Size matters: More Americans following the World Cup than entire population of UK

21% in US = 65 mil; or more than entire pop of UK

Andrew Sullivan, a British transplant living here in America has done an admirable job tracking the following of the World Cup here in America from a British perspective. Usually that means narrow-minded dismissal of “soccer” ever taking hold here, but Sullivan has not succumbed to that lazy analysis. He does post today, however, the chart to the right as his “Chart of the Day” without any additional comment. Visually, it appears to present a significantly negative account of support for soccer in America, with just 7% of Americans responding that they are  following the World Cup “very closely” and just another 14% saying “somewhat closely”. Those figures are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the 79% that say “not closely” or “not at all”. But looking a little deeper, that 21% in a country of 310 million people like the United States equates to 65 million Americans that are following the World Cup either very or somewhat closely, or more than the entire population of the United Kingdom.

This can be seen in TV viewership too. The ratings are in and more Americans watched the USA v Ghana game than had ever watched a men’s World Cup game featuring any team ever before. An average of 19.5 million viewers (15 million on ABC and 4.5 million on Univision) watched the US go out of the tournament in extra time, eclipsing the 1994 World Cup Final between Brazil and Italy and is only second to the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final between the USA and China. USSF President Sunil Gulati is right to lament what kind of impact another game at those viewer levels – and the guarantee of two more had the US reached the semis – would have meant for soccer in America, but these numbers are reason to celebrate as they equal the number of Brits who watched England v Germany. Size matters, and obviously the level of overall interest in soccer in the US and the UK are vastly different, but in sheer quantity its remarkable that the same number of Yanks and Brits suffered through those second round defeats.

This is part of the reason why Max and I believe that soccer is here to stay and that eventually the United States will become a major global soccer power; there are just too many of us to be denied. Success at international soccer is far from just a numbers game, but there is a reason why Brazil and Germany are consistently among the top teams in the world – they are really big countries and have a huge population pool to draw from. Its the same reason why the big countries do better at the Olympics in the overall medal count than the smaller ones. Soccer is perhaps the most difficult of sports to translate pure numbers into dominance because the skill of ball to feet is not natural and the rules of the sport (or really the lack of rules) require more intuitive understanding the game than American football or basketball. That is why the US has produced a large number of world class goalkeepers, a position that is by far the most purely athletic, but has still yet to unearth an outfield player to rival the Messis, Kakas or Ronoldos of the world game.

But its just going to happen. One of the next greats of the game is probably among the 25 million American kids playing soccer in youth leagues right now. In the past, those gifted athletes may have been drawn away from the game by the lures of a potential professional career in one of the big American sports. Yet, with interest in soccer in America at all time highs and the ability of those kids to see a genuine future in the game, its unlikely that these great young players will be easily pulled away from soccer with the prospect of being a truly global star. A few such players would create the kind of feedback loop that has Brazil and Germany constantly churning out world class players. Its going to happen.

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4 Responses

  1. Please refrain from even a hint of negativity directed toward Andrew Sullivan in this regard, simply because of his British origin. Mr Sullivan has had a remarkable career as an astute observer of World and US popular culture and politics over a span of more than twenty years on radio, on TV, and in print in the New York Times and other prestigious media, here and abroad, in addition to his highly successful and erudite on line commentary. He is pro American, an informed critic and a gifted writer and orator. He is not always my “cup of tea” politically but I have the utmost respect for his viewpoint, and as a non British import, living in the US for almost fifty years, I take exception to poorly informed stereotypical banter that contributes nothing to the story.

    • I like Sullivan a lot and do the opposite of what you suggest – say he has done an ‘admirable job’ and ‘not succumbed to that lazy analysis’.

  2. 2010: Disappointed, not upset.
    2014: Reaching quarter-finals must be minimum goal.
    2018: Semis or final?
    2022: Nirvana?

    If one of the games next greats is among the 25 million American children playing the game, that child is gaining basic skills by himself, dribbling in his yard and maybe in pickup games with friends, at a park or in a street. He is not gaining the necessary skills doing regimented drills at a twice-a-week practice for a club team. The sports in which the U.S. has, though to a declining margin, been dominant are those that children learn by playing without structure, on a school sandlot or a public park blacktop. That aspect must be added to our current structure or improvement on the world scene will be limited. There is no reason that the U.S., in time, would not rival Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany and Italty for supremacy.

  3. […] Ken pointed out that more Americans are following the World Cup than live in the United Kingdom, a great stat to refute the notion that Americans don’t care about soccer. I’d like to […]

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