The "has soccer arrived in America?" conversation ranks among the most ritualistic aspects of each World Cup. This year's conversation has been particularly sundry, with entrants ranging from The New Republic editor and author of How Soccer Explains The World Frank Foer to Ann Coulter. (One of those is worth reading.) World Cup ratings have been great and interest high; plus, every writer has an Uncle Ron who used to call soccer a sissy sport but is now inexplicably rearranging his schedule to watch Brazil-Germany. If even Uncle Ron's World Cup Fever vaccination has finally worn off, soccer must have infected everyone else, right?
But the World Cup is a poor indicator of soccer's popularity. It is literally the most popular thing in the world, meaning there could be many reasons aside from an interest in soccer that Americans would watch. The event is a cultural phenomenon and it has been well established that people partake in cultural phenomena due to social considerations, not necessarily pure interest. That is, watching the World Cup is not an indicator that someone actually likes soccer, particularly if the last soccer game they watched was during the last World Cup.
A once-every-four-year event is a poor metric for measuring a sport's popularity since if you do something once every four years you probably don't enjoy it all that much. Last year, all 380 English Premier League matches were broadcast live in the U.S.; they averaged 440,000 viewers each, still significantly higher than the average television rating for our domestic league. It's definitely exciting that 18.2 million people watched USA-Portugal on ESPN -- especially since this is more than last year's average World Series viewership -- but the previous most-watched soccer game on ESPN was the 1999 women's World Cup final which had a very similar 17.9 million viewers. Since then, the Women's United Soccer Association and Women's Professional Soccer leagues each folded shortly after they were established. Currently, the National Women's Soccer League is in its second year of play and, while looking far more stable than its predecessors, is still a modest commercial enterprise. So while big World Cup TV ratings are all well and good, they offer little in terms of future domestic commercial promise.
The story of soccer in America goes beyond mere quadrennial data points. Currently, soccer in America occupies a similar place as the NFL in Europe, one that MLB and the NBA have likewise found in China, Asia and Latin America for decades. It is a model for expanding a sport's popularity with marketing strategies, branded tweets and targeted Facebook ads among other business school strategies. Also, it is completely unlike the way sports have spread throughout the world in our civilization's history.
As David Goldblatt detailed in The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer, sports have generally been introduced to new places through influential foreigners. Soccer's story -- along with cricket and rugby, for that matter -- is generally a result of the British empire unloading it from their ships along with their teas and diseases. At first, the game was mostly played by British expats, but in most port cities, it took a few decades for the game to spread to the local, working-class populations in a significant way. Baseball's international reach follows a similar arc: Businessmen spread the game in Latin America and Japan.
In those days, there was very little commercial interest in spreading the games; the economics of globalization was still a quasi-militaristic endeavor. Likewise, sport leagues were still gradually transitioning from amateurism to professionalism. There was very little top-down interest in spreading the game for pure profit. Rather, it was part of a more cynical effort to instill a perceived superior culture onto an inferior one.
Today, nearly every major sports league is involved in some effort to spread their specific league on a global scale in order to reach new markets and increase profitability. Preseason international tours are no longer reserved just for European soccer teams. The NBA will play games in Germany, Brazil, Turkey and China. The NHL has been playing international games since 1938, although they didn't become regular until 2007 when the league instituted the Premier Series, about a dozen games played in various European cities. That same year, the NFL began its own International Series -- not including the one-off Mexico City game a few years prior, the first NFL regular season game played outside the U.S. -- which are now the annual London games. In the last few years, MLB has made several forays into international markets as well, including regular season openers in Japan and Australia. Meanwhile, each of these leagues have their own international offices and departments, specifically for coordinating the league's foreign efforts.
Those transcontinental reaches are a near-perfect analogue for soccer in the United States. This summer, America will host dozens of friendlies featuring Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich (who have also opened a U.S. office in New York), Manchester City (a co-owner of an MLS club in New York), Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Roma.
Soccer is no more popular in America than basketball or football are in Europe. (This is another problem with the soccer-in-America conversation: few take the time to define "popular". Do they mean becoming the fifth major sport? Or the most popular one? Or something else altogether?) However, there are a few ways in which soccer could become more popular than hockey or even basketball and baseball in the United States. The first is a bit of a return to the 19th Century method, in which immigrant or diasporic populations brought customs with them.
The ever-growing Hispanic-American population could be the continued source of soccer growth. As a pre-World Cup Google report explained, "Just as Latin American countries are fueling global interest [in the World Cup], the population growth of Hispanics is a large driver of interest in the U.S. According to Pew, 46 percent of Hispanics are looking forward to the World Cup, compared with 15 percent of non-Hispanic whites." In this case, it's not so much that former soccer-hating Americans are suddenly finding a fountain of tolerance, but rather new people have come to the U.S. who already love the game and introduce it to others.
We're also approaching the period when, historically, those foreign populations reach a critical mass and sports are adopted by the locals. Immigration rates from Mexico have skyrocketed since the 1970s, but are at a net-negative for the first time. Back in the late 1800s, Argentina was one of the quickest countries to adopt soccer from the British, doing so in about a decade. Most other countries took about 20-30 years before they formed their own clubs. Using this historical precedent as a rough guide, we're right at the precipice of seeing whether Mexican-Americans and other Hispanic immigrants have been soccer influencers here in the U.S.
Of course, the world is pretty different than it was in the late-19th Century, what with EZ-passes and all. Considering this, it's not clear how good of a guide pre-war Argentina ought to be. But one could argue, as ESPN writer and Men in Blazers podcast co-host Roger Bennett often does, the proliferation of the internet is the true catalyst for American soccer growth. In this interpretation, the internet is a facilitator that allows casual interests to ignite into a full-blown obsession. This is certainly true on an anecdotal level, but whenever a company or industry tries to quantify it as the Google report did, their findings usually come back to a growing and increasingly influential Hispanic diaspora.
How cultures spread is a massively complex phenomenon that no TV rating figure can encapsulate. Likewise, American soccer trends have been the riddle few logicians can solve, probably because America is an immensely complex and diverse place itself. Figuring out why America hasn't embraced soccer is just as difficult as figuring out anything else about America. If soccer does finally catch on in America -- whatever that means -- it probably won't be through large-scale marketing efforts, promotional events, international friendlies or quadrennial super-events.
There will be no moment to which we can pinpoint American soccer's origination. Soccer doesn't get off a plane at JFK and get its passport stamped. If soccer does "arrive" in America, it will be through a very familiar phenomenon, one that has happened to nearly every country in the world that has never involved the World Cup.