Will Soccer Ever Gain a Foothold in North America?
Can the beautiful game score a victory at home?
Soccer—or Football as it is known outside of North America—is often considered the world’s sport. While it remains ultra-popular outside of North America, I’m left wondering: “why hasn’t it caught on here?” This article will examine the role of “The Big 4,” the MLS, and various other factors that have contributed to the unpopularity of the sport in North America.
I will refer to football as soccer and American football as football, for clarity’s sake.
We’ll start with a quick history lesson.
The word soccer was actually coined by the English, though they have dropped the term today in favour of football.
Soccer, as we know it today, was created in England during the 19th century. However, the game has existed before the 19th century. In 1863, the first football association was created in London.
Soccer was typically played in schools, most notably Eton and Rugby. At Rugby, students could pick the ball up with their hands, hence the game of Rugby was born. At Eton, the students played the game predominantly with their feet. The game in Rugby was called “the running game” while the game in Eton was called “the dribbling game”.
Another notable difference was the way English and Scottish teams played. The English teams tended to run with the ball in a more rugby-like fashion, whereas the Scottish teams tended to emphasize passing the ball to advance up the pitch. In the end, the Scottish method came to dominate the game of Soccer as we know it today.
The game of soccer was a hit with the working class, and soon it spread like wildfire, engulfing all of Britain. Soccer associations and clubs began to spring up all over England, particularly in working-class towns.
There is much more that can be said about the history of the “beautiful game,” but we must move on to the present day.
The Big 4
Who or what are the Big 4? Well, the big 4 are the 4 major sports leagues in North America. They include the National Hockey League (NHL), the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and the National Basketball Association (NBA). You might be thinking, where is the Major Soccer League? Well, while one does exist, it’s nowhere near as popular as the big 4.
Major League Soccer (MLS) is a lot smaller in size and revenue when compared to any of the big 4. Why is this? In North America, the big 4 have a deep-rooted system in place that soccer has never been a part of. This system starts in high school. Prospective athletes are scouted and offered athletic scholarships to play for certain universities. The universities are in cahoots with the major leagues. The NBA and the NFL are deeply integrated and affiliated with major universities across the United States. In short, it’s about money. The major association that runs college athletics is known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Culturally speaking, soccer is not seen as a very popular sport. Why play soccer when you can play football or basketball? If you grew up in Canada as I did, then you probably grew up playing hockey. Canada is very successful on the international stage when it comes to hockey. American football is uniquely American, in that it isn’t even played outside America, making it very popular within the United States.
North American teams have never experienced any notable international success when compared with teams from Europe, South America, and Africa. North American teams have a total of zero World Cup wins. While North America has the MLS, Europe has the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, and of course, the Champions League.
So, what does the future hold for the sport of soccer? It’s hard to say. While It will always remain popular outside of North America, I don’t see much hope for the sport domestically any time soon. The sport of soccer will need a huge cash infusion and a shift in cultural perception if it ever hopes to join the big 4. That is going to take time. A long time.