by. Kit Schofield
Football continues to be the most popular sport around the world, but unfortunately for FIFA we call it soccer and a different football reigns supreme. There was a lot of hype surrounding the United States entering its first World Cup in 8 years, after missing the 2018 World Cup held in Russia, and ads for the event teased the potential for the US to win it all, highlighting superstars such as Christian Pulisic. An impressive 17.2 million viewers tuned in to watch the highly anticipated matchup between the US and England, with 16.5 million tuning in to watch the US punch its ticket to the playoff round against Iran. Unfortunately, reality came crashing down as the US team made its third round of 16 exit in its many World Cup appearances.
The US team’s playoff loss to the Netherlands drew 16.5 million viewers, while just one day later the NFL beat that number in all three Sunday game timeslots. The Eagles vs Titans drew over 19 million viewers at 1pm EST, the Chiefs vs Bengals drew 23.4 million in the afternoon, and the Colts vs Cowboys drew 18.1 million to end the day on Sunday Night Football. Just a week later, the NFL would again blow away the World Cup by drawing over 24 million viewers for the 49ers vs Buccaneers matchup that Fox eventually switched over to the Panthers vs Seahawks once San Francisco took a 35-0 lead.
Defenders of soccer would point to the timing of the World Cup games to explain the disparity in viewers between the World Cup and the NFL. The US loss to the Netherlands began at 10am EST and the highest viewed match for the US team, its tie against England, was at 2pm EST on a Friday. Additionally, the event had to move from its traditional timing in summer to the fall because of the intense heat in Qatar, a significantly more crowded time of year for sports within the US, with the NFL, college football, the NBA, and the NHL all playing during this time of year. Because of the change in schedule, viewership dropped slightly compared to the last time the US was in the World Cup. The 2014 US team saw a peak of 18.2 million for the US vs Portugal match compared to the 2022 US team’s peak of 17.2 million.
What could inspire some hope for soccer fans is the location of the next World Cup; the US and Mexico won a joint bid to host the 2026 World Cup, the first time World Cup matches will be held on US soil since it hosted in 1994. That 1994 cup saw much higher viewers than the next two cups combined, and more than the 2006 cup held in Germany. The return to the less crowded summer timing, near removal of time zone discrepancies, as well as the proximity to the matches could all likely contribute to a large increase in viewership.
Still, if there is to be any chance of the next World Cup over taking the NFL, the US team has to qualify. The 2018 cup, which the US team did not qualify for, saw significantly lower viewership numbers than previous cups with an average US viewership of only about 5 million, down over 3 million compared to 2014. The 2018 finals match was down over 8 million viewers compared to the 2014 finals. With the US back in the tournament this year, the exciting finals match drew 27.1 million viewers between Telemundo and FOX, about half a million higher than the next most watched final. Following the record setting finals, Messi celebrated the win by breaking another record for the most liked Instagram post, beating out the egg that previously held that honor.
There is a growing market for soccer within the US, and it will be interesting to see how the sport continues to grow domestically leading up to the 2026 World Cup. Based on a recent Gallup sports poll, 52% more adults consider themselves a soccer fan compared to 2012. This growth outpaces the other four “major” American sports and the future of the sport in the US is bright with the game quickly becoming a “first choice” sport for young people. High school soccer participation grew 32% from 2002 to 2019, far and away the biggest growth – beating out baseball (6%), hockey (7%), basketball (-6%) and football (-2%). Additionally, attendance at US professional matches is also rising. Both men's and women's leagues set attendance records in 2022, with Major League Soccer exceeding 10 million spectators and the National Women's Soccer League surpassing 1 million. But for now at least, the NFL continues to reign as the king of sports to watch within the United States.