By Peter Wilt
Where are the celebrations? When is the parade? Haven’t you heard? SOCCER IS NOW MAINSTREAM IN THE UNTED STATES OF AMERICA!
According to a recent survey - the latest “Luker on Trends — Powered by the ESPN Sports Poll” - soccer has finally joined the mainstream and become one of the Big Four sports in the United States along with football, baseball and basketball. That begs the question, “What are the Big Four sports and how is the category defined?” Depending on your age, your residence and which metrics are used to define “Big”, ten different people could provide ten different responses.
Chasing Baseball, Football, Basketball and…Pesäpallo
Certainly Americans will answer the question differently than Australians, Brazilians or Norwegians. Soccer evangelists can be just as wrongly prejudiced against other sports as they accuse traditional American sports fans of being against soccer. While soccer is the most popular sport in the most countries worldwide, it isn’t the most popular sport in all non-American countries as many soccerphiles would contest. Here’s a list of the most popular sports in a dozen countries where soccer is not number one:
Australia :: Australian rules football
Canada :: Ice hockey
China :: Table Tennis
Cuba :: Baseball and boxing
Finland :: Pesäpallo
India :: Field hockey and Cricket
Japan :: Sumo and Baseball
New Zealand :: Rugby Union
Philippines :: Basketball and boxing
Thailand :: Muay Thai kickboxing
United States :: Football
Venezuela :: Baseball
In a majority of western European and Latin American countries, soccer is the most popular sport, but dozens of other sports fill the next three slots of each country’s respective “Big Four”. 16th and 17th century Spanish Conquistadores introduced many non-team sports to the new world that proliferated for centuries and continue to be popular in many Latin American nations. These sports include dominoes, the PETA unfriendly animal sports of cock fighting and bull fighting and a game similar to bowling called boliche. Bowling, by the way, is one sport that has cycled up and down both as a participant and spectator sport in the United States. While never a Big Four spectator sport, pro bowling did have a regular ABC time slot from 1961 to 1997 and was huge as a participant sport for much of the latter part of the 20th century.
The NASL, NASCAR and Shifts in Sporting Popularity
Let’s go back to soccer and examine its predecessors in its new lofty position among this country’s Big Four sports. In the United States, determining the Big Four has never been simple. Professional soccer wasn’t even on my radar during my formative years growing up as a dedicated fan of the Chicago Blackhawks, White Sox, Bulls and Green Bay Packers. For the lion’s share of my own lifetime (I was born at the beginning of Kennedy’s Camelot), identifying the Big Four sports seemed pretty simple: baseball, football, basketball and hockey – at least in metropolitan Chicago where I grew up.
I’m pretty certain that the first three would be true throughout the country at that time. The fourth slot, however, was up for grabs depending on geography and decade. Hockey’s popularity may have been limited to the four American cities that had NHL teams until 1967, when the league expanded to six more US cities. The fourth big sport in non-NHL cities during my formative years may have been different throughout the country. Maybe it was college football in major college cities, rodeo in western cities and rural areas, dog sled in Alaska, surfing in Hawaii and NASCAR in the south.
The North American Soccer League put a stake in the ground in the late 1960s and raised the volume for soccer through the 1970s with the growth of the Cosmos. When soccer threatened to join the Big Four via Pele’s presence it was famously called “The sport of the 70s” (and 80s, 90s and the 21st century) by “visionaries” eager to see the sport mainstreamed in the U.S. Sadly, the NASL lost its luster and faded to a quiet closure in 1984. The NASL’s failure was due in part to a fickle audience that wasn’t raised on the sport and didn’t have soccer engrained in its collective memory. It needed another generation of growth on the participant side and exposure to the international game via television and globalization to be embraced by viewers, media and sponsors.
NASCAR similarly faced the challenge of appealing to a fickle audience for an abbreviated time frame. NASCAR broke into the Big Four in the 1990s as it expanded its demographics from gear heads in the south to a national footprint that crossed into most traditional sports demographics. Its growth peaked a few years ago and NASCAR is now struggling to retain both its new and old fan bases. Many of the new fans enjoyed the novelty of NASCAR, but then moved on to the next big thing or simply stopped following after a few years.
Some of NASCAR’s old guard (Eurosnob equivalents?) felt betrayed that their native sport had been sold out to a wealthier and less committed audience and don’t follow as passionately as they once did. High level NASCAR insiders have told me that one of their biggest challenges is replacing their aging audience. The generation that carried NASCAR in the latter part of the 20th century is not as physically mobile as it once was. Many of the southern baby boomers who once filled the seats at Talladega, Daytona and Bristol religiously now prefer to stay home. There they can watch races using new technologies that get the viewer inside the cars from the comfort of their living room. Sitting in their recliners they can have a better experience than dealing with mile long hikes from their parking spaces to their trackside seats. NASCAR – and open wheel racing as well - is facing its own economic challenges as team expenses skyrocket while sponsorship dollars dry up due to the global financial crisis and changes in corporate sponsorship strategies.
The Luker on Trends poll shows that soccer has overtaken “racing” as America’s fourth most popular sport. This poll asked 7,510 Americans to name the one sport they consider to be their favorite. Football, basketball and baseball dominated with 38.8%, 15.3% and 14.8% respectively. Soccer climbed into the Big Four with 8.2% and racing dropped to fifth with only 4.0% (just ahead of hockey (3.8%)). These results represent a significant improvement for soccer, which only two years earlier was on the very bottom of 21 sports in a poll by the same group using a different metric (“interest level”).
The Soccer Generation
The trends for soccer to remain in the Big Four and grow its position long term are positive. Major League Soccer’s role in keeping pro soccer among America’s Big Four long term is probable due to trends such as globalization and soccer hating baby boomers aging out in the sport’s favor. The Luker on Trends poll also showed that soccer is positioned very well for the future, as pro soccer ranks second only to the NFL among fans age 12 to 25 and leads among Hispanics.
Further evidence of soccer’s new place among the elite American sports is in pro soccer’s attendance. MLS finally passed both the NBA and NHL last year with an average attendance of 17,844. While MLS’ gross attendance and revenue still lag well behind those traditional leagues, there are other considerations favoring pro soccer in this comparison.
In addition to MLS attendance, Americans also show their interest in professional soccer through support of their men’s and women’s national teams and interest in European and Latin American soccer. This interest level, which does not have a significant comparison in pro football, baseball or basketball, is important when comparing relative interest in the sports. When lumped together as interest in professional soccer, it surpasses American interest in many traditional American sports. As evidence, more Americans watched soccer’s World Cup Final in 2010 on television than all but one of the last 35 World Series games.
Tastes change in everything and Americans’ taste in sports now is different than it was in the last half of the 20th century, which was different than it was in the first half of the 20th century. The Big Four for most of our fathers included the NFL, NBA, MLB and perhaps the NHL. Our grandfathers, however, had three different sports in their Big Four. Only pro baseball has maintained a spot in the Big Four over the last century.
In the film Field of Dreams, Terrance Mann, played by James Earl Jones, eloquently stated:
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.
Baseball has grown in the face of its aging demographics in the last decade, but other major sports have always been in flux. The NFL was an outlaw sport with little mainstream support for much of the first half of the 20th century. It was viewed as a second tier sport beset with corruption and instability. The NBA didn’t even form until the 1950s and as recently as the 1970s and 1980s regularly had crowds below 5,000. The NBA did not average 10,000 per game until the 1975-76 season and the Cleveland Cavaliers averaged fewer than 4,000 fans per game as recently as 1982-83 – hardly evidence of a Big Four sport.
The NHL, as mentioned above, was only in four American cities and with limited television broadcasting, had its exposure restricted to those cities for most of the 20th century. The NHL has always had a limited base to draw fan support in this country. A friend of mine who served as the NHL’s Vice-President of Broadcast Operations throughout the 1990s once told me the NHL viewed soccer in America as a Christmas tree without a star on top and the NHL as the star without the tree. Similarly, Chicagoans used to joke about hockey’s small, but passionate fan base by saying there were only 20,000 hockey fans in all of Chicagoland…and they’re inside the Chicago Stadium for every Hawks game.
When Boxing Was King
The predecessors of the NBA, NFL and NHL as Big Four sports in the first half of the 20th century were an individual sport, an animal sport and a school version of its Big Four professional successor – boxing, horse racing and college football.
Boxing – pugilism – has always been the sport for the newest immigrants at the bottom of the American socio-economic ladder. African-Americans and Jewish immigrants as well as Irish, Italian and Mexican working class immigrants embraced and dominated boxing at various stages of the sport’s late 19th century and 20th century reign as a major American sport. When America was truly a nation of immigrants, it paid attention to the sweet science. On September 23, 1926 a record 120,757 rain-soaked Philadelphians paid to see Gene Tunney defend his title against Jack Dempsey. 364 days later 104,943 boxing fans packed Chicago’s Soldier Field to see the famous rematch as Gene Tunney was credited with a controversial decision after the infamous 14 second long count. Late in the 20th century, interest in boxing waned as a greater percentage of the country no longer related to its combatants and mixed martial arts emerged as a competitor for participants and spectators alike.
Horse racing is the sport of kings, but through the first half of the 20th century it trailed only baseball in attendance in the United States. The proliferation of race tracks and the limited outlets for legal gambling contributed significantly to its popularity. World War II, a national anti-gambling sentiment and competition from new casinos, lotteries and other gambling alternatives drove attendance at tracks down and put the industry at risk in many parts of the country. 56 million people attended horse races in America in 1989, but that figure has been on a downward slide since.
College football was king among American sports in the first half of the 20th century. While still huge, it is now below pro soccer among the 12 to 25 set and Hispanics and lumped in with the NFL in the overall survey. College football is no longer the most popular version of its own sport having fallen behind its professional cousin once television married the NFL in the 1960s.
We now live in a fractionalized world that allows a hundred people to have a hundred different favorite pastimes. There will always be a few sports that will rank among America’s most popular, but the options competing for Americans’ attention are increasing. The world is becoming smaller as the internet, satellite television, social media and ease of international travel bring people closer together. Soccer is a global game embraced by young people, which fits well with these emerging trends.
The Big Four sports….however they are defined, will certainly change, because as President John F. Kennedy said, “The one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable.” Maybe not forever, but for a very long time, I believe soccer will be among America’s Big Four sports.
Pass the Champagne!
Peter Wilt has run professional soccer teams for 25 years and has won six championship rings, including four with the Chicago Fire, in three professional soccer leagues. He likes to write about soccer, history and people.