players. The numbers are similar for basketball and baseball. Every high school in the country has an organized football system with coaches who are familiar. The same cannot be said for soccer.
In fact, many parents put their kids into soccer precisely because they see it as not as dangerous or as competitive as American sports are, so many US soccer programs for kids are more like fitness activities than completion. This is actually very wrong, soccer is one of the highest injury-causing sports, and there’s a reason most players don’t play into their mid-30s. Still, in Europe, most professional teams field academies where young kids are brought up in a difficult and competitive environment and are thus much better prepared with professional experience.
This lack of decent quality means the US hasn’t been good internationally, which means the US fans are less interested. The MLS has gotten better, but without a top-quality league, the US isn’t watching the best soccer. Without top-quality players, the US hasn’t done well at world cups. This reinforces in the minds of Americans that the sport is for people from other countries. Americans don’t really feel good about watching a sport where they might lose to Costa Rica.
Money is a factor as well. The best paid American soccer players make a few million a year (I think Clint Dempsey gets something like $7 million a year), while someone like LeBron James can make $25 million a year, and has been doing that for more than 13 years. A top American athlete in middle school/high school might look at Miguel Cabrera’s $293 million, Colin Kaepernick’s $110 million or Kevin Love’s $110 million contract and realize that only Ronaldo or Messi make that much cash playing soccer (in Cabrera’s case, that’s probably more than Messi or Ronaldo or the time period, Cabrera will be 40 when the contract ends, and both the soccer players will be retired). He may then decide that he’s better off sticking with American sports. Ronaldo and Messi make a ton of money from endorsements, but because soccer isn’t as popular, American kids don’t see those ads, and may not realize the money is there.
Now it’s possible that development programs are getting better as the MLS gets better. The US’s last World Cup Squad has a player from the Seattle Sounder’s youth academy, DeAndre Yedlin, and he’s playing well in the top levels of English Soccer. So we could see something different from the US in another 10 years. Still, Soccer has been the “Sport of the Future” in the US for decades, and it may remain that way for decades more.