If you’re surprised by the popularity of the World Cup in the United States this year, you haven’t been paying attention.
The rise of World Cup soccer in America is being driven by two colliding, massive forces that have been in the works for decades: the preferences of the young and of the growing Hispanic population. The same forces that have recently reshaped politics, media, and commerce have fed the swell of support for #USMNT. As the United States takes on Belgium this afternoon, millions of Americans will cut out of work early and pour into bars, declaring “I believe that we can win.” Contra Coulter, it’s not moral decay driving soccer mania, it’s destiny.
Many have forgotten, but the mid-nineties were a strong run for soccer in America. Twenty years ago, the World Cup was held on U.S. soil. Brazil’s 1-0 win over the American team in 1994 was watched by just under nine million households. Two years later, Major League Soccer (MLS) launched, and the 1996 Olympics brought international soccer back to our shores, with the U.S. women’s team taking home the gold. The 1999 home victory of the U.S. Women’s World Cup team was watched by about 18 million Americans, and young women got an iconic girl-power moment in Brandi Chastain tearing off her jersey in celebration of her game-winning penalty kick.
The seeds of soccer’s modern-day success in America were planted. Youth participation in soccer skyrocketed. Today, the kids of the original soccer moms have grown up, and they’re still into the “beautiful game.” (Thank pollsters and political consultants, by the way, for making “soccer mom” a thing.)
Change also came on the demographic front: in the nineties, the number of Hispanic immigrants in America nearly doubled and the number of U.S.-born Hispanics increased by half. Hispanic Americans are significantly more likely to say they’re soccer fans than their non-Hispanic counterparts.
And to the extent that the World Cup madness means super-charged patriotism and Twitter jokes about former military victories, it may also be the increasingly internationally influenced tastes of young people that are feeding the fever. This goes beyond the growing Latino population. One can look at other sectors of the economy, like food. Grocery stores have taken note of the growing taste for global cuisine, and are stocking their shelves with more Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin American flavors to cater to a generation that considers sriracha as essential as ketchup. Or heck, just follow the hipsters and the blossoming of beer-garden culture (God bless it). We’ve started drinking like Germans, we may as well watch sports like them too.
Today, one out of four adults under 30 say they are following the World Cup “very closely,” significantly higher than for older age groups. The soccer kids are no longer stuck on the sidelines eating orange slices; they’ve got TVs (and streaming video devices) of their own and disposable income to spend at sports bars and on products that advertisers want to sell.
If the United States gets knocked out of the World Cup by Belgium, or in a later round, many will wonder if the fever will pass and Americans will go back to being apathetic about soccer. It wouldn’t be the first time that a major national trend, driven by the preferences of a diverse young generation, was dismissed as a fad (“Obamamania,” anyone?). And sure, this isn’t the first time efforts have been made to make soccer “happen” in the United States.
But even if the World Cup ends and things seem to revert to the norm, it’s the long term trend lines that matter to savvy marketers, wise investors, and smart politicos. The difference today is that this isn’t about a single celebrity or fad; it’s seeds planted long ago that are starting to bloom. If you want to predict trends in America, whether in politics or products, World Cup mania should serve as a wake-up call.