With the 2014 World Cup getting underway in Brazil, we’ve just released an episode called “Why America Doesn’t Love Soccer (Yet).” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) The episode tries to answer a few questions:
1. Why doesn’t America love soccer the way the rest of the world does? 2. Would that change if the U.S. ever managed to win a World Cup? 3. Is No. 2 possible without No. 1?
It’s no secret that soccer continues to lag behind other U.S. sports in viewership and enthusiasm. For instance, 111.5 million Americans sat down to watch Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014. Meanwhile, only 24.3 million watched the 2010 World Cup Final, which was actually a record.
To put this in global perspective, total Super Bowl viewership is roughly 90 percent American while viewership of the biggest soccer event is roughly 3 percent American. And relatively few people in the States rank soccer as their favorite sport.
To address these disparities, Stephen Dubner turns to a real-life football superstar of the American variety: Indianapolis Colts Quarterback Andrew Luck. Luck was selected first in the 2012 NFL Draft and has become one of the best quarterbacks in America’s favorite sport. He also happens to be a huge soccer fan. What does Luck think it would take for U.S. soccer to take off in popularity?
LUCK: I think…a Pied Piper would be a U.S. national team, you know, winning the World Cup. As we know, we love winners in this country. … It’s sort of ingrained in our society. So I don’t know if there’s one player that would be a Pied Piper that would bring everything with him, be a Tiger Woods. I do think our national team winning the World Cup would be unbelievable.
Dubner also interviews Sunil Gulati, an economist at Columbia who also is the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and on the FIFA Executive Committee:
GULATI: [T]here aren’t many countries that have qualified for the last seven World Cups like we’ve just done. There are some. But unlike some of the other sports in which the U.S. is dominant in, this sport is played in every country in the world, and it’s the number one sport in probably 95 percent of those countries….. So this is a real world champion…In this case there are 208 countries that play. We’re not a newcomer, we’ve been doing this a long time, but other countries have taken it far more seriously at a much earlier stage. And it’s not just down to the fact that we’ve got 320 million people and are a relatively affluent country because then China would be good in some of those areas and some of the European countries which haven’t done as well would also be at the top. So we’ve made a lot of improvements, and if we could replicate the progress that we’ve made both on and off the field over the last quarter century then I think we will be where we want to be in the next quarter century, which is one of the elite powers in the world.
The U.S., of course, is an elite power when it comes women’s soccer. Our national team has won the World Cup twice and is currently ranked No. 1 in the world. In the podcast, Gulati explains why the U.S. women have performed so much better than the U.S. men.
Jonathan Wilson, a Tufts professor who is the author of Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball (Bloomsbury Reader), explains why culture around soccer is so different in the U.S. But he, like Luck and Gulati, believes that immigration and other factors are already changing this.
You’ll also hear from Solomon Dubner, a 13-year-old aspiring soccer journalist who has written for World Soccer Talk and maintains a blog called Solomon on Footy. Coincidentally, he is also the son of Stephen Dubner, and his papa is proud.
(Special thanks to Sal Tuzzeo at Nielsen and Kevin Alavy at Futures Sport + Entertainment for helping us sort through viewership data.)