by Pete Dicce
In May of 1989, as I sat in the sparsely filled stands at a local college in
Southern California, I pondered the future of soccer in the United States while
watching my national team play Trinidad and Tobago in a World Cup qualifier.
The match took place within the dark ages of American soccer after the 1984
collapse of the North American Soccer League (NASL) and before Major League
Soccer (MLS) began in 1996. The future of soccer in America largely rested on
the team qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Italy and successfully hosting the
competition on our home soil in 1994.
In the past two decades, soccer has not only arrived in the United States,
but is thriving. There is no doubt about it…America has embraced soccer. Record
numbers of Americans watched this year’s World Cup with overall television
viewership up 44% since 2010, making America the second biggest overseas
television audience after Germany. Approximately 25 million people watched
the United States match against Portugal, an amount that exceeded the average
viewership for the World Series and NBA finals. In addition to consuming soccer
on television, this World Cup became the most streamed sporting event ever in
the United States with over 30 million hours logged. But the fandom doesn’t stop
there, outside of Brazil the United States purchased the largest number of tickets
to the World Cup.
The growing American interest in soccer is not surprising. A recent ESPN
Sports Poll Annual Report noted that MLS – not just soccer in general – is on
par with Major League Baseball (MLB) among young avid sports fans. Future
popularity will increase as the average age of Americans who call baseball their
favorite sport is 53, while those Americans who prefer soccer, by contrast,
average only 37. With this younger audience, the average attendance in MLS
stadiums that exceeds 18,000 per game, the third highest attendance amongst
the five major sports, is positioned to rise.
Hand in hand with the growing American spectator interest in soccer
is the improved quality of the U.S. National Team. Although once thought of as a team in over its head, the U.S. National team has participated in seven
consecutive World Cups and advanced out of four of the last six groups, a feat
that has eluded soccer powers such as the Netherlands, France and Mexico.
Advancing out of the group stage is never easy – just ask Italy, Spain and England
– and this year’s advancement out of the “Group of Death” with the eventual
champion Germany is evidence of its progression over the last 20 years.
The global soccer culture is changing in the United States and to some
people this threatens American exceptionalism. However, American kids, just
like those throughout the world wear the jerseys of Messi, Neymar and Muller.
You will see them wear the shirt of James Rodriguez, the young star from
Colombia of this year’s World Cup. Soon you will see those outside the United
States sport a NYC FC jersey. Soccer is a wonderful vehicle for bringing the world
together. To young American sports fans it connects them to the rest of the
The question isn’t whether professional soccer can succeed in America by
hosting another World Cup (the U.S, will likely host in 2026) or MLS developing
into one of the top leagues in the world (it is currently ranked seventh) or by
advancing deeper into the World Cup (the U.S. will reach another quarter-final,
then a semi-final and with any luck a final)…it’s whether soccer can connect us
to each other in a deeper and more meaningful way. The younger generation of
Americans embrace global interdependence with soccer as a format.
Back in 1989, I did not fully appreciate the importance of the match I was
watching nor did I envision how globally interdependent we would become.
The late Nelson Mandela articulated it best, “Sport has the power to change the
world…it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that
little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create
hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government
in breaking down racial barriers.” I guess that’s some of the reasons they call
soccer the “beautiful game.”
Pete Dicce is the Director of Athletics for NYU-Abu Dhabi in United Arab Emirates. A recent graduate of the Center for Sport Leadership, Pete, who spent 20 years as a practicing attorney before joining the sports industry, will be an instructor for our Sports Law class this Fall.
He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org