Is soccer now America’s fifth major sport? Plenty of evidence that it has definitely arrived in the USA
As Philadelphia traversed from late afternoon to late evening on the first Saturday of November, the fanatics who hold the city’s sports teams dear watched as their Union lost the grip on soccer’s MLS Cup in a humbling penalty-kick shootout against LAFC and their Phillies fell to the Houston Astros for the fourth time in six games to lose baseball’s World Series.
Philly earned the distinction, if one wishes to call it that, of becoming the first American city to lose two major sports championships on the same day.
Did it really, though?
One of the championships occurred in Major League Baseball, which has staged the World Series since 1903 and once owned such an essential place in American culture it became known as “the National Pastime.”
The other occurred in Major League Soccer, which was launched in 1996 in the face of many preexisting notions about the sport held by a large swath of mainstream American sports fans. They demeaned soccer for decades as dull, foreign, and even — for reasons that remain elusive given the Soviet Union’s meager accomplishments in the game — “communist.”
Tough day for Philadelphia fans.
⚾️ Phillies lose the World Series
⚽️ Union lose the MLS Cup pic.twitter.com/eaZt2YoXqq
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 6, 2022
That hostility didn’t prevent what’s been a steady upward ascent both on and off the field. After a 40-year spell without a World Cup, the USA men’s team is now a regular participant. The USA women’s team is the world’s No. 1 side and perennial World Cup contenders. Meanwhile, MLS filled the vacuum for a significant pro men’s league in this country, and the NWSL became the first major pro women’s league to survive and endure after two predecessors collapsed.
In the process, a soccer culture has slowly taken root in America and what was once considered a niche sport is showing signs of being anything but that. It leads to a different question nowadays: Is soccer big enough to be considered the fifth major sport on the American landscape?
As the USMNT prepares for its opening game in the 2022 FIFA World Cup against Wales, has soccer grown sufficiently to warrant a spot in this conversation?
Is Soccer the USA’s 5th major sport?
The core four sports comprised of the NFL, MLB, NBA and the NHL was the scene into which I was born and grew as a sports-obsessed boy into a sports-obsessed journalist. It was the experience of nearly every fan in the U.S. today over the age of 45. When I joined The Sporting News as a columnist in 1995, our magazine’s mission was to cover the major team sports: NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, college football, college basketball. That was it at the time.
It appears to be different now, dramatically different, and Philadelphia 2022 is an ideal venue to ponder the transformation. Elias Sports Bureau, a leading provider of statistical and historical information regarding North American sports which does work for both MLB and MLS, declared that the 2022 Philly Phailure was the first of its kind.
“The sun shone on the Phillies so much that the Union weren’t comparable except — and this is a big but — there was constant mention of Phillies and Union, Phillies and Union. Including, for example, Jay Wright would say, ‘I’m watching the Union and watching the Phillies,’” sportswriter Mike Jensen of the Philadelphia Inquirer told The Sporting News. “And it’s not like there were two distinct audiences. That I can tell you for sure.
“Being at the Union home playoff games and being at the Phillies’ home World Series games — I’m not saying the same people had the same tickets, but after the Phillies adopted ‘Dancing on My Own’ as a theme song, when the Union won, the whole stadium was singing ‘Dancing on My Own.’ It’s the same people. In that way, soccer has just grown. It’s not a niche sport. It’s part of the mainstream.”
Jensen has an informed idea of the difference, because he was one of the few U.S. sports journalists who was in Trinidad nearly 33 years ago, when Paul Caligiuri scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory that qualified the USMNT for the World Cup for the first time since 1950. He knows exactly what soccer as an American afterthought looks like.
“I believe it’s got a bigger base now, today, than hockey,” Jensen said. “All these years of every kid growing up playing soccer and these years of all these leagues coming into our living rooms, barrooms, etc. — that has all hit critical mass. You see it. You see it in the stadiums. I believe that soccer’s decision to go to soccer-specific stadiums and create these real soccer palaces has just worked. There were spectacular environments both for the Union and LAFC [during MLS Cup playoffs]. So people are drawn in and want to be part of it.”
State of soccer in the USA
Soccer in America is different, more diverse, than the four established major team sports, which have been the province of one specific league at the professional level. It’s the NHL for hockey or MLB in baseball, but soccer here is not limited to MLS (men) or the NWSL (women).
The most popular league from a numerical standpoint is Liga MX, which has a devoted following with Mexican ex-pats and their progeny at its core and can be seen on 10 different cable and streaming outlets because of the uncommon way the league markets its rights. The Mexican national team has drawn nearly five million fans in over 100 matches played on U.S. soil since 2003.
England’s Premier League has an impressive audience on NBC’s channels, with the Chelsea FC USA Twitter account attracting more than 754,000 followers and Liverpool USA getting 459,000. Those are for teams nearly 3,500 miles away.
ESPN, through its cable channels and its streaming service ESPN+, regularly broadcasts league games from five different countries and a dozen competitions. Fox Sports has the rights to the men’s, women’s and youth FIFA World Cups and televises league games from the U.S. and Mexico across its various platforms.
Multiple streaming services have seized upon the passion of American soccer fans to help build their businesses. Next year, Apple TV+ will begin showing every MLS game globally as part of a 10-year, $2.5 billion contract the league signed that incentivizes both parties to grow the league’s audience. There will be games available on what we now view as traditional television, but the Apple deal is a big bet for MLS on the younger demographic and its embrace of streaming.
CBS’s Paramount+ paid $1.5 billion to secure the rights to the UEFA Champions League and the associated lesser UEFA competitions. Paramount also has deals with Italy’s Serie A and other North American nations (outside of the USA) to televise World Cup qualifying. The Peacock streaming platform is a huge part of NBC’s $2.7 billion investment in the Premier League. The Prem’s $540 million annual American side hustle is close to what the NHL earns from its national TV deals with ESPN and Turner Sports.
“Consumption of professional soccer in the U.S. is at levels unimaginable just a few years back,” Mac Nwulu, ESPN associate director of communications, told TSN.
With the exception of the World Cup and Women’s World Cup, you will not find a single soccer game that on its own produces massive ratings. The average ESPN audience for MLS telecasts was 343,000, and there are typically 507,000 watching Premier League games on the various NBC broadcast platforms, while Liga MX gets more than 700,000. The aggregate numbers grow when you add the NWSL, Champions League and the major leagues streamed on ESPN+. By comparison, NBA games on ESPN drew 1.4 million on average last season.
“We are incredibly insecure and notoriously insecure about our game, but our game is very segmented,” Alexi Lalas, lead studio analyst for Fox Sports’ World Cup coverage, told TSN. “There are all these little pockets of soccer fans that, in totality, are all soccer fans.”
Although certainly there is some overlap among audiences of the various soccer properties, you won’t find anyone in the business who believes it’s the same one million people watching every single game that’s shown.
“I look at the impact that the success that the U.S. women’s national team has had on the interest level in soccer, and in particular the NWSL, and the decades of investment that MLS owners have made into the sport of soccer domestically, and I think those factors combined — and you layer on top of that the 2026 World Cup coming here to the U.S. — and I think our country is primed for a real soccer boom,” Jessica Berman, the NWSL commissioner, told TSN.
“I think it’s only the beginning of the growth of soccer.”
New era for soccer in America
In a quarter-century of covering the sport, Grant Wahl became prominent enough as a soccer journalist to launch his own site, GrantWahl.com. Back when he was relatively new to Sports Illustrated, he primarily wrote college basketball and covered soccer because someone had to, and he knew the game. In March 2001, the USMNT had a World Cup qualifier in Honduras and Wahl was not assigned to make the trip, instead heading to Minneapolis for the NCAA college basketball Final Four.
That road qualifier was not televised by any U.S. network, but was available in homes on a pay-per-view basis. Wahl believed it was important that he see the game, so he placed a post on the popular BigSoccer message board and found someone in the Twin Cities planning to watch the game and willing to let Wahl visit.
“They invited me and some other people — none of us knew each other — and I went and watched in the basement of this guy’s house in Minneapolis,” Wahl told TSN. “And I’m still friends with the guy. We actually had a reunion on Zoom during the pandemic, which was awesome.”
In October 2009, when the U.S. was in the latter stages of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup and scheduled to play at Honduras on a Saturday night, I was in Detroit for an NFL game the following day. Again, the game was on pay-per-view and not a U.S. network, and the only public place I could have watched the game was a bar nearly 20 miles away from my hotel. So instead, I found a pirated stream and watched on my laptop — the picture was the size of two postage stamps — as Conor Casey scored twice for the USMNT to clinch a trip to South Africa.
Those days are gone for Americans who follow the game. To view all the soccer that is important to them, it’s likely they’ll need to subscribe to multiple streaming services, but the games are as handy as the smartphones they carry in their pockets or purses.
“In the 90s, the U.S. was one of the worst countries in the world in which to watch professional soccer. And now it’s one of the best,” Wahl said. “It’s a still-growing market where millions of soccer fans will be created because it’s not a mature soccer market. We have this luxury, which they don’t even have in England, of being able to see every Premier League game live for not a lot of money.”
“Soccer has become a part of American culture”
There’s a similar transformation that has occurred with American players and teams.
In 1985, when the USMNT played their crucial home World Cup qualifying game against Costa Rica, many of the players involved were performing professionally in the Major Indoor Soccer League or still juggling college studies with international soccer. The outdoor North American Soccer League had collapsed a year earlier, having failed to establish a position in American sports despite the individual success of the New York Cosmos and the charisma of the great Pele.
The World Cup qualifier was hosted in a small stadium at a community college in Southern California, and the crowd, predictably, was predominantly in favor of visiting Costa Rica. The Americans lost, and were eliminated from contention for the 1986 World Cup.
It’s easy to forget how all that changed when FIFA in 1988 awarded the United States the opportunity to host the 1994 World Cup and, a year later, Caligiuri legitimized that decision by getting the U.S. into the 1990 field on merit.
American soccer stepped forward, as well, when soccer’s world governing body at last acknowledged women also can excel at this sport and launched an international championship tournament in 1991. FIFA didn’t call it the Women’s World Cup at first, but that embarrassing reluctance soon was abandoned. And a generation of American women who’d been fueled by Title IX and chose to pursue soccer as their sport discovered they were the best on the planet. They won two of the first three Women’s World Cups and an Olympic gold medal in between.
This is how far soccer has come in the U.S. in the space of a few decades. In 1982-83, there were 4,454 boys high school soccer teams with about 162,000 players. There are roughly three times as many teams and players now.
The growth in girls soccer has been even more dramatic, from nearly 2,100 teams and 58,000 players to 12,000 schools and 375,000 athletes. And that’s to say nothing of the myriad elite clubs that complement or, in many cases, supersede interscholastic competition.
“I’d say that I cringe at the question [whether soccer is the 5th major sport], because this has been used as a stick that’s been used to beat soccer over the head for years now,” said John Strong, who will be lead play-by-play announcer for Fox Sports’ coverage of the 2022 World Cup. “You can find on social media pictures of banners and placards and T-shirts: Soccer, the sport of the 70s; Soccer, the sport of the 80s — OK, here it comes.
“I will say this: If soccer was going to truly die, it would have died by now. To have the U.S. men miss the World Cup in 2018 would have been catastrophic. The fact that no one missed a beat, the fact the U.S. women’s team can be rock stars in the way they are, and the fact every major television network and now the major technology companies — anyone that has anything to do with sports media is fighting to get into the soccer business.
“Unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool person and you never want to talk about or think about soccer, I don’t know what argument you would make that it hasn’t grown in a really substantial way and it hasn’t become a significant part of not just American sports culture, but American culture, period.”
Proof of soccer’s rise in America? Just look at MLS
There is one obvious way in which soccer is different than the other major American sports: the top domestic men’s professional league, MLS, is not considered the No. 1 league in the world in terms of quality of play. The NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB are the premier professional leagues in their sport, beyond doubt. Almost without exception, the best athletes in those sports perform here.
Some of those leagues, though, have almost no global competition. There are few countries that even bother with American football, and only Canada has a significant pro football league. In baseball, it’s Japan and Korea; the winter Caribbean leagues don’t conflict with what happens in the U.S. “big leagues.” There are European hockey and basketball leagues, but none has the wealth to truly compete with the North American leagues.
This is in large part because the majority of countries reserve their investments — in terms of passion and resources — for soccer. And they’ve been at it forever. Liverpool FC was formed in 1892, Manchester United in 1878. These clubs have more than a 100-year headstart on the Columbus Crew and their MLS compatriots. Of course MLS is chasing those leagues, but it’s not as far behind as it was two decades ago.
“When I went full-time soccer and left college basketball in 2009, it wasn’t because I thought soccer was going to grow and grow in the United States. It was mostly because I liked covering the sport and telling those stories. And traveling,” Wahl said. “But what’s already here, in the present day, with soccer in the U.S. is incredible. And I do give MLS a lot of credit for what they’ve done in their individual cities and with individual teams to build fan bases that are great.
“MLS didn’t have that at first, and so it was pretty dreary going to Giants Stadium for MetroStars games and watching 5,000 people and a bad team. You look now, with that scene with LAFC at MLS Cup , and I don’t know if I would have predicted that 20 years ago.”
In a sense, Mark Abbott did. Soon to step away from his role as MLS president and deputy commissioner after nearly three decades with the league, Abbott was the author of the business plan presented to FIFA in 1993 regarding the formation of Major League Soccer — a condition for the USA hosting the 1994 World Cup.
The first line in that document, Abbott told TSN, was: “There is an indisputable demand for professional soccer in the United States.”
How did he know this, given how well it had kept itself hidden? NASL flopped. Indoor soccer flopped. Even as the introduction and expansion of cable broadened the televised sports available to the American public, soccer remained an insignificant part of its offerings. The 1994 World Cup would set attendance records that still stand, but it was a year away.
“The anticipation of the World Cup gave people confidence that there was interest,” Abbott said. “We talked to a lot of people, particularly on the ownership side, but no one really committed until they saw whether the World Cup could be successful. It turned out to be the most successful World Cup from an attendance perspective in history, captured the imagination of the country, exceeded all expectations.
“I was also hopeful that it was true. A lot of people were making a lot of decisions based on that. That’s what we said in the business plan, and it took a few years to prove out to be the case. And now there’s no question it’s the case.”
By the early 2000s, just a few years after its launch, the initial hope MLS could establish itself as a successful entity in the U.S. was all but extinguished. Two of the original 12 teams were shut down. Three ownership groups controlled all that remained; Philip Anschutz owned six, the Hunt family owned three and Robert Kraft owned the New England Revolution.
After 20 years of growth fueled by the construction of modern, pristine soccer stadiums and a young, culturally diverse demographic embracing the sport, the 28 teams in the league — soon to be 29 — all have distinct ownership groups.
The value of their properties has grown exponentially. When Chivas USA became an expansion team in 2004, the entry fee was $7.5 million. Charlotte FC, which began play in 2022, paid $325 million. According to Sportico, the average MLS team now is worth $528 million. Reigning champion LAFC is valued at $900 million. The Saudi Public Investment Fund purchased Premier League contender Newcastle United in 2021 for $409 million.
The mission statement for MLS identifies four key areas as measures of the league’s growth and success: quality of play, relevance of its clubs, passion of its fans, and value of the enterprise.
MLS sees its fan base as “young, diverse, unduplicated” in Abbott’s words, as evidenced by the two cities where management and/or ownership of the local NFL team and MLS team is the same: Seattle and Atlanta. The crossover among season ticket holders for the Sounders and Seahawks, for the Falcons and Atlanta United, is less than five percent.
That could be viewed, though, as less a feature than a future opportunity, given the overwhelming popularity of the NFL.
Although it sometimes is denigrated by American soccer fans who insist only the very strongest leagues are worthy of their time, MLS has made measurable improvements in terms of quality of play, starting with the massive tournament about to commence in Qatar.
MLS ranks No. 6 among all world pro leagues in players who’ll be a part of the 32 World Cup rosters, behind only the “big five” European leagues. Only about one-fourth of those players will be part of the U.S. World Cup team, which features half of its 26 players who spent time in MLS academies.
And by league. MLS has the biggest representation outside the top 5 leagues. I’d say that speaks to the growth of the league and game in the region. pic.twitter.com/IsrwCF9Z8F
— Cristian Nyari (@Cnyari) November 15, 2022
Aware of the popularity of Liga MX in the States, MLS has worked with Mexico’s premier entity on an innovative competition it is calling Leagues Cup. All 47 teams from the two leagues will compete in a World Cup-style format that will run from July 21-Aug. 19 in 2023. Both leagues view this as an opportunity to expand their audiences.
MLS owners also made a commitment to become substantial participants in the global talent marketplace, and not just as sellers of the improving young talent developed in MLS academies and youth teams, which includes U.S. World Cup players Tyler Adams (NY Red Bulls), Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union), Weston McKennie (FC Dallas), and Gio Reyna (NYCFC).
“In the past couple of [transfer] windows, we’re either fourth, fifth or six in terms of outgoing transfers and incoming transfers,” Abbott told TSN.
Whereas there is an outdated notion of MLS as a “retirement league” attracting big-name players near the ends of their careers, the average age of the players acquired to join MLS clubs is under 24. Prime examples would be 23-year-old Riqui Puig, who joined the LA Galaxy from Barcelona, and MLS newcomer of the year Thiago Almada of Atlanta United, who made Argentina’s World Cup squad as an injury replacement.
It’s not just American players MLS is developing into future stars. Miguel Almiron joined Atlanta United at age 22 in time for the 2017 season and was an immediate sensation. He was purchased for $8 million from his team in Argentina and sold two years later to Newcastle United for three times that amount. Almiron, who’s currently in the midst of his best season for Newcastle, was named the Best XI in both his MLS seasons and led his team to the 2018 MLS Cup title, a game played at Mercedes-Benz before a record crowd of 73,019.
“In 2017, we all collectively were pretty sure: No one’s going to come to watch soccer in Atlanta, Georgia. And we’ve done multiple Atlanta United games there with 70,000 fans,” Fox’s Strong told TSN. “In Charlotte, earlier this year, they fill up the NFL stadium in the way that the Panthers don’t fill it up. Look at the way LAFC has captured a really significant portion of the city.”
“We’ll put our fan culture up against the fan culture worldwide, in terms of enthusiasm, but also its positivity,” Abbott said. “The positivity of our fan groups in terms of supporting their team and, frankly, the connection they have with one another, I think, is a really important part of what we’ve achieved.”
NWSL is just getting started
With four World Cup titles and many more instantly recognizable stars, the U.S. women’s national team could be viewed as the most successful and most popular American soccer team. Constructing a professional league around that appeal has been a tricky proposition, with even more setbacks and obstacles than MLS has been forced to navigate.
Two attempts at professional leagues failed in the decade or so after the blazing success of the 1999 Women’s World Cup in the U.S., which averaged more than 37,000 spectators per game, drew 90,185 to the Rose Bowl for the final and generated a television audience of 18 million for the final.
And the NWSL, which has navigated and survived the challenges that felled predecessors WUSA and WPS, had to cope with a TV problem that temporarily left the league without a broadcast home in 2019, and now with the player abuse crisis that necessitated two investigations — one still pending — and the firings or departures of multiple coaches and executives.
Berman was not in place for any of that. She was working in the National Hockey League and then the National Lacrosse League before being named NWSL commissioner in March 2022.
“We talk a lot, both internally and externally, about facing down our truth and some of the culture issues and player protection issues that have existed in our league are part of our history. And we have no choice but to listen, learn and understand the experience of those who have been part of the league,” Berman said. “And to do everything in our power to get this right for our players and our fans and, most importantly for our future players and fans. That has been the top priority for the last six months, since I’ve been here.”
She oversees a league that is different from others around the world, particularly in Europe, where most teams are subsidiaries of successful men’s clubs. The reigning Women’s Super League champion in England is Chelsea FC. In Spain, it’s FC Barcelona. They can depend on their parent clubs.
“What we have is what I describe as our superpower: our independence as a league, not just from corresponding men’s teams but also from the [U.S. soccer] federation, is a differentiator in the global landscape of women’s football that creates a level of authenticity that is very attractive to sponsors and investors, particularly when you layer in the broader gender equity and purpose-driven messaging that is embedded within the culture of our sport,” Berman told TSN. “It creates a conclusion that is undeniable, which is that we’re really doing it as a league. We are building the future of what a women’s sports property can be.”
NWSL added two new teams for 2022, and they proved to be among the most successful, in terms of support, in the league’s history. Angel City FC drew a league-best average of 19,105 fans, nearly 80 percent of capacity at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles. San Diego Wave FC drew 32,000 for a rivalry game against Angel City, 26,215 for a home playoff game and finished third in the league in its first year. The five games NWSL playoffs drew an average crowd of 21,730, and the Portland Thorns’ championship victory over the KC Current produced an audience of 915,000 for CBS, a 71 percent increase from the prior year.
The plan is for NWSL to expand by at least two teams by 2024, with Berman telling Front Office Sports she expects bids for teams from “five to 10” ownership groups. NWSL could be viewed as occupying a similar position to where MLS stood 20 years ago, and we’ve seen how that turned out for American soccer.
“Historically, despite the success of the U.S. women’s national team, this is a property that has been under-resourced and has not been cultivated or invested in like a real business,” Berman said. “Now that you’re seeing incremental investment that is achieving incremental growth, it is creating the pathway to invite other investors — whether it’s from an ownership perspective, soccer perspective, or from the media-partner perspective — that is going to take the NWSL to a different stratosphere.”
Look out NFL and NBA? “This thing is real”
Had things gone as they probably should have for world soccer back in 2010, right now we’d be in the immediate aftermath of a 2022 World Cup staged across the United States instead of preparing for Qatar 2022 and a November tournament that is disrupting league play around the globe.
It would have been really cool to have everyone come to the USA for the biggest event there is, but it might turn out to be better this way. The USMNT, who might field a starting lineup with more than half the field players 23 or younger, will be better positioned as a force capable of a deep World Cup run in four years.
And the rapidly expanding soccer audience might elevate the sport even higher when compared to other major team sports.
“The World Cup is the one time soccer coalesces into one thing,” Strong said. “That’s one of the things I’m hoping we see in this World Cup, that we missed four years ago [in 2018] — at least from a men’s perspective — is to have the U.S. there to be able to have a big chunk of the whole country show up for the U.S. and stick around for all the other stuff.”
Strong points out that the NFL celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2019, but it wasn’t until the 1958 NFL Championship game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts that the league started to move toward becoming the national obsession it is today. The NBA was founded in 1946, and a little more than 30 years into its lifespan its television partner was tape-delaying NBA Finals games into the late-night hours following the 11 o’clock late night news. The NHL was founded in 1917, but it operated as a six-team league from 1949 to 1967, with no team farther West than Chicago or father South than New York.
MLS, at 27, could be viewed as being ahead of the curve. NWSL appears to have survived its greatest financial challenges and is on a path toward growth. The appetite for soccer fandom in other forms only seems to be growing.
“It’s just different. I’ll go out to eat — and this isn’t saying this about me — but everyone comes up to me to talk about the game now,” ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman told TSN. “By the way: They didn’t do that 15 years ago, and I was MVP of the league! It’s real. This thing is real. The knowledge of soccer, in general, is at such a higher level than four years ago, eight years ago, 10 years ago.”
It’s impossible to know how the domestic leagues might ascend or decline in the next decade, but Wahl insists, “I don’t think reasonable people can disagree on whether soccer now is a major sport in the United States.
“If you add up all of the soccer out there, it’s bigger than ice hockey, certainly, and I think the gap is closing rapidly between soccer in its totality in the United States and the three biggest sports.”
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