It was Sunday, July 5, 5:00 PM, in BC Place, Vancouver. The temperature was 75 degrees, and the atmosphere was electric. The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup game between the US and Japan drew just under 23 million television viewers, beating out the NBA Finals (which had 19.94 million viewers) and the Stanley Cup finals (which had 5.5 million viewers). It was the most-watched soccer match in US history.
Is soccer picking up steam in the United States? Yes and no. Let’s talk about the fans, players, and organizations of soccer in the US, and then we’ll talk.
When you think about going to an all-American sport to support the team, you probably think about a nice game of baseball or American football. But increasingly, soccer is becoming all-American game fans want to watch.
For starters, it may surprise you to know that, among 12- to 17-year-old fans, soccer ranks as the second-most popular sport, behind professional football. But the national leagues aren’t the only ones drawing in crowds. Umbel reports that “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.” This diversity of types of soccer shows that soccer is truly in demand among the American public.
And speaking of diversity: American soccer fans are showing a lot of interest in international games. Adobe Digital Index reports that US “social media buzz” for “for events like Europe’s annual UEFA Champions League is doubling year-over-year.” In other words, fans can’t get enough of watching soccer.
Does the buzz about international games mean that the demand for games isn’t being met domestically? Let’s talk about players and organizations, and we’ll let you decide.
Players and Organizations
By some counts, soccer participation is increasing. By other counts, the statistics are a little grimmer.
For a positive note, the US Youth Soccer Organization, founded in 1974, started with “a humble 100,000 registered players. Today, there are more than 3 million.” That’s a significant growth over 40 years. Additionally, according to the Wall Street Journal, “youth participation in soccer is double that of tackle football and larger than baseball by about 1 million participants.” That’s something.
But according to Project Play, overall youth sports participation decreased between 2008 and 2015 from 44.5 percent to 40 percent. Specifically, youth soccer participation has been declining: between 2011 and 2015, the percentage of kids playing fell from 11.2 percent to 8.9 percent.
Despite this trend, trends in Major League Soccer participation are promising. The league enjoys local fan bases just as passionate as those for the NFL, MLB, and NBA. “[Attendance] has consistently increased over the last 14 years. . . with total attendance topping 6.0 million each of the past two seasons.”
Does fan participation translate into player participation? It seems as though the trends are going in opposite directions, with fan participation increasing and player participation decreasing. But the game is so popular to watch that we can’t help but believe player participation will increase, too. We’ll have to follow the trends as they continue to make themselves known.
Soccer has a long way to go to reach the entrenched popularity of baseball, basketball, and football. But we can’t help but marvel at the fans that can’t get enough soccer and the droves of players who have been joining the US Youth Soccer Organization since 1974. Soccer’s “rapid growth is both real and spectacular.” Is soccer picking up steam in the United States? We say yes. Yes it is.