Will World Cup Kick Soccer Into Mainstream In U.S.?

July 15, 2011

I was listening to KFAN, one of our local sports radio stations, on my way to work Wednesday morning and the lead-in to the 9 a.m.-to-noon show was “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. With baseball in its All-Star break and football, hockey and basketball out of season, I couldn’t figure out what the song could possibly be referring to in the middle of what many call the “sports abyss.”

When the host chimed in and started talking about the U.S./France Women’s World Cup soccer match, I almost drove off the road. I’m fairly certain the station hasn’t had a substantive discussion about soccer in the last year, so this display of bandwagon jumping seemed a bit comical.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly fine with people rallying around the home team, even if the World Cup hasn’t cracked my list of must-see TV. The thing I can’t endure is the inevitable question that will follow the success of the U.S. squad: “Will this finally make soccer popular in the U.S.?”

  • We heard it when the legendary Pele came to the U.S. to play for the New York Cosmos in the ‘70s.
  • We heard it when Brandi Chastain clinched the 1999 World Cup for the U.S. women and memorably tore off her jersey in celebration.
  • We heard it when international icon David Beckham signed on to play for the L.A. Galaxy of the MLS.
  • We heard it when the U.S. men’s team made a thrilling run in the 2010 World Cup.

Things didn’t change then and things won’t change now. For hopeful soccer fans, it’s like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown again and again. There will be a bit of hoopla before momentum is lost and soccer finds itself beneath football, baseball, basketball, hockey, NASCAR, golf, boxing and Mixed Martial Arts in the fight for highlights on SportsCenter.

But the funny thing is – if someone randomly asked me if soccer was popular in the U.S., I’d probably say yes. It’s all about context. Youth participation is huge. Attendance numbers for several MLS teams are respectable and the country pays attention when the World Cup rolls around every four years.

The U.S. is dramatically different than other countries on countless fronts, so why are we so intent on comparing the popularity of soccer here to the rest of the world? Let’s accept soccer in this country for what it is – a popular niche sport. We have too many choices and other sports have too big of a head start.

I hope the U.S. women bring home the World Cup this weekend. But will it help make soccer a mainstream sport in the U.S.? No way. Now please stop asking the question.