Why America Doesn’t Love Soccer (Yet): A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: Steven Depolo)

(Photo: Steven Depolo)

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.)


Thanks for the putting out this podcast. I have a comment and a question:

1) Jonathan Wilson is also the name of a high profile soccer journalist and author which led to a small amount of confusion when his voice was not what I was expecting.

2) Who is the artist and what is the name of the (Brazilian?/Portuguese?) song which plays at the 0:58 second mark? It fades in right after the media clip of Ray Hudson shouting "a wet dream of orgasmic proportions!"

Thanks again!

Diogo Sodré

Thats Claudia Leite in the song We Are One.


I'm listening to the podcast now, and as usual, it is great. Soccer is the only sport I follow, and I primarily follow MLS. I'm not a grammar nazi, but you made one common mistake whike talking about MLS that makes many supporters whince. You would never say THE Major League Soccer, so drop the THE when using the acronym.

Thank you for all of the great podcast. They get me through the slow work days.


I enjoyed this story, but it seems to me that you missed one of the fundamental reasons the sport (particularly at the pro level) hasn't gotten more traction in the US. There's one fundamental difference between soccer and the major US sports: it doesn't stop. They play 45 minute halves without a break. No timeouts, no place for commercial breaks, no big TV money.

Simply put, the nature of a soccer game is a terrible fit for commercial television in the US. Networks wishing to air, say, MLS games are faced with the dilemma of either airing 45 minutes of continuous play before they could run any ads (unimaginable), or cutting away during game play to air ads, risking missing a goal or a great save, etc. (infuriating and alienating the viewers).

Where does the really big money come from in pro sports in the US? Big TV contracts. No timeouts, no commercials. No commercials, no sponsors. No sponsors, no big TV contracts.

So it seems to me that the basic structure of soccer gameplay is fundamentally incompatible with the demands of US commercial television. And that's a big problem.



That's an interesting take on it. I used to wonder if that was the reason too. Now I'm not sure.

For example, soccer is huge in other countries that have TV channels and sponsorships and commercials and all that stuff. So, what's their workaround?

I know that in England, the financial structure of their soccer leagues is very different from how most professional American sports are structured. I wonder if that has something to do with it.

Doug Seidlitz

It is very simple.

I don't watch soccer because when I watch TV, I prefer to stay awake.


Two points, the first of which Bill covers, the difficulty of monetization.

The second is more important, I think. It is a lack of scoring. Hockey is quite similar, but still has a much higher average score, and there's fights too!

No one wants to watch three hours of straight soccer for a 0-0 tie. You might as well have not even played the game. Just hold a shoot-0ut.


I live in Canada, which is like the USA, European Football is not terribly popular up here, Hockey is. While I do follow the world cup, I don't follow much else.

I have always looked at the sport and know I don't like it for one major reason, which I think is probably prevalent all over Canada, and probably the USA as well.

I don't like what in Football is referred to as "gamesmanship", I would describe it as being a wimp, faking an injury in order to draw a foul. It just doesn't jive with what I consider key in sports, toughness. Look at the rest of major sports in North America, nearly all off them this type of behavior is either frowned upon or downright not allowed.

I think that this is a huge hurdle for Football to overcome in North America. Its men are taught that it is dishonorable fake injuries (not sure if this is the correct term to capture the feeling), not admirable to show weakness.



English soccer fan here. I agree that diving (feigning injury) is an issue, and it is something that is frowned upon and often widely criticised. Many in the media are calling for retrospective punishments for diving, and I believe a system like this has been implemented in the MLS?


"It's not xenophobic to hate soccer; it's socially reprehensible to support it."

The great writer Chuck Klosterman wrote a great piece about why soccer is not big in America- thank God it isn't- which you can find here: http://thinklings.org/jared/?post_id=217

It's a sport for losers. American culture is based on winning. Plus soccer is boring, which doesn't help.

caleb b

Several thoughts on why soccer is not popular in the US. Some already touched on by others.

1) Scoring - (and knowing when to expect scoring) - in soccer and in hockey, the goalie can basically punt the ball down the field and eliminate the scoring threat for another 5 minutes or so. In football, if the Patriots have the ball, 1st and goal, at the 4 yard line, I can expect that they'll either score or i will see a great defensive effort. Also, bc scoring is so rare, comebacks are nearly impossible. A soccer team down 0-2 is dead with 10 minutes remaining. In football, onside kicks and timeouts allow teams to come back…adding excitement and giving a reason to watch until the end. On top of the fact that I might watch an entire soccer game and only see one goal….it doesn’t give me much of a reason to tune in. At least in the NFL, if I only see one goal I’m probably seeing at least a few big hits in the meantime.

2) The love of extreme - in America we love extreme stuff. The Chicago Style Pizza, the foot long hotdog, the 64 oz soda. It's why we love the Olympics but never watch track and field otherwise. Soccer doesn't provide the right avenue to appropriately be able to see extreme athleticism. Watching Marshawn Lynch go “beast mode” is much more impressive because he needs to be both extremely athletic and tough. Watching a 156lbs soccer player dribble around a guy just doesn’t have the same effect because the defender is limited in what he can do. Lynch had to deal the possibility of getting blown up…which is way cooler.

3) Softness of soccer players – this problem exists in the NBA too and we’re fining people because of it. Americans hate watching some faker lie on the ground, pretending to be hurt in order to draw a call. I hate it when wide receivers do this to draw a call and I can’t stand it when soccer players do it. It’s garbage.

4) Football is clearly much more difficult than soccer –The NFL is a much more complicated league than anything soccer has. There are 11+ coaches, the ball can be run or thrown, or run THEN thrown, or thrown then pitched back. Thousands of plays, hundreds of different formations, specialized style of players, dozens of coaches….there is only so much that can be coached on a soccer field because it is a continuous game. See the NBA as another example. Derek Fisher gets a head coaching job without ever having coached. That’s bc it is possible to do that in the NBA bc there are only so many things you can coach in basketball. But that would never happen in the NFL because it is way too complicated. There are too many variables. Tom Brady could not wake up tomorrow and be the head coach of the Browns or something. He’d need to get some actual coaching experience…THEN he might be able to coach, but he’d need to prove it by winning at least at the college level.

5) measureable progress. In soccer, i have no idea if my team is really doing well or not. In football, i can count the yards and first downs. I have some quantifiable reference for how well my team is doing and how much closer they are to making progress. If it is 3rd and 15, i know that my team is going to try and get 15 yards and if they don't they failed. In soccer, there is no point of reference. Oh, the goalie cleared it...oh well, dribble around for a while and try again.


caleb b

It's a similar argument to Baseball vs Cricket. It's pretty obvious that it is much harder to hit a big league curve ball into fair territory with a 3.5 inch barrel bat than it is to deflect a cricket ball basically anywhere except the wicket. So Americans are never going to accept cricket because it is a less athletic version of baseball...but where it is impossible to get anyone out, the games last days, and you wear goofy goalie pads up to bat.

Judge Mental

If my son tried to tell me "don't call it soccer", I would tell him to not be a smart-aleck if he didn't know what he is talking about and then promptly ground him for the rest of 2014. This has been flogged to death, but the term "soccer" did not originate in the United States. The term originated in the U.K. back in the 19 century as an abbreviated term for "association football". It is also used in Canada and pretty much interchangeably with "football" in New Zealand and Australia

I don't know the answer why the US as a whole has been resistant to soccer, but for me, it is as simple as the fact that you have a sport where you can't use your hands (excepting the goalie and the occasional throw-in). This whole notion just seems ridiculous to me. One of the primary physiological differences between humans and lower animals is opposable thumbs, and here you have an athletic endeavor where they are of zero use. The top striker in the world could literally be in a horrific accident where both of his thumbs were severed and it would not have the least bit of impact on his ability to play soccer.

One of my earliest recollections in life is being 3 or 4 years old and one of our neighbors yelling at me "No, no, no. You can't pick it up. You have to kick it". "I'm thinking to myself, "Don't pick it up? It's a ball. You know what balls are, right? " While he was technically "right", it was the first time in my life it occurred to me that someone being an adult didn't automatically make them smarter than me


The Big G

As you note, american football is insignificant globally and the talent it creates will remain at the shallow end of the sports gene pool.

Victor Hugo Manzanilla

Great podcast. A few months ago I heard this impressive fact (which I don't have a way to prove but it was said by a very respectable market research company): The biggest US-fan base sport team is the Mexican national football team. And #2 is the Chivas (another mexican team). When I heard this it sounded crazy (especially when you compare to teams like the NY Yankees). But apparently is true.

Shane L

An advantage of soccer is that it is very cheap to play a rudimentary game. Many children have played with burst plastic footballs (or tin cans), using discarded sweaters as goalposts and the like. The cost of playing the sport, or a primitive version of it, is so low that there is little or no entry barrier to poor people.

Perhaps during the 20th century as soccer spread quickly in developing countries and among working classes in Europe, the United States was already wealthy enough that children could afford the sports equipment necessary for American football, baseball, basketball and so on? (Or do I overstate 20th century American affluence?)

Gary Rosenberger

Here are my top 20 reasons why I will not watch World Cup soccer:

No. 1: According to FIFA rules you are allowed to kill anyone who likes the other team.

No. 2: I just found out you can't use your hands.

No. 3: Croatia lost. I had them as the dark horse to take it all!

No. 4: Cheating, bribe-taking referees.

No. 5. Mariano Rivera is not on the U.S. team.

No. 6: Where the F@&!!K is Pele?

No. 7: Where is Howard Cosell?

No. 8: The people at Triona's bar have banned my dog even though he is totally innocent.

No. 9: I didn't watch Belmont either.

No. 10: I can’t think of No. 10. Please go to No. 11.

No. 11: Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

No. 12: My mom, who was famously the captain of the Australian rules rugby team, told me soccer was for wimps.

No. 13: Futbol??? What in god's name is futbol?

No. 14: Every team that won the World Cup in the last 104 years had an association with the Nazis.

No. 15: Why can't they wear dresses?

No. 16: If North Korea isn't allowed to play, I'm not playing either.

No. 17: Heartwarming Iraqi team doesn't warm my heart.

No. 18: There is not enough beer on the planet to make me watch!

No. 19: I'd rather go to a Ratdog concert, but not by much.

No. 20: Is it over yet?


Bill C

Isn't having a podcast called "Why America Doesn't Like Soccer (Yet)" without talking to one person who doesn't LOVE soccer missing the point? Soccer players are tough, wildly talented, and incredibly athletic, and they don't fake injuries any more than basketball players. So maybe America doesn't like soccer because we don't like soccer.

Personally, I'd like it better with a shorter field, free substitutions, and red cards that don't result in game-long power plays. And still, I wouldn't like it as much as I like the big 3 American sports, each of which have pauses and situations which make the game more interesting. Football is always changing, thanks to down, distance, yardage, score, and time. Basketball has ever-changing lineups, a free-flowing score, and end-game situations. Even slow-moving baseball is ever-changing, with the count, inning, outs, and scores. Hell, golf is entirely situational, and hockey has changing lineups and power plays.

Soccer has a rarely changing score and near-permanent lineups. Yeah, the ball moves, but there's nothing to stop and think about. It all just keeps happening until the clock runs out. Maybe that's what's we don't like? It would have been good to ask.