This question has been asked many times before. Has soccer finally made it as a mainstream American sport? In the U.S., soccer’s popularity has been eclipsed by American football, basketball, baseball, hockey and even golf for decades. But that’s about to change.
On Sunday, July 5, the U.S. women’s soccer team overwhelmed Japan in an incredible World Cup final with a 5-2 victory. But their win was especially sweet because more than 25.4 million U.S. viewers watched the game, making it the most-viewed soccer game in U.S. TV history.
We know that drawing millions of viewers to just one game doesn’t prove soccer has finally arrived. The real question is whether the sport can sustain such a huge viewership and popularity across multiple tournaments in the coming years. We found there’s plenty of data that strongly suggests that soccer is here to stay and is only going to get bigger and better in America.
Here are 10 data points that prove that soccer has already made it big in the U.S.:
1. Fox earned $40 million in ad revenue for the Women’s World Cup 2015 series
Even before the finals, ratings for the 2015 Women’s World Cup were up 45% from the previous series in 2011. While the Fox network estimated about $17 million in ad revenue from the 2015 series, each victory for the U.S. team during the series drove increased viewership and advertiser demand. In total, Fox earned more than $40 million in ad revenue for the series, compared to the $6 million that ESPN made during the last Women’s World Cup in 2011. More than 50 major U.S. advertisers signed up for the series including Fiat, Nationwide and Anheuser-Busch.
2. More Americans watched the Women’s World Cup final than the NBA Final or Stanley Cup
When compared to the other major 2015 summer sports events, the Women’s World Cup finals viewership beat out the NBA Finals (19.94 million viewers) and the Stanley Cup finals (5.5 million viewers). It only slightly fell short of the 28.3 million viewers who watched the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament championship game on CBS on April 6.
3. Soccer now only trails basketball in popularity among 12- to -17-year-olds
Soccer has surged in popularity over the last 25-30 years. A 2014 ESPN poll reported that professional soccer ranked as the No. 2 sport after, pro football, among 12- to 17-year-olds. The same survey also reported that Major League Soccer (MLS) was as popular as Major League Baseball (MLB) among the same age group. Both MLS and MLB now claim that 18% of 12- to 17-year-olds are avid fans. The NBA, NCAA football and NCAA basketball were all over 23% for the same age group.
4. More kids are playing soccer in the U.S. than ever before
Not only is Major League Soccer as popular with 12- to 17-year olds (a pretty hard demographic to win over) as Major League Baseball. But they are also a lot more children and teens playing soccer now. The U.S. Youth Soccer organization says that participation in soccer is 30 times higher now than it was just 40 years ago. There were 103,432 children registered to play soccer in the U.S. in 1974, 1.6 million children registered to play in 1990, and more than 3 million registered to play in 2014. The Wall Street Journal noted that youth participation in soccer is double that of tackle football and larger than baseball by about 1 million participants. There are more than 80 Soccer Development Academy facilities that teach players about the international system and act as a conduit to MLS, EPL and Italian Serie A teams.
5. As the MLS expansion continues, teams are drawing bigger crowds
It’s not just the men and women’s national teams that are drawing the crowds in America. Major League Soccer (the top North American men’s professional league) is starting to see an average per-game attendance of 21,023 fans this season, which is a whopping 40% increase over the last 10 years. Two teams — the Seattle Sounders FC (40,236) and Orlando City SC ( 34,393) — are both averaging more than 30,000 fans per game. MLB’s title game, the MLS Cup, had more than 1.6 million viewers in December 2014, which is the largest viewership for the league in 17 years. MLS is continuing to grow especially after the last two World Cups. The league even managed to get a UK TV deal for certain games, proving that US soccer is truly getting better.
6. European league games are growing in popularity in the U.S.
More and more people in the U.S. are tuning into European soccer events. In June this year, Fox Network’s broadcast of The Champions League final between Barcelona and Juventus had 2.2 million viewers and last season’s NBC broadcast of the English Premier League games averaged 425,000 viewers. An exhibition game between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium drew 109,318 fans, the largest ever for a live soccer match in the U.S.
7. Social media buzz in the U.S. for major soccer tournaments is doubling every year
According to Adobe Digital Index (ADI) data analysis, U.S. social media buzz for events like Europe’s annual UEFA Champions League is doubling year-over-year. ADI’s data is aggregated from more than 60 million social mentions captured from Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Reddit, Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr, Disqus, Foursquare, Google+, WordPress and other leading social sites.
ADI data shows that the NBA playoffs and UEFA Champions League generated almost the same level of social media activity. Some experts predict that judging by the significantly higher social media buzz around soccer in the last couple of years, there’s even a chance that World Cup 2024 could be held in the U.S. At the start of the 2015 season, even the 20 Major League Soccer teams saw a 34% increase in social media buzz compared to 2014.
8. Fan base continues to increase with the growth of the U.S. Hispanic population
According to the CDC, Hispanics are expected to reach 23% of U.S. population by 2035, even faster than was previously estimated. More than 56% of Americans who identify themselves as Hispanic, Latino or African-American said they follow soccer even during the non-World Cup years. (Source: YouGov Research). What’s more, 25.5% of these people consider professional soccer as their favorite spectator sport. The growth of the Hispanic population across the U.S. means more soccer fans, players and growth in viewership.
9. More U.S. networks are broadcasting soccer games than ever before
Once considered a niche interest, soccer is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars in TV revenue to U.S. networks. The number of TV networks broadcasting soccer games has grown from 5 in 2010 to more than 13 in 2015. The cost of advertising during these games has also seen a steep increase as soccer becomes more and more mainstream in the U.S. During the Women’s World Cup alone, Fox earned an impressive $40 million in ad revenue ($23 million more than the company’s own estimates).
The average cost of a 30-second ad during the women’s final was more than $210,000, which was higher than the cost of ads during the Stanley Cup Final. The Germany vs. Argentina men’s World Cup Final 2014 earned an average of $465,140 per spot, which was higher than the cost of ads during the NBA Finals, but lower than ad costs for the NCAA men’s basketball final.
10. Major U.S. sponsors are investing in soccer infrastructure for the long term
Major U.S. sponsors including AT&T, Visa, Anheuser-Busch, Nike, Nestle, General Motors, Marriott, Allstate, Pepsi, McDonald’s are donating millions of dollars to soccer training and building infrastructure and facilities for children, youth, coaches, pros and the national team.
BONUS: World-famous players from the top leagues are moving to the U.S.
This isn’t necessarily a data point, but it needed to be said. The list of A-list soccer celebrities moving to the U.S. just keeps getting longer. David Beckham moved to California to join the LA Galaxy, Thierry Henry joined the New York Red Bulls, David Villa joined the New York City FC, Kaka joined the Orlando City Soccer Club and many more hires are in the works. While some critics make fun of the MLS for hiring “washed up” premier league and A-list players, these soccer celebrities are helping increase the sports fan base, influence, merchandize sales, sponsorship and advertising revenue. Plus, they are strong role models for younger soccer players in the U.S.