It’s often said that Americans only care about soccer if the US national team is playing, but my visit to Indianapolis with my dad to see the Indy Eleven proved otherwise.
The Indy Eleven is the newest team in the new-ish North American Soccer League (NASL), and the support I saw for the team was astounding. Hundreds came to tailgate at the game, kids were playing pick up soccer games, and fans with Indy Eleven shirts, scarfs, and flags were all over the place. The support during the game was equally impressive. The team’s official fan group, the Brickyard Battalion, kept the fans involved in the game with chants.
The contest drew over 10,000 fans – the sixth straight sellout for the Indy Eleven who have only won one of the 11 games they’ve played so far. Usually new teams have to build up their fan base, but Hooisers have come out in full support for a new soccer team that’s not even in the MLS, and still hasn’t found a way to win. That’s pretty damn impressive and shows that Americans are hungry for soccer if you give them a team.
Soccer is still a niche sport in the U.S., but it’s not as small some would like you to think.
U.S. viewership of the 2014 World Cup broke records. A total of 18 million Americans watched the U.S.’s game against Portugal, the most-watched World Cup game to air on ABC/ESPN ever. Surprisingly, 26.5 million U.S. viewers (if you count in the viewers on Univision) also watched the World Cup final between Argentina and Germany.
That’s the World Cup, though, and it only happens every four years and its place in the middle of the summer (where not much of anything else in the world of sports is going on) definitely gives it a viewership boost.
So, how is soccer doing in the U.S.? Not that bad actually.
The aforementioned NASL has some teams pulling in over 10,000 fans a game with most of the teams attracting 4,000 to 6,000 fans with no sign of slowing down. That’s not bad for a league at the lower levels of the sport.
Major League Soccer attracted roughly 6 million total fans last season, an average of 18,700 per game. That doesn’t come close to competing with the NFL, NBA, or MLB, but it’s still good considering MLS teams play a lot fewer games than Major League Baseball, and that NFL teams receive a lot more promotion and TV time. But what seems to be the best indicator that soccer will only grow in popularity is the age of its fans.
Forty percent of MLS fans are 34 years old or younger, and an impressive 14 percent are younger than 18 years old. Compare that to Major League Baseball where 76 percent of its viewers are older than 34 years old. Those are great statistics if you’re a player looking to invest your time and skill in an American soccer team.
If the American public continues to support and attend American soccer games, better players will want to play here and a whole flood of money will be poured into developing young players. Ideally, that would make for a better, more competitive U.S. national team that could take on the top European and South American teams. And that is something 20 million-plus Americans would love to see.