There are all sorts of reasons people will cite for soccer’s failure to fully take off in the US: the lack-lustre performance of men’s national team, TV rights limitations, the superiority of the women’s national team, Major League Soccer (MLS) or even Jurgen Klinsmann.
Having made significant headway in the last decade, particularly following the 2014 World Cup run in Brazil, soccer seemed poised to finally go mainstream in the US. It is, after all, now the fourth most popular live sport to watch and the average MLS attendance sits at 22,113.
On June 14th, the US Men’s national team will miss the World Cup Finals for the first time in 32 years
Yet, given it’s the most popular sport in the world and the number one sport in many countries, it still doesn’t feel like soccer has made it as a sport in America. When the sun rises at Lunzhniki Stadium on June 14th, the US men’s national team will miss the World Cup Finals for the first time in 32 years. A huge deal, given the World Cup is far and away the most popular soccer event among US fans.
There’s a longstanding belief that other sports are more relevant to American culture. A New Jersey native who came up through the US youth academy system summed it up nicely:
“Until we grow up with the ball at our feet, America will never succeed internationally.
Other countries live for soccer and we don’t”
Many have tried to bring the game over before, with some success. But the challenge has always been the sheer number of moving parts needed to get it right: the MLS clubs and league, the US national team, local councils, the education system, youth academies, the media and TV channels. All must play their part in promoting the game.
Some independent market research conducted by Hall & Partners among sports fans identified the following:
Top 5 reasons Americans aren’t soccer fans
- ‘Other sports are more relevant to American culture’
- ‘I’m happy with the other sports that I watch’
- ‘I don’t feel passionate towards any team or I don’t know what team to follow’
- ‘The games are too slow / it’s not exciting enough’
- ‘I don’t know any of the big names in soccer’
We’ve found it comes down to one fundamental barrier: CULTURE.
The emphasis should be on fans, rather than on teams, leagues or players. We believe that better connections with fans can be achieved through understanding the psychology behind their love for the ‘beautiful game’. Demand must be created organically rather than being forced or presumed.
Why do we follow sport?
According to psychologists, there are five key motives for people to follow sport:
- Eustress (positive stress)
- Sense of belonging
As passionate soccer fans, we conducted some research to dig deeper and understand the best way to tap into these motives to drive demand and engagement with the game, and ultimately tip US culture towards soccer.
From the research among sports fans we identified seven priorities that, by driving fan demand and engagement, should accelerate the role of soccer in the US and help cement its place as a major sport in the country.
7 ways to increase US soccer engagement
1) Focus on the right people
There are two groups of people in the US who are already heavily invested in soccer: Youth and Hispanic audiences.
Youth have more of a global mindset and are on board with technology. They’re interested in soccer for its global appeal and diverse fan-base. Getting fans engaged and passionately supporting a team while they’re young is critical, as is ensuring that soccer is relevant for youth culture. Soccer content, brands and news need to be easily accessible and always present on places where youths hang out – on social media, and at music events and pop-up experiences, to name a few.
By 2050 the amount of US Hispanics is set to skyrocket to 144 Million, 30% of the US population. They bring with them their culture, language and, crucially, their love of soccer. Affordable coverage of Latin American leagues and tournaments along with more prominent Spanish-language commentary and punditry for the big games could go some way to meeting the needs of this audience.
2) Be distinctive and relevant
The US is a cluttered market for sports, many of which are so ingrained in American culture that it’s difficult to break in. Simply put, soccer needs to be distinctive and different from other sports. All sports are high octane, dramatic and emotionally charged, so to stand out soccer must focus on something else.
Youth are drawn to brands that a) have purpose and fight for causes they believe in, and b) offer a seamless user experience with the latest tech. Connecting soccer to a relevant cause and utilizing the latest and most innovative tech for playing and watching soccer is likely to increase the relevance of soccer in the US today.
3) Build tribal mentalities
For many, being a fan and supporting your team is part of your identity. The social aspect and group affiliation drives passion towards a sport. In our hyper-specialized and tribal internet culture, local and targeted advertising to create buzz around a specific team or event can deepen engagement.
A prime example of organic fan growth in the US is the new, but rapidly increasing fan-base of Atlanta United in the MLS. The success of the US women’s team also provides an opportunity with female sports fans.
Another way to tap into group affiliation is to play on the cultural or family ties many Americans have to nations where passion for soccer is stronger. Allowing those in the US to better connect to their country of origin (e.g. officially sanctioned watch parties, better availability of smaller national leagues or more targeted advertising) could create a sense of belonging in the sport.
4) Create celebrities
In the US, many soccer fans don’t follow leagues or teams. They follow individual players and will keep following them whichever team they move to. As powerful assets for the game, more could be done to leverage this, particularly as the US currently has many household names in the MLS right now.
Shifting the focus in advertising and sponsorship towards a player, or a cadre of players, rather than their teams will create buzz around these elite athletes – which could just be enough to generate more engagement with soccer itself. Players such as Christian Pulisic or Weston McKennie could become the faces of US soccer in the years ahead.
5) Catpitalise on current soccer passion points
After the World Cup and the MLS, the most followed league in the US is the Premier League (EPL) followed by the Champions League. While these events are televised nationally, they often come and go without the casual fan knowing or realizing their importance. Better marketing is required around the big non-World Cup events – such as the Champions League, EPL and Copa America – to capitalize on soccer passion where it exists.
NYCFC have the right idea. Their link to Man City not only provides them with a pool of available talent; the average fan now associates NYCFC with the interest and passion that exists for soccer in Manchester. Other US clubs, particularly newer ones, should consider this type of franchise approach, partnering with flagship teams in Europe and South America.
With the recent news of the US jointly hosting the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada, this provides a significant opportunity to generate buzz in the years leading to the tournament, promoting the event itself as the climax and cornerstone of the US soccer movement.
6) Cut to the chase
Our research found that many in the US find the game of soccer to be too slow or not exciting enough, or they’re only interested in the biggest games or players. It appears soccer doesn’t elicit eustress in the US as it does in other countries – there just isn’t enough excitement from watching soccer as there is from other sports.
These days, attention spans are low and everyone wants content in bite-sized, easily digestible chunks that cut to the chase. To compete with faster-paced American sports, soccer content should be consumed the same way that people watch movie trailers, news soundbites or even videos of cats: 5–10 minute highlights that focus on the biggest and most exciting events.
7) Make it easy and affordable
While not as important as the cultural shifts, our research confirmed that perceived price and availability are still important. While there are OTS streaming services popping up focused on soccer, the perception from fans is that they need multiple subscriptions to watch their favorite teams or players. Shifting this perception could entice those on the fringes to give soccer a try for the first time.
As the events of the 2018 World Cup unfold, the US is at an inflection point. Now is a better time than ever to take tangible steps and increase engagement with soccer among sports fans. Quick wins can be had by targeting the right people with the right message, making soccer more easily available to watch and taking advantage of upcoming events. However, a wide-scale cultural shift will take time and require a consistent and unified approach from all relevant parties. We hope that by following some of the steps above, soccer will become inextricably woven into American sports culture.