Sports occupies a unique space in North American culture, simultaneously a central part of people’s lives and a detachable, transactional relationship between the sport and the individual consumer.
This is at odds with how other regions in the world engage in sport. Whether it’s the one-sport fanaticism that you’ll find in India or Brazil or the fierce tribalism you’ll find in sports fans in the UK, Americans treat sport differently.
This has to do with the proliferation of several elite-level sports in the US, and the commercialisation of fandom and sporting culture over the last century. A sport is a cultural experience, a financial transaction, a tribal camaraderie and pure entertainment, all in one. The maturity of the sporting market in the US is unlike any you’ll encounter elsewhere in the world (although culturally, Australia with their multi-sport approach to life come close).
And that is precisely why most people – analysts – get it wrong when understanding or predicting the future of soccer (football) stateside. Either you are looking at it from your experiences in the NFL, NBA et al, in which case a lot of it doesn’t make sense, or you are looking at it as an outsider, where you don’t understand how an outsider sport can break become a cultural mainstay like baseball.
Soccer league failures (NASL and WUSA), the struggles faced by MLS and NWSL, contrasted with the success of the USWNT and relative popularity of the sport in terms of fans and viewing figures make for a complex analysis. Grassroots soccer is wildly popular and soccer is the most popular game at the amateur/school level. In 2017, Gallup reported that Soccer was the third-most watched team sport behind basketball and American football (and those numbers have only improved in soccer’s favour since then). And yet, NWSL faces funding issues, MLS players, barring a few top imports from Europe, earn a fraction of what established stars in other major sports leagues earn in the US.
All the focus, it seems, is towards soccer being played elsewhere (courtesy of expats, immigrants and a growing Hispanic population), and very little on the domestic product.
This makes the US a great market for European sports teams to invest in (and vice-versa – Americans make up a sizeable portion of owners of Premier League clubs in the UK), but not for US investors themselves, it seems, to build upon. The MLS suffers from a combination of issues (discussed at length elsewhere) but primarily, it competes against far more established and richer leagues that boast a better product. It has no problem building and retaining a core audience, but it needs to dominate the domestic viewing audience first. That means it needs better players, which means more investment, which means it needs to be more profitable, which means it needs a bigger audience.
In the US, changing demographics will lead to some cultural changes over the next few decades, but it won’t change the fact that the domestic soccer product needs to improve. As far soccer’s popularity in the US is concerned, European teams will be working to make it the most-watched sport before the end of the century.
Soccer’s popularity in the US is not in question. Making the sport domestically relevant though, will need far more concerted effort and investment than we have seen in the last two decades.