Not too long ago, Americans couldn’t care less about the world’s most popular sport. Now we care so much we are not only going to be a force to be reckoned with on the soccer pitch, we’re going to try cleaning up the sport’s international governing body. Hence the breathtaking corruption charges brought on Wednesday by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch (who’ll become a global rock star with this case) against a number of FIFA’s top executives, several of whom were extradited to the United States by Swiss law enforcement.
The news comes on a week when I was already thinking about the ongoing integration of soccer into American culture, and of America into the world’s sport. I spent Memorial Day weekend with my 10-year-old son at his the Blue Gray soccer tournament in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and was struck by the extent to which this hallowed crossroads of American history was overrun by foreign insignia. Young players from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland wore their travel team uniforms and their favorite Major League Soccer or Team USA jerseys. They also swarmed about town with their families wearing jerseys and hats professing their allegiance to the likes of Manchester United and Barcelona, or the German and Brazilian national teams.
This seamless melding of local and foreign team allegiances, a sports fandom without boundaries, drove home for me the degree to which the world’s top sport has infiltrated our culture. For a long time, soccer reigned supreme as a youth sport, but that didn’t necessarily translate into a widespread fan base for professional soccer, foreign or domestic. It seemed as if soccer in this country was condemned to remain mere child’s play.
But no more. We’ve finally reached the tipping point where the nation’s decades-long youth soccer craze has trickled up into a broader adult fandom for the sport.
Just look at the numbers. Last year’s World Cup final in Brazil between Argentina and Germany was watched by an estimated 26.5 million people in the United States. That number dwarfs the 15.5 million viewers for the 2014 NBA Finals, or the 14.9 million viewers for the final game of the World Series the previous year. The average viewership for all 64 World Cup matches was up 39 percent over 2010 on ESPN. Just imagine what will happen the day the U.S. team makes the World Cup final.
This is as much a story of American infiltration of the world’s sport, as it is the infiltration of the game into our culture. The soccer world should view America the way we often talk about China in the economic context—a relentless giant inevitably bound to take over. Our 26.5 million World Cup final viewers compare to 34.6 million viewers in Germany, whose team beat Argentina in overtime. In a country with only one-fourth our population, that’s obviously a much larger percentage of Germans glued to their TV sets. But in absolute terms, the U.S. market is already in the major leagues. We also have more kids playing the game than Germany.
There is a poignant TV commercial airing these days that depicts kids on every continent, some in very humble circumstances, playing ball while wearing Manchester United jerseys and introducing themselves as “My name is … and I play for Manchester United.” Then it cuts to the tunnel shot in the club’s venerable Old Trafford stadium as the stars line up to come out onto the field, wearing the kids’ names on their jerseys. The Red Devils’ most famous player then looks into the camera and says, “I’m Wayne Rooney, and I play for you.”
The ad captures the global reach of the game and the timeless bond between athletic superstars and the kids who grow up emulating them. But it’s also, albeit less explicitly, a testament to the American takeover of the game.
The ad is for Chevy, after all.
The all-American brand paid a fortune to have its logo on the chest of all those kids around the world rooting Rooney on. And the controlling shareholder of Man U, as is true at five other English teams, is the American Glazer family, owners of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Closer to home, America’s own Major League Soccer continues to grow steadily. The league, founded with 10 teams in 1996, will boast 23 teams by 2018, all playing in their own impressive custom-built soccer stadiums. MLS has deep pockets, profitable TV deals, and plenty of candidate cities clamoring for a franchise.
It is an open question whether Americans’ easier access to first-rate soccer overseas (on one Saturday in April, two of our four major broadcast networks aired English soccer games simultaneously) has helped or hindered the growth of our domestic league. But whatever the case, fandom for the game here and abroad is growing.
In the recently concluded second season of its three-year deal to air the English Premier League, NBC Universal’s viewership of the games has more than doubled from its first year. That is an astonishing success in TV land these days, though it means NBC will face formidable competition from FOX and ESPN later this year when the next three-year rights deal is awarded. The Premier League sells rights to its games in some 80 countries (and saw its domestic haul within Britain for the 2016 to 2019 rights spike 70 percent, to $8 billion), and it may only be a matter of time before more people on this side of the Atlantic watch matchups like Arsenal-Manchester United than do those back in the mother country.
European teams naturally view the United States, alongside Asian markets, as great growth opportunities, sending their squads to play preseason friendlies over here to stoke interest and develop their followings. In another intriguing hint of things to come, Manchester City established its own Major League Soccer club this season, the New York FC franchise.
Soccer’s recent success in America is a little unsettling both to folks here wedded to an extreme vision of American exceptionalism, and to folks elsewhere who’d prefer to leave one facet of global popular culture untainted by U.S. influence. But the rest of us should celebrate the convergence; it’s good, in so many ways, to play with the rest of the world. And this includes taking a more assertive role in the stewardship of the world’s game, as the federal assault on FIFA corruption makes clear.
If you remain skeptical about soccer’s ascendancy in America and America’s ascendancy within soccer, call me in 2022. That’s the year the U.S. will win its first World Cup, which will be played in this country after a reformed FIFA reverses its absurd (and, apparently, corrupt) decision to award it to Qatar. It will also be a time when we can celebrate a “world champion” team, without that title having an ironic ring to it.
Andrés Martinez is the editorial director of Zócalo Public Square and a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.
*Photo courtesy of Jenni Konrad.