Growing the Game: The expansion of America’s interest in soccer

With an estimated fanbase of 3.5 billion, the most popular sport in the world is undoubtedly soccer. I am one of those fans: cheering on Manchester City on weekend mornings and attending Atlanta United games at dusk. I’ve played soccer for most of my life, starting in recreational leagues and continuing through high school. I have noticed the impact soccer has had on myself and many others around the world.

It is still speculated where soccer originated but England had a vision and modernized the sport in 1863. Despite being played in the United States since 1866, other sports including American football, basketball and baseball often take priority.

In recent years though, the beautiful game is on the rise, with Major League soccer matches selling out NFL stadiums and averaging 357,000 viewers per game on ESPN/ABC.

Attendance in Major League Soccer (MLS) has increased dramatically over the past 12 months. With the arrival of seven-time Ballon D’or winner Lionel Messi, Inter Miami has seen a 32.3% increase in attendance, while the San Jose Earthquakes have had a 29.2% increase. Additionally, teams like Orlando City, FC Cincinnati, FC Dallas and New England Revolution have all increased attendance by over 10%. 

In 2017, the MLS announced the addition of a 21st MLS team, Atlanta United. Playing in the newly-constructed Mercedes-Benz Stadium, designed for soccer and American football, Atlanta United became the home team for all of Georgia. 

Atlanta United has attracted a large and exciting crowd since it entered the MLS in 2017, and holds the highest average attendance for soccer in North America, with 49,129 people.

On Dec. 8, 2019, Atlanta won their first MLS Cup, becoming the fastest club to win a trophy in MLS history. They did so with the help of star attackers Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron, the two highest goal scorers in club history. Almiron left the club in 2019, joining English Premier League club Newcastle United for a club and MLS record fee.

The Premier League signed a new six-year contract with NBC Studios in 2021, with an estimated worth of $2.7 billion, giving me a better opportunity to see Almiron in action. CBS Studios/Paramount signed an eight-year, estimated $2 billion annual contract for exclusive Union of European Football Association (UEFA) Champions League content in 2022, and Newcastle qualified for the Champions League at the end of the 2022-23 campaign, so now I can watch him on the biggest stage in European soccer.

Beyond television and streaming, wealthy Americans have invested in soccer clubs in England, with Americans fully owning 25% of Premier League clubs as of the 2023-24 season, with three other clubs having partial-owners and multiple American minority stake holders.

One example is Stan Kroenke, an American billionaire who owns multiple American sports teams including the Los Angeles Rams, the Denver Nuggets, and the Colorado Avalanche amongst others. In English football, he owns Arsenal’s men’s and women’s teams.

Another American who has full ownership of a Premier League team is Todd Boehly, who owns Chelsea FC. Boehly is largely known for his spending habits, spending over a billion dollars — more than any other club in the world — over the last three transfer windows.

Evensports stars and actors like Michael B. Jordan, who has a minority stake in recently promoted team AFC Bournemouth, and Lebron James, who has 2% ownership in one of the biggest clubs in the world, Liverpool FC, are investing in the European game.

While American shareholders have had an immense impact on European soccer, the biggest has been Ryan Reynolds’ and Rob McElhenney’s project to restore glory to one of the oldest soccer teams in the world, Wrexham AFC, a club that has a rich history but has found itself in the National League, one of the lowest levels, for 15 years. 

In Reynolds’ and McElhenney’s second year as owners of the club, Wrexham AFC was promoted to League Two, the fourth tier in English men’s football. Due to the rising popularity of Wrexham AFC, the team and city have gained massive financial support from the new fans. With this support, the club has signed new players like Paul Mullin and Ben Foster, and the town of Wrexham gained more tourism and financial support.

Recently, the duo created the docuseries “Welcome to Wrexham,” which parallels the club’s everyday functions and the journey to reach higher tiers of English football. This show gives the fans a behind the scenes look into the more intricate parts of soccer, such as coaching and business.

Alongside “Welcome to Wrexham,” Americans have grown accustomed to European soccer through the Apple TV show “Ted Lasso” about an American with limited knowledge of soccer who becomes the coach of a Premier League team. Since the show came out in August of 2020, it earned 61 Emmy nominations with 11 wins, and it is in the top 0.2% of all TV titles in the U.S.

With this popularization of soccer in the United States, the U.S. will co-host the World Cup for the second time in history in 2026. After withdrawing their bid to host the 2018 World Cup, the United States aimed to host the 2022 World Cup but lost out to Qatar. For 2026, they took a different approach, teaming up with neighboring countries to form a North American bid.

Featuring 11 American venues, alongside two in Canada and three in Mexico, the trio of nations will be the second countries to co-host a World Cup, after Japan and South Korea in 2002. 

The final is expected to be in either Los Angeles’ Sofi Stadium, or Dallas’ AT&T Stadium, with Atlanta’s own Mercedes-Benz Stadium — the same stadium that was always electric and filled to the brim with excited fans every time I attended a game in 2018 — being considered as a semi-final location.

The opportunity to experience that atmosphere again but with a global effect from the biggest tournament in the world is something I look forward to, and is a special experience that not many people get to enjoy.

Ben Graichen

Sophomore Ben Graichen was a staff writer for Cedar BluePrints during the first semester of the 2023-2024 school year.

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