Soccer’s popularity has grown rapidly in the United States over the past three decades.
Soccer is now the fourth most popular sport in the United States, after football, basketball and baseball. Thirty-one percent of Americans call themselves soccer fans, an all-time high, according to a 2019 Gallup survey. Between 1990 and 2017, the number of Americans who called soccer their favorite sport increased sevenfold.
So why are more Americans playing and watching soccer?
World Cup provides a spark
Caroline Foscato, president and co-founder of the of Soccer Unity Project, a youth soccer nonprofit in Boston, said the United States hosting the FIFA Men’s World Cup in 1994 and FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1999 served as “huge launch pads” that sparked soccer’s popularity in the country.
Lucas Richardson fell in love with soccer as a 10-year-old watching the 1994 World Cup on television. “I can remember watching those games and that’s when I think the hook set in,” said Richardson, now with group Soccer Without Borders, which uses the sport to promote global equity.
U.S. women’s team’s success
While the U.S. men’s national team has struggled to catch powerhouses in Europe and Latin America, the U.S. women’s national team’s success has helped drive the sport’s popularity in the United States. The women’s team has won four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals, starting with the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991. In 1999, 40 million U.S. viewers watched the women’s national team defeat China.
“The reality is that nationally and internationally, it’s the women’s side that has really propelled the sport here,” Foscato said.
Schools see greater participation
In 2021 and 2022, more than 800,000 students played on high school soccer teams, ranking soccer fourth after track and field, basketball, and football, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). In 1969 and 1970, soccer ranked 11th in popularity, with fewer than 50,000 students playing high school soccer.
Tim Bazzle, a father in the Boston area, told ShareAmerica he enrolled his 8-year-old son in soccer because of the values it instills and the relative safety compared with American football.
“You get a lot of the same sportsmanship, teamwork, and supporting one another, the same values in football you can get in soccer as well,” he said.
NFHS says the number of female high school soccer players has risen from 23,475 in the 1978–1979 school year to 374,773 in the 2021–2022 year. The increase followed passage of a 1972 law, called Title IX, that banned sex discrimination in educational funding and required publicly funded schools and universities to equally support athletics programs and scholarships for girls and boys.
With more youth playing soccer, attendance at U.S. professional matches is also rising. Both men’s and women’s leagues set attendance records in 2022, with Major League Soccer exceeding 10 million spectators and the National Women’s Soccer League surpassing 1 million.
Soccer “is just becoming a part of our mainstream culture in a way that it definitely wasn’t when I was a kid,” said Richardson, remembering his introduction to the sport in 1994.
Learn more about soccer in the United States in our video on ShareAmerica’s Instagram feed.