There is no doubt that the World Cup has been hugely popular in the United States. But now that the U.S. national team has been eliminated, we’re wondering if this was just patriotism boiled over or if the surge in soccer popularity will continue in the United States.
The simple answer is “probably.” The more complicated answer is that the popularity of professional soccer will continue to grow but not in a way that fans of Major League Soccer will like.
World Cup popularity is at an all-time high in the U.S.
People are watching the World Cup in record numbers. The U.S. team’s final match against Belgium had an overnight rating of 9.6 (16.0 million viewers) on ESPN alone, the largest rating ever for a soccer match on ESPN. For comparison, the 5-game NBA Finals averaged a 9.3 rating (15.5 million viewers).
While the ratings attempt to factor in people watching outside their homes, it is easy to say the number of people that actually watched the game, including watch parties and Spanish-language networks, was far greater.
And this extends beyond just U.S. matches. The match between Mexico and Croatia set a record on Univision and the Germany-Ghana match set a record on ESPN for most-watched soccer match not involving the U.S. national team.
Americans like stars and many of the stars of the World Cup play in England
A lot of people are watching the World Cup and getting to know the stars of soccer. But those stars play overseas.
Take a look at who is scoring the goals in the World Cup. Of the 157 goals scored through the round of 16, more than half were scored by players that play in either the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, or Spain’s La Liga.
Meanwhile, only four goals have been scored by players from Major League Soccer. Even arguably the most popular American player after their World Cup run, Tim Howard, plays professionally for Everton in the Premier League.
While language is a potential barrier to Americans and the leagues in Germany and Spain, the same is not true of English football.
There are already more people watching English soccer in the United States
Where the stars play would be less of a problem if American fans did not have access to them. However, every Premier League game is now broadcast in the United States.
NBC pays the Premier League more than $US80 million annually to air every match of the season. Meanwhile, ESPN, NBC, and Univision pay a combined $US30 million annually to air MLS games and many of those are still only available locally or via the league’s MLS Live subscription.
Even before the World Cup, there was a surge in television ratings for Premier League games in the United States with ratings nearly doubling from 2012 to 2013 according to data obtained by fivethirtyeight.com. Meanwhile the average number of viewers for an MLS match has been relatively flat since 2009 and now trails English soccer in this country.
We also see this surge in interest in other areas
Interest in the Premier League has grown steadily in the United States since 2007, something we can see when we look at the Google search volume for the term “Premier League.”
How that directly compares to the popularity of Major League Soccer in this country is difficult to measure since the term “MLS” is also a popular real estate search term. However, if we look at the search volume for “Major League Soccer” alone, it does show that interest has been relatively unchanged over the last seven years.
It would not be surprising to see the interest tick up after the World Cup. But that will likely be mirrored, if not surpassed, by the uptick seen in the Premier League interest.
MLS will benefit, but mostly at the local level
At the end of the day, the average sports fans should be more interested in the Premier League than Major League Soccer. The Premier League is a better product.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any benefit to soccer on this side of the Atlantic. Any increase in the interest of professional soccer is good for MLS and interest has been on the rise, even before this year’s World Cup.
However, that increase is only being seen at the local level.
MLS does very well locally and has some very passionate local fan bases that rival that of teams in the NFL, Major League Baseball, and the NBA. This has translated to attendance that has consistently increased over the last 14 years despite the significant increase in the number of teams, with total attendance topping 6.0 million each of the past two seasons.
American interest in soccer is growing and that is good for the sport’s future in the United States. But until Major League Soccer opens up its vault and starts to bring over star players with recognisable names in their prime, the interest of the average sports fan will continue to be diverted overseas.