Is Soccer Finally Ready For Its Close-up?

Was the World Cup the tipping point towards the “mainstreaming” of soccer in the U.S.?  SLRG’s Jon Last considers new consumer insights for the January 2023 Media Post Marketing Insider

As I wrapped up 2022 with 10 straight weeks on the road, I found myself often with no choice but to watch the World Cup.  Those who know me shouldn’t be terribly surprised, given my propensity to watch anything sports-related. Those folks twho know me have also probably heard me rant that soccer has been rammed down our throats for decades; force fed by the broader media as the next big thing stateside, and an antidote for the ubiquity of U.S. football, basketball.

I’ve also had to endure years of unwarranted pot shots at baseball, even though research shows “America’s pastime” enjoying a resurgence among younger people along with solid footing among those like myself who can’t get enough of it.

Still, one of the nice things about being a sports market researcher is that I can step away from my own subjectivity and let the data come to an objective conclusion.  With that goal in mind, I took a deeper dive into our latest data to determine where soccer sat with American sports fans, right after the conclusion of what was being hyped as the greatest World Cup of all time.

What I learned was that, in all fairness, soccer is indeed making some inroads here, but maybe not to the extent that the hype would like us to believe as we get ready to host the next World Cup in North America.  We found that 25% of American fans follow soccer closely.  That’s not bad, but still way behind football, baseball and basketball.

There is a bit of a younger skew, with 37% of those under age 25, and the same percentage of the 25-34 demo, following soccer closely — stats which are still below consumer interest in the big three sports.

I felt vindicated in my own subjectivity when we found that only 19% of those aged 45-64 and 10% aged 65+ were soccer fans.  Those in the latter age band placed soccer eighth among 13 sports measured.  And we all know that many marketers continue to overlook the older demographic groups—at their own peril.

Interestingly, only 24% strongly agreed that their interest in soccer had grown over the past two years, and this was asked just a week after the spotlights faded in Qatar.  However a third of those age 25-44 felt that their interest had grown.

We also asked sports fans whether they agreed that “In my lifetime, soccer will come close to the popularity of football, baseball, basketball and hockey.” With relative consistency across age groups, only 42% agreed.

So where do we net out?  I’d maintain that as we approach 2026, we’ll see a continued heavy media diet of soccer, which will continue to push interest levels higher in pursuit of ratings and revenue.  Beyond that, all bets are off — even for us “old school” guys.