Soccer’s popularity has officially spread to the U.S., crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Europe. Larger American cities now rally to support their Major League Soccer (MLS) teams, spirit in full swing.
Audience Interest In MLS Grows Steadily
In the U.S., 2019 marks the 24th year for MLS, and 47% of American adults say they’re interested in the sport, according to Nielsen research. That puts America’s soccer fandom higher than the global average, which is 43%.
Overall, the global interest in soccer (or football, as it’s called outside the U.S.) is much higher than in other sports, the 43% equating to 736 million individuals across the markets surveyed in Nielsen’s World Football Report. The second most popular sport worldwide is basketball with 36%, or 626 million, of adults interested.
While soccer saw a drop-off of fans in some countries like Brazil, who experienced interest slipping from 72% in 2013 to 60% in 2017, Americans’ interest has steadily climbed for the past two decades.
MLS Fan Demographics Reveal Diversity
MLS popularity has grown exponentially in part because of the organization’s expansion in local U.S. markets. Orlando, Atlanta and Minnesota received their first MLS teams between 2015 and 2018, and interest in MLS has increased 40% since 2012 in these markets. Nielsen also reported that interest in general soccer in these same markets increased 29% since 2012.
In 2017, 38% of American men and 26% of American women reported being “interested” or “very interested” in soccer. Soccer was most popular among Americans 16 to 24 years old (55%), followed by adults between 25 and 34 years old (50%). American adults between 55 and 69 years old were the least interested in the sport (14%).
Nearly a quarter (24%) of low-income earners were interested in soccer, while the level of interest in the sport among medium-income earners and high-income earners was virtually the same at 41% and 40%, respectively.
Why The MLS Has A Growing Fan Base In The U.S.
Nielsen noted several factors that may have caused the popularity increase in MLS, including the increased popularity of youth soccer, the growing U.S. Hispanic population, recent World Cup qualifications and the success of the FIFA video game.
In the U.S., the low-scoring game with nonstop play struggled for years to grow a television audience or attract national-level sponsors. But as American football declines in popularity, soccer is growing. One of the power moves boosting the MLS fan base is the recruitment of stars from overseas. Wayne Rodney, for example, transitioned from Manchester United to D.C. United last year, bringing his European football fans with him.
Incredible Marketing Power In The Soccer Industry
With a global fan base, the sport of soccer offers powerful marketing potential. Between in-person events and televised games, a long list of industries leverage soccer’s worldwide reach to relay marketing messages to diverse audiences. In fact, the tourism industry spent $1.4 billion globally on soccer sponsorships across the top six leagues between 2008 and 2017.
Brands from Germany and the United Arab Emirates historically make the biggest soccer sponsorship investments. But sponsorship investments from the United States are growing, an indicator that marketing within soccer is a lucrative initiative.
Powerful Influencer Marketing With Top Players
Marketing in soccer goes further than billboards, jerseys and sporting events. Famous soccer players have the potential to reach incredible audiences and increase brand exposure. Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, has 127 million Instagram followers, which led to 509.2 million engagements on the platform between January and May 2018. As influencer marketing reaches new heights, top soccer players’ followings can become increasingly valuable.
Below is a chart of the three soccer players with the most social media followers as of May 2018.
Below is a chart indicating the most popular celebrity profiles on social media sites. It’s important to note that the top soccer player has more followers than the top celebrity, indicative of just how much reach these players have. Plus, the fourth most popular celebrity is retired soccer player David Beckham.
Predictions For Soccer’s Growth
As technology becomes more involved in sports, the sports marketing landscape is evolving.
Viewing Channel Updates
Soccer once relied heavily on television, but as the digital landscape progresses, streaming may have the power to replace television as the top way to view soccer action. Solving the lack of time outs issue, streaming games allow for advertising along the sides of the screen.
Nielsen attributed the popularity of soccer and the MLS in part to the beloved FIFA video game. As gaming’s popularity holds strong, the eSports industry is growing wildly and the number of gaming tournaments and championships are growing. Tomorrow’s soccer celebrities may include both those who play the game on the field and those who play the game on the screen.
Nielsen reported, “Digital media has blown open the idea of what sports content is, who produces it, who controls it and who benefits from it.” The research brand described the current demand for content from consumers as a “24-7, furious, free-for-all battle” for dollars and attention, which means soccer fans can also join the ranks of soccer influencers.
Soccer’s popularity has seeped into American consumer interest, providing vast opportunity for marketing. From jersey sponsorships to sideline signage and from digital campaigns to influencer marketing on social platforms, soccer fans are a growing and viable audience.