World Cup Attention Does Not Mean Soccer is Popular

There was a ton of buzz about the World Cup this week in the United States. By far the most interest in soccer the country has probably ever had. Social media is a big part of this because people are intrigued by all of the chatter. It’s also the most popular sport in the world, and the biggest stage in the world, and one that only comes once every four years. A lot of true soccer fans are saying “FINALLY!” to the thought that soccer has gained some popularity, but this excitement is very premature.

In the same way the Olympics take over once every four years, it’s easy for soccer to do the same during the World Cup. Especially in a quiet period for sports like the end of June/early July tends to be. The US Men’s Team did alright four years ago, so they got some attention then. The ability to watch games online made it much more accessible, and again the constant talk on social media definitely piques people’s interests. But this is a bad way to measure people’s interests in the sport, in the same way that the Olympics measure people’s interest in swimming. Sure Michael Phelps can draw big TV crowds and insane interest, but at the end of the day people don’t care about swimming again for four years.

There are two major components that drove the interest in the World Cup in the US. First is the fact that it’s the biggest stage. Interest is always higher for the NBA Finals, Super Bowl and World Series much more than during the regular season because there is so much on the line. It’s the same reason that people don’t care about 99% of Olympic sports except during those few weeks every four years. The US men have never faired all that well in the World Cup either, and it’s one of the few sports actually played in the US (so not including things like rugby and cricket) where the US is not one of the elite teams. That desire to show these other countries that the US isn’t crap helps drive interest as well. Which feeds into the second main reason people cared so much about the World Cup, national pride. The speed and volume with which information travels around these days is remarkable. The country is move divided than ever, with political and social battles going on constantly. But during an event like the World Cup, every one can come together and be on the same side. There is something attractive about that to most people.

All of that rolled up together makes it seem hard to believe that soccer is going to gain much popularity outside of the World Cup. Will soccer attendance increase in the US between now and the next World Cup in 2018? Probably. But it seems unlikely to be significant. And four years from now, the US Men’s Team will be better, and people will be more into it than ever. But none of that should be confused with an increase in soccer popularity because that is just the wrong measuring stick.