Gallup Says Soccer is More Popular Than Ever: Does That Really Matter?
Earlier this month there was a Gallup poll released on the popularity of sports in America that made waves in the soccer community. The surface level takeaways were they American football and baseball are not as popular as they once were and that soccer looks prone to (eventually, maybe) take over the third spot from baseball in the future. According to Jim Norman, writing for Gallup, “Soccer now nearly matches baseball’s popularity.” Here’s what Gallup came up with, in their polling:
These stats have stories behind the numbers of course. All of the top three sports in America have trended down, American football and baseball more so than the slight dip for basketball. I would argue that soccer is not taking fans away from one group, but collectively picking up a few here and there. This poll was the first time since 1997 that a sport other than football, baseball, or basketball received more than 7%. That was auto racing in 1997, which now only counts for 2%.
The above table shows the trends, none of which are all too surprising to anyone who has thought about the popularity of soccer. The sport is generally drawing fans that are younger, more liberal or moderate than conservative, and both male and female. Those are the stats that drive MLS and USL growth and expansion.
Something this poll misses is the importance of multi-sport fans. Most people follow more than one sport closely. Traditionally American sports fans moved from baseball to football season and back again seamlessly. Basketball and hockey complicated that landscape to a point. Sports dedicated cable channels and the internet have broken the sports schedule wide-open, especially when now that a soccer fan can now plan a calendar around the start dates of European and American leagues and watch soccer year-round. Not to mention World Cups along with various national and league cups and competitions.
Anecdotally, most of my friends who follow soccer on some level still follow college football, the NFL, the NBA, or some other “favorite” sport. I’d argue that the sports-entertainment complex relies upon hardcore fans and casuals almost equally.
That’s where I may have a problem with the overall message of these statistics. I’m not sure if it matters just how popular soccer is compared to other sports in the United States. Soccer can and does carve out its own enclave of dedicated fans and that’s all they need. MLS never has to become bigger than the NFL or even the NBA to still be successful. I’m sure they may have that as a goal, but it is not necessary for the survival of the sport like it was thought to be in the 1970s.
When the United States Men’s National Team failed to make the 2018 FIFA World Cup, I rant posted my disappointment on my Facebook page. While many of my friends related a similar feeling, many others wonder what exactly I was on about. I realized then, that I do live in kind of a soccer bubble. My Twitter feed, my friend group, the websites I visit, all keep me connected to the Orlando City/ MLS/ American soccer communities without really reminding me how small they actually are when compared to the population at large. Despite attending Orlando City games in a full stadium, there are Central Florida residents who are close to me who couldn’t tell you what color the team wears.
Soccer, as it is predicted, will continue to grow in America. Just how much and which sports it is more popular than, in my opinion, doesn’t really matter.