I am a big fan of the soccer podcasting (and now broadcasting) team Men in Blazers, and especially their bold (and somewhat ironic) declaration that "soccer is the sport of the future!" in America. Their perspective as British immigrants who have embraced living in America makes it easier to believe them, since they have an outsider's perspective on American soccer without the usual disdain one normally gets from British soccer followers. (The fact that I am using the word "soccer" instead of "football" would be enough alone to set them off.)
Recent experiences have made me inclined to believe them. I have been following soccer for about twenty years, ever since I spent the 1994 World Cup on a school exchange trip to Germany, where I was drawn into the intensity of soccer culture. The only other sport in America with that kind of party atmosphere and communal festival feeling around it is college football, which is regional in its popularity. Back in '94, when America hosted the World Cup, soccer was on the fringiest fringe of sports culture in America, and it took a trip abroad for me to really have any contact with it. There was no major professional soccer league in the United States, even though so many children played the sport. That changed with the MLS's first season in 1996, when I was able to see a game in Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium. There maybe only 20,000 fans present, but they made a lot of noise, and the atmosphere was fun and exciting. Fans chanted throughout the game and the crowd exploded after each KC goal. I went to another game three years later in Chicago, where it was obvious that soccer had become an entrenched sporting subculture in America, but nothing more than that.
Suddenly things have changed. As many have noted, America's World Cup match this year against Portugal drew twenty-five million viewers. Those numbers were just barely exceeded by game 7 of this year's World Series, but are much more than most recent World Series games. Compare that to the NBA finals this year, which averaged 15.5 million viewers per game. Of course, a World Cup comes only every four years, and has the added advantage of having nationalism to draw people in. You could argue that soccer will be like Olympic sports: wildly popular for one month every four years.
I don't think so, though. One really important change in American soccer culture is that games from the European leagues are readily available on cable television. Americans are not crazy about the MLS because they know it is not the best version of the sport, which they will see when they watch MLB, the NBA, the NFL, or the NHL. Those leagues are by far the top for their sports worldwide. Being able to see the best in the world compete makes that sport much more attractive. I have no doubt that there are more American soccer fans with loyalties to English teams than to MLS teams.
I would also argue that soccer has some advantages as a televisual sport. While the NFL rose to dominance because it is perfectly suited for television, its televisual imperatives are starting to strangle the sport. The average football game has only eleven minutes of action with the ball in play, but around one hour of commercial breaks. In soccer there are no breaks during the halves for commercials, the ball is constantly in play, and regular season games never last longer than two hours. Compare this to baseball, whose pace has slowed dangerously, and which is a game best experienced in person, because the TV cameras can only show a little of all of the things happening on the field.
And when it comes to seeing games in person, nothing beats soccer. I went to a Red Bulls game for the first time two months ago, which was also my first MLS game at a soccer-specific stadium. The atmosphere was amazing, the cheering and chanting loud, and our seats put us right on top of the action. It was the most engaging sporting event I had been to in years, and although my friend and I had been gifted the tickets, the price was much lower than most other sports. Compare this to the NFL, which is not a great product in person, and whose games are beginning to get a reputation for drunken hooliganism (ironically the smear used to attack soccer fans by soccer-phobic Americans for years.)
Hockey is great in person, but the sport is a regional one, and its culture of fighting and extreme violence looks increasingly barbaric. The NBA is great in person, too, but ticket prices keep going up, and regular season games are relatively meaningless, making them rather low-intensity affairs compared to your average soccer match. Watch your average NBA regular season game, then watch an average Premiership match, and you'll know what I mean.
The NFL has grown to be the leviathan of American sport, but like all empires about to fall, it has overextended itself and is being undermined by its hubris. Concussions, scandals related to player violence, teams blackmailing cities for new stadiums, and adding football to Thursday night have all become problems for the league, and it hasn't handled them well. For sports fans looking for an alternative or something new, soccer is now a potential alternative. Like the other professional sports, the NFL has become bloated and removed from its fans, something soccer, which still feels like a community, could benefit from. The NFL also has been selling the "shield" and the game itself rather than star players. The men who sacrifice their bodies on the gridiron have become anonymous. Compare this to soccer, which has so many well-known individual players that you can't keep track of them.
The change in soccer's popularity has been slow in coming, but it's picking up steam. This year's World Cup excitement was a sign of things to come. There are young kids in America today who are finding more excitement in Robin van Persie's flying header than in yet another Peyton Manning quick slant pass. Their numbers will only keep growing at a time when the rest of the sports landscape is losing the plot.