July 1, 2014 10:16:45 AM
This afternoon, the United States plays Belgium in the World Cup. A win would send the U.S. to the quarterfinals of the World Cup in the modern era.
In three matches, the USA's success has been met with growing enthusiasm in a nation where football -- American football, that is -- reigns supreme.
A record 13.8 million Americans watched the US battle to a dramatic 2-2 tie against Portugal on June 22, while 10.8 million tuned in on Thursday afternoon to watch the US qualify for the Round of 16. The U.S. team advanced despite a 1-0 loss to Germany in that game, setting the state for today's knock-out round game against Belgium.
Clearly, interest in the game has spiked as the U.S. has made its run through the early stages of the World Cup.
Inevitably, the question emerges: Will the success of the U.S. in this year's World Cup increase the popularity of the sport in the United States?
The answer? A little.
If history is any guide, the popularity of any sports does not suddenly explode. Rather, it is built over time.
It seems almost heretical to suggest that soccer's popularity in the U.S. will ever seriously rival that of the NFL. Of course, there was a time when any thought that the NFL could surpass baseball -- long hailed as "the national pastime"-- in popularity was equally as ludicrous a proposition. Well, the NFL has been the most popular sport in America since the mid-1960s.
If there was a watershed moment for soccer in the U.S., it occurred 20 years ago when the U.S. won the 1994 World Cup. Suddenly, the game burst onto U.S. consciousness in a way like never before. Within a year of that event, there were 13 million youth playing soccer in the U.S. Now, 20 years later, that number is about the same.
That is not to say that soccer has not made significant inroads. Roger Short, the director of the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority, says soccer is second only to baseball in the number of participants in CLRA-sponsored sports.
Of course, participation isn't the total measure of popularity.
It might surprise some to know that the average attendance for the U.S. pro soccer league, Major League Soccer, is higher than average attendance for the NBA. This year, MLS signed an 8-year contract with ESPN, Fox Sports and Spanish-language Univision, which will also dramatically increase the sport's profile.
Soccer has established a good foundation in the U.S. and is likely to only grow in popularity. As with most sports, it will be a slow, incremental growth.
Events such as this year's World Cup help that growth by raising the sports profile.
That's something Short noticed in relation to another sport. Short said that when women's fast-pitch softball was added as an Olympic sport in 1996, it created an burst of interest in fast-pitch softball among America's young girls. That interest began to decline, however, when softball was dropped as an Olympic sport in 2008.
So, yes, the added exposure a sport enjoys does help the popularity of the sport.
There is one factor that could stimulate the popularity of the sport in the U.S.
Soccer is perceived as a good alternative to American football, which is struggling with safety issues. The NFL recently settled a class-action lawsuit for $765 million that involved 4,500-plus plaintiffs over concussions. More and more incidents of concussions on the college and high school level are beginning to give some parents pause when it comes enrolling their sons in youth football. Participation in the two large national youth football leagues had dropped by 6.7 percent and 9.5 percent over the past three years.
It isn't much of a prediction to say that soccer will continue to grow in popularity in the U.S.
This year's World Cup is another touchstone in that growth.