For more years than most of us would care to remember, soccer has been trumpeted as America’s “sport of the future.” The belief was that one day (perhaps because there was once a World Cup here, or perhaps because so many of us spent our formative Saturday afternoons running aimlessly around fields nominally playing the game) the country would come to embrace soccer the way the rest of the world has for the better part of the last 150 years. It was an open-ended prediction (“the future” remaining undefined) but came with the strong implication that “the future” was not that far away. Soccer was coming.
What the prediction failed to convey was just how slow the process might be, or how even the most sports-attuned observers could miss signs that the game was growing. The growth of soccer was never obvious outside of MLS, and considering how slow mainstream outlets have been to embrace the game, it’s easy to imagine that soccer’s future is still years away.
Then this: According to a scientifically conducted poll by social scientist Roger Luker in partnership with ESPN, soccer is now the second most popular sport (behind the behemoth NFL) among Americans ages 12-24. In one sense, that means soccer’s promise is being fulfilled; in another, it emphatically defines when the previously undefined “future” might be.
It’s starting, right now. If you listen, you might even be able to hear the “woosh” as the sports zooms into undeniable national relevance.
In Luker’s opinion, the transition of soccer from niche sport to full-blown mainstream powerhouse will be swift.
“”We are talking generational change,” Luker said. “A generation of kids have now grown up as having MLS as part of their reality. Give us one more cycle and that is all it will take. One more generation.”
That 12-24 generation can’t remember a time before the United States hosted a World Cup. Only the oldest among them has any recollection of an America without a top-flight professional league. For the entirety of their lives, professional soccer has been a prominent part of the sports landscape, certainly much more prominent than during the early years of generations before them. Now in their teens and early twenties, this group can flip on their TVs and find soccer somewhere on the dial nearly every day of the week, 365 days a year. They simply don’t carry the same prejudices against the sport that older generations do. The internet allows them to connect with fellow fans, stoking the flames of interest. More than anything, the digital revolution of the last 20 years is responsible for an entire generation of Americans evolving, in very short order, from the antiquated attitudes of previous generations.
After decades of waiting for the youth soccer culture and the pro spectator culture to connect, we have tangible proof that it’s happening. Previous generations played but didn’t watch and left the game behind in their high school years, creating a stark incongruity between the number of Americans who played (millions upon millions) and the number of Americans who followed the sport at its highest levels. The large number of registered players was one of the largest reason soccer got the “sport of the future” label; it seemed logical that all of those kids that played would one day grow up to be fans, pushing soccer into the spotlight.
So maybe it took longer than we thought or hoped. It wasn’t ever a simple as it was portrayed anyway, the facile declaration about soccer’s future hanging in the air, ready to be swatted down by people with antiquated notions of popularity. The sheer number of entertainment options available in the modern world, multiplied by the expansive nature of soccer, made it difficult to pin down the game’s popularity. MLS is only one part of a vast tapestry of leagues and competitions that have adherents in the U.S., so pointing to league TV ratings or attendance (which is good and getting better) as evidence of something is flat wrong. It doesn’t help that so many of the national sports media decision-makers are older and do not appreciate soccer, skewing the picture of the sport’s popularity by keeping it out of the nation’s most visible media outlets.
My take away from the results of the ESPN Sports poll is that soccer is both “underground” and “mainstream” at the exact same time.
If the results of Luker’s poll are anywhere close to reality (and we have no reason to believe they’re not), it’s time retire soccer’s old label of “sport of the future.” The future is now. Soccer, America’s sport of the now.
Jason Davis is a freelance writer who covers soccer and other sports for outlets like The Guardian, ESPNFC, The Score, and others. He lives in Virginia.