Not too long ago, Americans couldn’t care less about the world’s most popular sport. Now we care so much we’re trying to clean up the sport’s international governing body. Hence the breathtaking corruption charges brought on Wednesday by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch against a number of FIFA’s top executives, several of whom were extradited to the United States by Swiss law enforcement.
The news comes at a time when soccer is rapidly integrating into American culture, and America is integrating into the global sport. I spent Memorial Day weekend with my 10-year-old son at a soccer tournament in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and was struck by the extent to which this hallowed crossroads of American history was populated by foreign insignia. Young players from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland swarmed about town with their families wearing jerseys and hats of Manchester United and Barcelona, or the German and Brazilian national teams.
This sports fandom without boundaries drove home for me the degree to which the world’s top sport has infiltrated our culture. For a long time, soccer reigned supreme as a youth sport, but that didn’t translate into a widespread fan base for professional soccer, foreign or domestic. It seemed as if soccer here was condemned to remain child’s play.
But NO more. Just look at the numbers. Last year’s World Cup final in Brazil between Argentina and Germany was watched by an estimated 26.5 million people in the United States. That number dwarfs the 15.5 million viewers on average who watched the 2014 NBA Finals, or the 14.9 million viewers on average who watched the World Series the previous year. The average viewership for all 64 World Cup matches on ESPN was up 39%, compared to 2010. Just imagine what will happen the day the U.S. team makes the World Cup final.
There is a poignant TV commercial airing these days that depicts kids on every continent, some in very humble circumstances, playing ball while wearing Manchester United jerseys and introducing themselves as “My name is … and I play for Manchester United.” Then it cuts to the tunnel in the club’s Old Trafford stadium as the stars line up to come onto the field, wearing the kids’ names on their jerseys. The ad captures the global reach of the game but it’s also a testament to the American takeover of the game.
The ad is for Chevy, after all.
In the recently concluded second season of its three-year deal to air the English Premier League, NBC and NBCSN viewership of the games increased 9% from its first year. This means NBC will face formidable competition from FOX and ESPN later this year when the next three-year rights deal is awarded. The Premier League sells rights to its games in some 80 countries (and saw its domestic haul within Britain for the 2016 to 2019 rights spike 70 percent, to $8 billion), and it may only be a matter of time before more people on this side of the Atlantic watch matchups like Arsenal-Manchester United than do those back in the mother country.
European teams naturally view the United States, alongside Asian markets, as great growth opportunities, sending their squads to play preseason friendlies over here to stoke interest and develop their followings. In another intriguing hint of things to come, Manchester City established its own Major League Soccer club this season, the New York FC franchise.
Soccer’s recent success in America is a little unsettling both to folks here wedded to an extreme vision of American exceptionalism, and to folks elsewhere who’d prefer to leave one facet of global popular culture untainted by U.S. influence. But the rest of us should celebrate the convergence; it’s good, in so many ways, to play with the rest of the world. And this includes taking a more assertive role in the stewardship of the world’s game, as the federal assault on FIFA corruption makes clear.
If you remain skeptical about soccer’s ascendancy in America and America’s ascendancy within soccer, call me in 2022. That’s the year the U.S. will win its first World Cup, which will be played in this country after a reformed FIFA reverses its absurd (and, apparently, corrupt) decision to award it to Qatar. It will also be a time when we can celebrate a “world champion” team, without that title having an ironic ring to it.
Andrés Martinez is the editorial director of Zócalo Public Square and a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.