America is known to top the list in a lot of areas. My home country, however, has struggled in the most popular sport in the world: men’s sport. soccer.
To this year world Cup the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) advanced to the Round of 16, although the Netherlands beat it 3-1.
While the USMNT isn’t quite ready to join the elite soccer nations, the sport is enjoying record success at home. “The Beautiful Game” is much more popular than it has ever been, especially among young Americans.
Take a look at how many people say their favorite sport is football. Historically, this percentage has been minimal. From 1937 to 1972, the figure in Gallup poll was consistently less than 0.5% of Americans giving the answer football when asked what their favorite to watch was. Even until December 2004, the percentage never exceeded 2%.
Earlier this year, 8% of Americans said football was their favorite sport to watch in a Washington Post Poll. It may seem like a small percentage, but it’s a huge growth considering the baseline. There is no other sport that has seen this kind of improvement in popularity as football during this period.
Indeed, almost as many Americans now consider football their favorite sport to watch as basketball (12%) or baseball (11%). Football actually beat out auto racing, hockey and golf the last time The Washington Post asked about it.
I assume that the number of football fans will continue to increase over the next few years. Why? Look at the young people.
Football is most popular among adults under 30. There are actually more adults aged 18-29 who say football is their favorite sport to watch than those who say baseball is their favorite sport. Remember baseball is supposedly america’s pastime.
Of course, American football – the NFL – remains the most watched sport overall and across all age groups. More than a third of Americans have for years listed it as their favorite sport to watch.
Football might get its money’s worth, however, when you look at long-term trends among the number of high school students Play the game.
Forty years ago, football was not a very popular sport among high school students. When you put the boys and girls who played the sport together, just over 200,000 students played the game. By comparison, almost a million boys played football.
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Twenty years ago, more than 600,000 boys and girls played football. Last year, more than 800,000 high school boys and girls decided to take up sports with the black and white ball. In other mathematical terms, this represents a growth of almost 300% over the past 40 years.
There is no other sport in America that has taken off as quickly in the past 40 years as high school football.
And while football isn’t particularly close to the NFL’s popularity among adults, football does come close to high school kids playing both sports. What was once a gap of more than 700,000 participants in the early 1980s between the number of high school students participating in soccer and those playing soccer has steadily shrunk ever since. The gap fell to just over 400,000 in the early 2000s.
Today, soccer is just over 200,000 ahead of soccer in the number of high school kids playing it. In other words: football has stagnated, while football has constantly increased.
What caused football to come close to football in terms of participation?
The most obvious is that football is played in large numbers by both boys and girls. Although some girls play football at high school level, it is almost always a boy’s game, especially in contact football. Football, on the other hand, has nearly 400,000 female players. In the early 1980s, that number was around 50,000.
The impact of the success of the United States Women’s National Team in America cannot be underestimated. Women always do well on the international stage. They have won four World Cups to none on the men’s side. We talk about them less, it’s because they also have best score on tv than men in the World Cup.
Security is also a factor in the rise of football. In a Associated Press Poll taken in the 2010s, 86% of parents said they were comfortable letting their children play football given the safety concerns. This percentage fell to 51% for football.
Since soccer is primarily a fall sport like football, it’s not hard to imagine many parents pushing their kids to kick the soccer ball instead of the football.
The question going forward is whether the success of football at secondary level will ultimately translate into a real narrowing of the gap with football in terms of adult fan numbers.
We’ll just have to wait and see, even if the United States, Canada and Mexico host the 2026 World Cup, football isn’t going away anytime soon.