Soccer: Sport of the Future, Forever?

Record numbers of Americans are tuning in to the U.S.'s World Cup games. But history suggests it's too early to declare that the sport has "arrived" here.

Now that the United States Men's National Team has overcome the "group of death" and will face Belgium on Tuesday in the round of 16, the diagnosis is clear: America has caught the World Cup fever that infects most of the rest of the globe every four years. A record total of more than 18 million viewers tuned in to the U.S. match against Portugal on ESPN, with additional millions watching online and on Spanish language television. 

"After a long and sometimes arduous courtship, soccer has finally revealed its charms to Americans who have embraced the World Cup in record numbers,” says a Reuters article. “With the United States through to the knockout phase and interest and television ratings soaring, soccer can rightfully claim a place at the American sporting table. Alongside the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, it has changed North America's Big Four into the Fab Five."

Even before the World Cup got underway, soccer historian David Goldblatt told The Economist "football is taking off in America."

And even before that, writers were making predictions:

  • "U.S. soccer on the brink." 
  • "Now everyone believes in soccer's future, a general belief that soccer has all the irresistibility of a sport whose moment has come."
  • "Within 10 years 'soccer will not only be the No. 1 sport in the U.S. but also the major soccer center in the world.'"
  • "Father used to take their kids to the football game. Now the kids, they take their father to the soccer game."
  • "Soccer is on the verge of exploding." 

An impressive compilation of concurring opinions, to be sure. But, not to spoil the current celebration, those quotes are from 1968, 1975, 1977, 1980, and 1993, respectively. 

And even in those years, it was hardly a novelty to be bullish about the prospects for the sport in this country. "Soccer in America is gaining in popularity ... the game is established on a firm foundation and the future of the sport in the United States is assured" the New York Times recorded—in 1924.

Will it be different this time, at long last? 

A test will come if the U.S. loses to Belgium. One suspects that, fueled by national pride, Team U.S.A. in a World Cup of tiddlywinks would attract a flag-waving fan base that doesn't necessarily reflect a deeper engagement with the game itself. Television ratings for early qualifying matches that did not involve the American team averaged about one-fifth of those for the U.S. matches.

There is plenty of evidence that soccer really is becoming more popular stateside, year-round. But to what extent will American interest in the tournament survive the departure of the U.S. team? Perhaps the location of this year's World Cup provides an omen. As the saying goes, "Brazil is the country of the future—and always will be."

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.

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