Recently an ESPN Sports poll found soccer to be the second most popular professional sport, behind only the NFL especially among Latinos and younger players between the ages of 12 and 24.
By JUAN PARDO
EL NUEVO SOL
One of the first memories that I can still recall is battling with my cousin in the back patio of my house. Just a small ball, him and I literally giving everything our tiny bodies had to give, jumping, sliding, running, diving across the imaginary soccer field. I ended up losing the match and I burst into tears. I was devastated but at the same time I was completely overwhelmed by the fact that such a simple game could make me feel the way it did. Even today, it is hard to believe that a three-year-old boy could be so passionate and competitive about anything in the world.
I moved to the US when I was 16, up until then my devotion for the glorious sport of soccer had been unlimited but very soon after arriving, it became pretty clear that my relationship with the game was about to end. Kids my age were playing other sports, baseball, basketball, skateboarding and even surfing. In a way, it felt like the more I tried to assimilate, the smaller the role of soccer was in my life. Despite the fact that it was the most followed sport in the world, soccer just simply did not feel that important here in the US. Needless to say, that is no longer the case and the numbers prove it.
Since 1990, when the U.S. qualified for the World Cup final round for the first time in 40 years, and especially since 1994, when the U.S. hosted the world’s most popular sporting event, The FIFA world Cup, soccer has taken off in America. Recently an ESPN Sports poll found soccer to be the second most popular professional sport, behind only the NFL especially among Latinos and younger players between the ages of 12 and 24.
The largest category of soccer in the United States in terms of participation is boys’ and girls’ youth soccer. Soccer is one of the most played sports by children in the United States. In 2014 there were 3,055,148 youth players officially registered with U.S. Soccer programs, up by 89 percent since 1990.
Over the last few years, much has been written about soccer’s surging popularity among the American youth. So the thinking goes, there’s a whole generation of kids growing up in a more culturally diverse country influenced by FIFA video games, exposed to globalized stars like Messi and Ronaldo, and raised by parents with a deepening discomfort of the inherent brutality of American football.
But where does the college game place in all of this? Does NCAA soccer reflect the sport’s general spread?” Make no mistake: college soccer is growing steadily, and it’s growing significantly. Athletic programs are devoting more and more resources towards developing their soccer programs.
A clear example is dramatic increase of the number of student athletes who are enrolled in soccer programs in recognized NCAA schools around the country. In 2003, the average program carried fewer than 25 men, and just under 23 women. By 2011, those numbers had climbed to over 28, and over 25, respectively. And in some cases, such as Tulsa University, the rosters have nearly doubled. It is a simple mattered of more depth clearly equals to better results on the pitch. In men’s D-1 soccer, the team with the largest roster expansion over the past few years was North Carolina, who coincidentally claimed the NCAA championship in 2011
The reason why the expansion of teams is important is because bigger teams also mean bigger budgets. Expenses have nearly doubled since 2003. In women’s soccer, the largest percent increase in expenses belonged to Duke’s Lady Blue Devils, at nearly 650%. Needless to say, the team has become a staple in postseason appearances. On the men’s side of things, Connecticut’s 1.2M budget increase was the largest in the sport from 2003-2011. Since a disappointing 9-8-4 campaign in 2003, the Huskies have steadily refocused their sights back on the national title, recently recording back-to-back top 10 national ranking finishes.
But investments aren’t only paying dividends on the soccer pitch anymore. In fact, revenue generated by the sport has nearly tripled for both men’s and women’s soccer. Although, the average program is still operating at a loss, that gap is closing fast. As is the case for most programs, soccer has a long way to go before becoming a major revenue generating sport. But there’s no doubt that its progress is worth monitoring. Eyes all over America are starting to drift towards the soccer pitch, and those on college campuses are no exception.
There is no bigger proof of the popularity of soccer than the amount of merchandise sold around the country. But in the past few years I have noticed a lot more people walking around with soccer jerseys and as a matter of fact, I’ve also noticed a lot more brick and mortar style shops around neighborhoods in Los Angeles. There have always been soccer shops but they were mostly located in Latino neighborhoods and directed towards die-hard fanatics. But times have changed, just in Los Angeles there are over 40 registered soccer shops, from Brentwood to Altadena, anyone who is interested can find the latest soccer cleats to jerseys from the Bundesliga or Premier League at their local shop.
One day after watching the USA Men’s team get dominated by the Mexican national team for the Russia 2018 world cup qualifiers, I decided to walk into my local soccer shop and take a look around. The Soccer Store is not the cleverest name but it might be the best for business. They had bags, scarfs, jerseys, cleats, pins and even some DVD’s but what impressed me the most was the amount of customers roaming around the store. After all it was a Saturday morning after a big game. Mom’s following their kids around, couple teenagers flicking through the Barça jerseys and of course the three employees were in constant motion. The assistant manager Antonio Salcedo was too busy to answer questions but promised to get back to me via email.
The Soccer Store is part of a local chain with four locations in Los Angeles. According to Antonio, “business is good but it could always be better”, this is a destination for people looking for specific jerseys or gear. He also mentioned that the biggest weakness of the store is the lack of an online presence, “A lot of people like to stop by the store but most people just want to shop online”. Antonio is right, thanks to technological advances the apparel e-commerce industry has grown dramatically over the past 10 years and it is showing no signs of slowing. In the U.S alone, consumers spend about 63 billion U.S. dollars annually on apparel and accessories in online purchases.
Fortunately for Antonio and the Soccer Store, soccer is not a seasonal sport, which is a key difference from other mainstream sports. Whether it is the High School soccer, local leagues, MLS, European leagues, Copa America or the World cup, there is always an event that’s creating a buzz and a desire for people to get new gear.
Speaking of continuous buzz, just few days ago I witnessed even more proof that soccer has taken our society by storm and is not going anywhere. In a cool November morning my friend Tobias Buch-Andersen, also known as just Toby (who was born and raised in Denmark but just like millions of people around the world is a die-hard Barcelona fan), invited me to watch the “El Clásico” at our local bar. “El Clásico” is a match between the two most notorious teams in the planet, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Although I was interested in watching the game, my first question was, is any place going to be open? The game was at 7:30am west coast time. Toby quickly responded, “Tavern on Brand will be open, for sure”. Needless to say the bar was packed with fans from both teams and a full staff running the place.
Sports do not grow overnight but the clearest sign of soccer’s arrival is the amount of dollars marketers are investing on advertisement and sponsorship of the sport. The estimated amount spent by TV advertisers on soccer has grown 43% to $378 million from around $265 million during the last World Cup year in 2010, global car companies such as Hyundai, Volkswagen of America and Chrysler have secured deals with ESPN to sponsor halftime and postgame shows. Furthermore, 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.
It is an understatement to say that in the long run soccer will directly affect the popularity of the four major sports and there is no doubt that it is thriving, growing and kicking. Nearly thirteen million Americans play the sport regularly, making it the third-most-popular participant sport behind basketball and baseball. And as another generation of soccer players matures, the number of networks broadcasting the game goes up, the potential audience for the sport will only continue to grow. Will soccer ever be the king of America? It is hard to tell but the numbers speak for themselves and it has definitely arrived to stay.