America is known for being at the top of the list for many things. But my country has historically competed in men’s soccer, the most popular sport worldwide.
In this year’s World Cup, the USA Men’s National Team (USMNT) advanced to the last 16 despite beating the Netherlands 3-1.
While the USMNT isn’t quite ready to join football’s elite nations, the sport is enjoying record success at home. The “beautiful game” is more popular than ever, especially among young Americans.
Look how many people say their favorite sport to watch is football. Historically, this percentage has been very small. From 1937 to 1972, the figure in the Gallup poll was always less than 0.5% of Americans who answered football when asked what their favorite thing to watch was football. Even until December 2004, the rate never rose above 2%.
Earlier this year, 8% of Americans answered watching football as their favorite sport in a Washington Post poll. This may seem like a small percentage, but it’s huge growth considering the baseline. No other sport has seen anywhere near such a development in popularity as football during this period.
Indeed, as many Americans as basketball (12%) or baseball (11%) now call watching football their favorite sport. Football has actually beaten motor racing, hockey, and golf, in the Washington Post’s poll the last few times.
My guess is that the number of football fans will continue to increase over the next few years. Why? Why? Look at the youth.
Football is most popular with adults under the age of 30. Adults aged 18 to 29 who say football is their favorite sport to watch are more likely than those who say they prefer baseball. Remember that baseball is supposedly America’s pastime.
Of course, American football – the NFL – is still the most watched sport in general and among all age groups. More than a third of Americans said it was the best sport to watch in years.
When you examine the long-term trends in the number of high schoolers playing the game, football may be getting its money’s worth from football.
Forty years ago, football was not a very popular sport for high school students. When you combine the boys and girls playing the sport, just over 200,000 students played the game. For comparison, nearly a million boys played soccer.
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Twenty years ago, over 600,000 boys and girls played football. Last year, over 800,000 boys and girls in high school decided to take up the sport with the black and white ball. In other mathematical terms, this is about 300% growth over the last 40 years.
There is no other sport in America that has risen as fast as football among high school students in the last 40 years.
And while football isn’t particularly close to the popularity of the NFL among adults, among high schoolers who play the two sports, football comes close. The gap between the number of high school students playing soccer in the early 1980s and the more than 700,000 respondents between the number of soccer players has steadily declined since then. The gap dropped to just over 400,000 in the early 2000s.
Football today has a 200,000-person advantage over football in the number of high schoolers playing the game. In other words: football stopped while football was constantly on the rise.
What caused football to come right after football in terms of participation?
The most obvious is that football is played by a large number of boys and girls. While there are some girls playing soccer at the high school level, it’s an almost uniform boys’ game, especially in contact soccer. Meanwhile, there are about 400,000 female players in football. In the early 1980s, this number was around 50,000.
The impact of the USA Women’s National Team’s success in America cannot be underestimated. Women are consistently succeeding on the international stage. The men have won four World Cups against zero. What is less talked about is that on television the men score better than their World Cup scores.
Safety is also a factor in the rise of football. In an Associated Press poll from the 2010s, 86% of parents said they were comfortable letting their kids play football because of safety concerns. For football, that rate dropped to 51%.
Given that soccer is basically a fall sport like soccer, it’s not hard to imagine many parents forcing their kids to hit a soccer ball instead of soccer.
The question ahead is whether the success of football at the high school level will eventually translate into football that really closes the gap between football and football in adult fan numbers.
We’ll just have to wait and see, but with the USA, Canada and Mexico hosting the 2026 World Cup, football isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.