DESPITE its name, the Copa America has never been played north of the Rio Grande before. On June 3rd the international soccer tournament kicks off in Santa Clara, California. Games will take place in ten cities across the country over the next four weeks. It is the latest effort to cement the sport into the mainstream consciousness. Soccer still lags behind America’s four leading sports: baseball, basketball, hockey and American football. But several measures suggest that the game is gaining ground.
Much of the hard running took place in the 1990s, when the successful hosting of the World Cup coincided with a surge of young players and the formation of Major League Soccer (MLS). According to a poll for ESPN, soccer has become the second-most popular sport for 12-24 year olds, after American football, and is the standout leader among Hispanics of the same age. Last year soccer-playing among boys in high school grew more than any other sport, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (perhaps capitalising on fears over the safety of American football, where numbers fell).
The success of the national teams, in particular the women’s side, has been a boon. Last year, the Women’s World Cup final attracted a domestic TV audience of 27m—roughly the same as the record-setting college American football championship game in 2015. Until recently, the challenge had been to keep people interested between World Cups. A rise in the number of games from other countries that are broadcast live has helped. According to Stephen Master of Nielsen, which measures such things, there is now more live soccer available on American TV than in any other country.
Partly as a result, average attendances at MLS games have grown by 56% since 2001. In the past five years they have risen 29%. More people go to MLS games than go to an NBA games or National Hockey League ones (though both basketball and hockey are played in smaller stadiums with higher ticket prices). When it comes to revenue, soccer is still a minnow: MLS generates just half the revenue of Japanese baseball and a tenth of what the NBA does.
There is also depth to this growth among fans. In May FC Cincinnati, a freshly minted team playing in the third tier (the United Soccer League, or USL), registered one crowd of more than 23,000. In 2015, newly formed New York City FC sold 15,000 season tickets before they had kicked a ball. The league is set to grow from 20 to 24 teams over the next two seasons, and one of the youngest, most eclectic fan bases of all American sports—52% of MLS fans are aged 18-34, the highest proportion of any professional sports league.
Viewing figures for MLS also have a long way to go before they can compete regularly with the big four. But TV audiences are growing (tying domestic fixtures in with English Premier League games, which attract larger audiences, has worked well) and networks see the potential, signing a $90m-a-year deal to 2022 for broadcasting rights.
Still, MLS has still not fully dispelled its image as a retirement home for clapped-out European stars. Only Sebastian Giovinco, a player for Toronto FC, can be considered a foreign star in his prime. With a new surge of spending on soccer in China, it may become even more difficult to attract stardust. America churns out more world-beating athletes than any other country, but none of them play soccer. Yet.
© 2016 The Economist | This article first appeared in The Economist on May 28 2016.