Every three to four years for the last few decades, U.S. commentators wonder aloud whether this will be the year that Americans care about The Beautiful Game, in conjunction with both the men’s World Cup and the women’s World Cup (Canada, 2015). The escalation of youth participation in soccer, the rising international profile of U.S. Soccer (men’s – women, we know, have been on top for quite a while), and increased media coverage on mainstream outlets are all cited as reasons why this (insert year here) will be the year that Americans finally get soccer. Of course, on the heels of the draw with Portugal, which looked like a victory for the U.S. up until the last 30 seconds, this claim seems more justified than in the past. Can Americans still possibly claim that soccer doesn’t hold the excitement of other sports?
Thus far, research shows that viewership of and interest in the World Cup has remained pretty stable compared to four years ago. According to Pew Research, roughly the same share of the public is looking forward to the World Cup this year (22%) as it was in 2010 (23%). The nature of the tournament means that few moments will garner as much attention as the one and done Super Bowl. Despite the U.S. and Ghana match’s 7.0 ratings share on Nielsen’s overnight report—a record for a FIFA World Cup match on the channel, according to Businessweek, kids, tweens and teens who are still in school in some parts of the country and beginning camp in others, don’t exactly have the freedom to view during the day that many adults seem to find. Youth can’t flock to their local pub the way Millennials might, and kids and tweens, in particular, are consistently more excited to play the game than watch it on TV.
Still, it’s hard to argue that the World Cup and soccer, in general, have become important symbols of youth culture. Pew’s research shows that four-in-ten adults ages 18-29 (40%) were looking forward to the World Cup before the start of the tournament, compared with just 13% of adults 50 and older. The last time the men’s World Cup occurred, we wrote about the reasons why soccer should matter to today’s kids, tweens and teens. Four years later, we’re inspired to look at all that soccer – and the U.S. team specifically - represents and reflects about this particular cohort of youth.
A global community. As fans of England now know, the seemingly solid lines of citizenship and belonging are hardly fixed. Uruguay dashed the hopes of the English team by the foot of striker Luis Suarez – best known for an infamous stint in the Premier League, and as a player for Liverpool. The global exchange of footballers is not new to the sport, but better reflects a kind of youth culture and experience that sees country boundaries and borders, and a general sense of belonging and membership that is more fluid than ever. The U.S. team has players that feel diverse in all sorts of ways – with many spending much of their lives living outside our nation’s borders. The U.S. team, moreso than many other “national teams” like the Olympic contingents for most sports, feels like it truly reflects the plurality of experiences and backgrounds that youth recognize from their own lives.
An underdog coming of age. The U.S. team might be an unlikely underdog, but when it comes to soccer, the world seems to be watching to see whether this up and comer can establish itself as a world power on the pitch. Being underestimated makes the U.S. team even more relatable to youth, who respect fame and accomplishment, but root for those who – like themselves – are often trying to prove they’re more capable than expected.
A respect for refresh. For many long-time U.S. soccer fans, the decision to leave Landon Donovan at home was controversial to say the least. But for youth, a chance for new stars to shine makes the team even more appealing. Soccer has been somewhat stagnated in popular culture, with athletes like Mia Hamm (who kids continue to love) representing the face of the game, despite being on the bench. Today’s youth are more likely to follow someone who represents the future of soccer, not its past.
Inclusiveness. The Nike campaign for the World Cup suggests that the kind of inclusiveness that this cohort of kids, tweens and teens value and demand is not lost on one of youth’s favorite brand, even beyond football. The ad includes “characters” from across the globe in a video game style ad, and, importantly, speaks to youth with humor, not only heroism. And, the language of laughter connects with a broad range of youth.