Soccer is booming but focus on the 2026 World Cup not Qatar

Frank Hopewell-Smith
USA world cup

Soccer is in a good place in the US but brands shouldn’t expect to see that reflected in TV audiences and social engagement for this World Cup. Frank Hopewell-Smith, Group Strategy Director at Hall & Partners, explains why.

As the US men’s soccer team prepares for the knock out stage of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, one thing is certain. Unless they can match the success of the women’s team and actually win (which is unfortunately, unlikely), it won’t be a huge event for US sports fans.

Brands should be aware that Qatar 2022 will fail to excite Americans on a large scale, not because soccer is in a bad place in the US, but mostly because what’s being asked of fans is demanding and unfamiliar. The good news is that the building blocks for a blockbuster World Cup on home soil in 2026 are firmly in place. That’s when marketing investment in the international game will start to deliver real ROI.

Barriers to engagement

Traditionally countries that host a big sporting event experience a surge in interest for the preceding event. That won’t happen with Qatar 2022 for two key reasons, seasonality and timing.

Americans are only just getting used to the World Cup being a summer event. This time it’s coming at an unexpected moment – a moment where American Football and Basketball are in full flow. Competing with these two behemoths of American culture is bound to have a huge impact on viewership.

Secondly – the games in Qatar are at very unusual times. Building excitement for the opening games when many are early mornings on weekdays is a tall order even for a more established US sport.

Despite those barriers, our research, which used Relative Insight to analyze conversations on Twitter about the World Cup found that US citizens are more than twice as excited about Qatar 2022 as they were about Russia 2018. 

And the good news for brands such as Allstate, Chipotle and BioSteel, which are among the sponsors of the US soccer team, is that the fundamentals for soccer are in a very strong place and certainly better than in 2018 when the tournament was held in Russia.

Interest in soccer has risen since 2018

In 2022, our research has found that 82% of Americans feel their interest in soccer has stayed the same or improved in the last four years, with 41% stating it has improved, and 41% saying it has stayed the same. Only 17% state as being less interested in soccer and the sport is now ahead of hockey in terms of claimed interest among the population (35% vs 27%).

Among American soccer fans, the top reason for being interested in soccer (at 51% of fans) is actually enjoying playing soccer themselves. Around 12.6m people played soccer outdoors in 2021 and 5.2m played indoors in 2018. And according to Statista, before 2020 (and the pandemic) the sport had seen year-on-year growth in high school players since 2010. A lot of this growth is coming among boys, with the sport being traditionally more popular among girls at school as boys gravitated towards more traditional American sports. With investment in youth and playing across the US, the sport is building a strong fan base through direct engagement.

Soccer is enjoyable for spectators

The second two reasons are that American soccer fans enjoy the experience of watching soccer in person (46%) and they enjoy the ‘fan culture’ (44%), reflecting the efforts that owners and teams have made to improve the experience of the fan in recent years.

A great example is LAFC – who have created a team and stadium focused on the community. They are incredibly distinct from LA Galaxy, choosing opposite colors but also utilizing ‘football’ in their name purposefully to give a Hispanic edge. They created something with the population and culture of LA in mind, building fan engagement and some of that tribal mentality we see in European or South American based soccer. In fact, a third of the soccer fans stated ‘soccer was a part of their culture’ as a reason for their interest.

Another reason soccer is building traction in the US is due to great television coverage. Thirty-nine percent of our soccer fan respondents say soccer has ‘Great Television Coverage’ and 35% have noticed that there are fewer commercials / advertising breaks than other sports. The sheer amount of advertising in American football and basketball makes soccer far more entertaining for many.

Similarly in an age of epic, three to four-hour long football matches, a game of soccer takes just 90 minutes. Forty percent note that games are short and consistently timed. During the 2021 regular MLS season, an average of 285,000 viewers tuned into each game, up 11% year on year.

Soccer’s profile is also rising, with more games aired on US television and bigger names involved in commentating such as Clive Tyldesley and Peter Drury. This not only provides a better viewing experience, but it brings more personalities and players to forefront of US soccer fans. US captain Christian Pulisic is a Premier League Star for Chelsea and has more than 800,000 followers.

2026 will be a hit

Ultimately – when FIFA originally awarded Qatar the World Cup in 2010 – the US soccer fan was not uppermost on their minds. Since then, applying our interest data to the overall US population reveals that the potential audience for soccer has grown to around 100 million people.

Be in no doubt, however, that in 2026 with the World Cup in the US, Canada and Mexico they will be cheering the US team on – and the brands that support the team will win as well.