A look at the rise of soccer in the United States
By: Sebastian Giraldo
As I’ve been involved in soccer my entire life, I have often been forced into the role of defender of all things soccer, from the popularity and beauty of the game all the way to the physicality and athleticism needed to be successful. In my daily soccer world, there is just no denying the growth of the game. Soccer-specific facilities, behemoth youth clubs, organized national youth championships, the rise of soccer professionals and the quantity of quality players are all indicators of the unstoppable soccer phenomenon.
But now we have reached a critical point in soccer’s journey to becoming a major sport in the United States.
Soccer is taking over whether you are ready or not
The reality is that with the much-anticipated FIFA World Cup in Brazil, we are about to get a gauge of what exactly has happened with soccer in the United States. For those intimately involved in the game, the experience will probably not be too shocking. For others, get ready because you are about to understand how entrenched soccer has become in the sociocultural fabric of our country.
To lessen the shock of what is to be an explosive month of soccer fandom and overall “soccering,” here is some important information about the beautiful game in the United States.
Major league soccer is healthy and growing
The 1994 World Cup started off the healthy rise of soccer in the United States and paved the path for major league soccer (MLS). Starting in 1996 with only 10 teams, the MLS now has 21 teams scattered across the nation. While there were definitely periods of instability, the MLS has firmly placed itself on the sports map with soccer-specific facilities, television contracts, lucrative sponsorships and events that attract international audiences.
According to Forbes, average MLS attendance has surged to 18,600 – a 35 percent increase from 2000. The Seattle Sounders led the league attendance with an average crowd of 44,038. Probably the most staggering statistic is that the MLS fan base is the fastest growing of any sport in the decade period between 2002 and 2012, according to an ESPN sports poll.
It might be hard for some to accept, but in a decade, the MLS has matched MLB in terms of popularity with teenagers. Soccer is not only growing rapidly with older generations, but firmly planting its roots in the hearts of the younger generations, which is a clear sign that the game is here to stay.
To the critics who always reference money as the true indicator of growth, the MLS recently signed a record-breaking television deal with ESPN, FOX and Univision estimated to be worth over $90 million annually, according to SportsBusiness Journal. This new deal is worth five times the current television deal.
To the critics who still manage some sort of argument against soccer’s growth, I simply say that all these numbers do not lie.
Soccer is growing in your backyard
When you take a casual stroll to a local shopping center, what do you see? Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta, Rooney and Donovan. This used to be the case only in soccer hotbeds like Los Angeles and Dallas, but now the popularity of soccer is popping out at us at every turn. Most people see this and recognize it, but the foundation for soccer is stronger than most know.
U.S. Youth Soccer is the largest youth sports organization in the country, with more than three million players, 600,000 volunteers and 300,000 coaches. These numbers, along with others from the American Youth Soccer Organization, are growing annually and show no indication of slowing down.
The biggest challenge for soccer has been competition from other sports. The million-dollar question in soccer development has been, “how do we keep kids in soccer past puberty?” While the solution is complex and involves better facilities, soccer professionals, privatization and access, the best sign is that the American youth now embrace soccer as a major sport.
For baseball aficionados, fear should be growing, as youth baseball participation is on a downward spiral, according to the Wall Street Journal, and soccer is now just as popular as baseball for teenagers. The likely scenario from most experts is that soccer will soon surpass baseball and begin to creep its way toward basketball. Projections indicate that soccer is on its way to becoming the second most popular major sport next to football. The unprecedented growth up to now has been fantastic, and there are many who even believe that soccer will eventually become the most popular sport in the United States.
With the World Cup upon us, we must understand that soccer is no longer on the fringe of the American sports scene. Soccer is here to stay, and the carnival in Brazil will be strongly felt on our soil. For me, it is a moment in history that I will embrace and enjoy. For those of you who are not ready, soccer will not wait. The beautiful game will be lived this summer, and I urge you to join the party.
Sebastian Giraldo is the co-owner of Giraldo Elite Fútbol. For more information, visit www.giraldoelitefutbol.com