You’d be telling a huge lie if you looked at the sports world right now in the United States and said that soccer isn’t at the forefront of it.
We can already hear the rebuttals.
While the explosion of soccer at the moment can be heavily accredited to the Argentine’s arrival in South Florida to play in the MLS - as a World Cup winner nonetheless - there are numerous other puzzle pieces that have been laid out over time to get us to this point.
And don’t let us get started on NFL vs. soccer comparisons. The El Clasico pre-season “friendly” in Dallas last week drew in a grand total of 82,026 fans into the AT&T Stadium, making it the highest-attended soccer match ever at the venue.
The average NFL stadium attendance for the 2022 regular season was 69,389.
That’s no shade, either. We won’t leave out the fact that the Dallas Cowboys averaged an attendance of 93,465 for their games in the AT&T Stadium in 2022.
But for a pre-season soccer game -albeit the most well-known matchup in the history of the beautiful game - to come this close to the football team’s regular season attendance numbers, as well as surpass the average of all NFL teams in each of their stadiums, is obvious proof that the popularity gap is shrinking.
That right there has nothing to do with Messi, who left Barcelona nearly 2 years ago. Not to mention the club has seen a serious decline in their ability to compete in Europe ever since.
The Soccer Champions Tour seems to have fallen at the perfect time for fans of the beautiful game of football (we’ll go back to using that word for the remainder of this newsletter) in the US.
This is not the first time European clubs have decided to bring their squads stateside for a pre-season tour; in fact, this has been a normal occurrence since the 20th century. But the global attention and popularity of these relatively meaningless games has drastically grown over the past decade.
Much more marketing is being done to better advertise these summertime friendlies, as well as make them more accessible to the rest of the world.
Games from both the Soccer Champions Tour and the Premier League Summer Series were made available to be live streamed across the globe, as a result racking up even more viewership.
If you’re part of the percentage of superfans that doesn’t miss a single pre-season match when it comes to European clubs, you probably know well how difficult it used to be to find where to watch certain games only just a few years ago.
Although most of these matchups over the past decade were more than likely televised in some shape or form, they certainly didn’t receive the same publicity and media exposure that is becoming much more common today.
Thanks to streaming services like ESPN+, Peacock & Paramount+, it’s become somewhat easier to watch European football. Of course, the only downside is having to pay a monthly or annual fee.
Most of the time, these services broadcast every single matchup that happens in La Liga, Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, just to name a few. And now, they are going the extra mile, providing American viewers the ability to watch all of the pre-season action without missing a beat.
The entirety of the Soccer Champions Tour (featuring teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Man United, AC Milan, Arsenal, etc.) has been broadcasted via ESPN+.
Meanwhile, the slightly less popular Premier League Summer Series was shown on the same platform that streams the regular Premier League season: Peacock.
Decisions like this go a long way when it comes to racking up viewership and in turn, increasing popularity of the sport.
The viewer doesn’t have to do much research to throw on a particular game, pre-season or not. By now, knowing which streaming service shows which league or tournament should be common knowledge for avid fans.
And with the rising popularity of the sport in the United States, it’s no wonder why streaming platforms are deciding to charge now. They know that people are going to pay for it. That’s a topic for a whole other newsletter, though.
Over the past nearly two decades, football in the United States has seen a steady rise, and Google Trends data backs this up.
At first glance, it may seem like searches for the word “soccer” have remained consistent over the years. But if you look carefully at most of the spikes in the graph, they get ever-so slightly higher almost every time (besides the two tallest ones between 2009 and 2015, which occurred during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, respectively).
Searches for soccer in the US since 2004 hit their 3rd highest point ever during the 2022 World Cup in November/December, and although it saw its typical decline after a major event, it’s now on the way back up this summer.
The greatest interest increase is found within searches for Lionel Messi. Google searches for his name went through the roof when he lifted the World Cup trophy in December, and although there was a decline from January onwards, the curve is now heading back up again now that he’s playing in Major League Soccer.
Speaking of the MLS, business is booming. It has seen consistent growth since Beckham’s arrival that forever changed the way the league functions. Although it will take many more years, even decades, to match the likes of NBA, NFL and MLB teams in terms of value, check out how much progress they’ve made.
It’s not just about online searches and finances, though. We touched on this particular subject earlier, but the sheer amount of fans popping up at football matches across the country is plenty of evidence on its own.
Here are the attendance numbers for some of the biggest matchups that took place recently on US soil:
Juventus vs. AC Milan - 18,746 (Dignity Health Sports Park)
MLS All-Stars vs. Arsenal - 20,621 (Audi Field)
Wrexham AFC vs. Chelsea - 50,596 (Kenan Memorial Stadium)
Chelsea vs. Brighton - 65,128 (Lincoln Financial Field)
Real Madrid vs. Man United - 67,801 (NRG Stadium)
Real Madrid vs. AC Milan - 70,814 (Rose Bowl)
Arsenal vs. Barcelona - 70,223 (SoFi Stadium)
Barcelona vs. Real Madrid - 82,026 (AT&T Stadium)
Man United vs. Arsenal - 82,262 (MetLife Stadium)
Keep in mind that many of these attendances broke the previous records for ticketed events in these respective stadiums. A majority of them were also all sold out, so if you’re wondering why a matchup like Juventus vs. Milan didn’t even reach 20,000, it’s because that’s all the venue could fit.
Another huge piece of the puzzle is no doubt the US Women’s National Team. If you weren’t already aware, they are on back to back World Cup wins, and are the best national team in the world when it comes to the women’s game.
Right now, they are on the other side of the planet, in an attempt to make it 3 in a row in the Australia/New Zealand-hosted World Cup. It would be unfair to leave them out of the conversation of football growth in the United States when they have literally been carrying their side of the sport for the last three decades.
There have been 9 editions of the Women’s World Cup, and the USA has won it a record 4 times. What’s even crazier is that they’ve never fallen below 3rd place in the tournament, meaning they reach the semi-finals every single time.
This success has seen the women’s game explode, not only within the US but also across the world, with viewership gradually increasing with each passing year. Players like Alex Morgan, Alexia Putellas, Megan Rapinoe, Sam Kerr, Lieke Martens and Marta are household names.
Future superstar Sophia Smith is making her World Cup debut for the USWNT, already scoring in their first group stage vs. Vietnam.
Whether you care about women’s football or not, you can’t deny its influence.
We’ve talked a lot about viewership, but what about actually playing the game?
Take these next two charts as proof that more and more people are deciding to take up the sport, whether as a hobby or a lifelong dedication.
Searches for where to play soccer dramatically increased following the 2022 World Cup, and have remained fairly consistent despite a small dip.
On the other hand, a good amount of people are wanting to learn how to play soccer. Searches for advice on getting started with the beautiful game reached its highest point since the summer of 2014.
Messi’s arrival in the United States is nothing more than the result of decades of positive efforts that have led to football becoming more and more popular. Whether he continues to see success with Inter Miami or not will mean little, because his decision to turn down a billion dollar contract from Saudi Arabia as well as a dream return to Barcelona is a testament to how far US soccer has come.
With next year’s Copa America to be played in the United States, and the country's co-hosting of the 2026 World Cup, the stage is set for ‘soccer’ to finally claim the #1 spot in the nation.
If that’s not perfect timing, then what is?