Soccer Will Soon Be America’s Third-Favorite Spectator Sport

I’m sure you’ve heard that old, dismissive insult from hardline cynics: “Soccer is the sport of the future in America … and always will be.” Except that now, finally, fans of the beautiful game have numeric proof of its growing popularity.

A Gallup poll released last week found that 7% of Americans named soccer as their favorite sport to watch in a survey completed during December. While that may not sound like much, the figure represents a significant, three-percentage-point gain from just four years ago. Soccer is the only sport to post such a large increase. Football (37%, down from 39%), basketball (11%, down from 12%) and baseball (9%, down from 13%) all showed declining numbers. Hockey was at 4%, up from 3%.

The arrows are clearly pointing in definitive directions, and it is very likely that soccer will surpass baseball in this survey the next time such a poll is taken. Even more telling are the demographics behind those numbers: Only 1% of those polled by Gallup aged 55 or over named soccer as their favorite. But among adults aged 18-34, soccer was the favorite sport of 11%, tying basketball; only 6% of younger adults chose baseball as their favorite sport. Self-defined liberals also showed a greater preference for soccer. Among that political group, the gap between football and soccer was just 15 points.

These positive results for soccer are even more impressive because they came in a non-World Cup year when the U.S. national team was eliminated from the upcoming tournament in Russia. Even without momentum and a daily presence, the sport persists.

Not all is cut-and-dried. There are several important caveats that should be mentioned regarding these numbers. For one thing, Gallup did not ask participants to list their favorite sports in descending order. Perhaps few respondents who chose football as their No. 1 sport even bother to follow soccer at all, and might follow basketball or baseball. And none of the top three sports appear on their death bed. Major League Baseball, in particular, has made strides in attendance and TV ratings recently, demonstrating some zip in the old pastime after all.

Soccer faces some very real, existing barriers in America. Many older media gatekeepers remain resistant to the sport and are more likely to highlight baseball and hockey on their talk shows and news broadcasts. This snub can create a public perception that soccer is merely a minor, niche sport.

Perhaps most damaging, soccer is the only major sport in America that does not draw the very best athletes in the world to its own pro league – at least, not yet. The NFL, MLB, the NBA and the NHL feature the greatest teams, and players, on the globe. Yet as Toronto defeated Seattle in the recent Major League Soccer Cup, it might have been argued that the 103rd-best club in the world had just defeated the 128th-best – or something like that.

In part because of this, television and streaming viewership of soccer matches is scattered in the U.S., divided among broadcasts of MLS, the English Premier League, the Bundesliga, the Champions League, etc. Ratings for any given game are not at all impressive, unless the event is monumental – like the Women’s World Cup final in 2015, which was watched by more than 25 million Americans, a number rarely matched these days by any sport other than football.

In any case, this latest Gallup survey appears to be a harbinger of things to come. The spectator landscape is changing, just as surely as the internet altered the delivery and form of journalism in this country.

Three generations ago, sportswriters and newspaper sports sections focused on horse racing, boxing and baseball. Of those three pastimes, only baseball remains part of the mainstream discussion anymore.

Now, here comes soccer, the sport of the future. The very near future. Maybe even the present.

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