There are a lot of speculations on whether soccer is a sport that’s actually dying or not! That’s why, I’ve chosen to put together to address that and provide a clear and insightful answer …
… But, the short and quick answer is No! There are little to no indicators that we are talking about a fading sport.
Let’s dive in for more details!
Is soccer a dying sport?
Soccer is by far the most popular sport in the world, with a 2018 report from the advertising agency finding that four out of every ten people aged 16 & well above in major population countries around the world identify themselves as soccer fans.
And the numbers continue to grow consistently!
Soccer is not the most popular sport in China, India, and the USA. And these countries hold the third or the world population! However, it is still safe to say that the sport is growing in popularity in there very quickly.
Keep in mind that soccer is not confined to men only!
Indeed, many surveys found that 70% of women said that they were interested in the 2018 men’s World Cup in Russia, whilst 58% said that they found the prospect of the female equivalent, in France, a year later very appealing.
In addition, more and more people play soccer recreationally than any other sport on the planet by a long way. It is easy to see why …
… It is because all you need to play the game is a ball, and, even if you are too poor to afford one or proper facilities, you can fashion one out of any materials you have to hand.
Find a bit of waste grounds, put down a couple of jumpers for goal posts, and away you go.
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Europe gave soccer to the world, exporting it to its various colonies at the end of the 19th century, and it remains the epicentre of the game, especially at the professional level.
Players from all other parts of the world dream about getting a move to one of the top European leagues like the Premier League, the Bundesliga, or La Liga, or even appearing in the Champions League.
It is also big business – the European football market is worth an estimated £21 billion, a figure that continues to grow year on year.
And, in terms of popularity, ten out of the twenty countries in the world were a percentage of the population reports themselves very interested in soccer can be found in Europe, with Portugal, the hope of Cristiano Ronaldo leading the way with 75%, making them third equal in global terms with Chile.
Turkey, Spain, Italy, and Poland are close behind, with Germany, Hungary, Russia, the UK, and the Czech Republic also on the list.
Nor all these just armchair fans, the Bundesliga is the best attended league in the world with an average attendance of more than 44,000 spectators a game, followed by the Premier League where the figure is over 38,000.
In the US
Soccer is growing in popularity in the US, where it is already the number one participation sport for both boys and girls, with thousands of soccer mums driving their offspring to games up and down the country.
There are multiple reasons for this. First of all, it is much cheaper to play than equivalent sports in terms of equipment, lessons, and ground fees, making it accessible to people of all income brackets.
Secondly, it is perceived as safe to play as opposed to sports like American football or ice hockey, where there is a heightened risk of injury,
And, last but certainly not least, soccer is regarded as fun to play, and not associated with the hot house, ultra-competitive atmosphere of many traditional US sports.
Equally it is growing as a spectator sport. A 2018 Gallup poll found that 7% of Americans identified soccer as their favourite sport, just 2% behind baseball, historically regarded as America’s favourite pastime. And the gap between the two is closing every year.
Equally, interest in the country’s main professional league, the MLS, has seen a 27% rise in interest since 2012.
And Americans are not just interested in the domestic product either. The 2018 World Cup Final attracted an American audience of 14.3 million viewers an increase of 22% on the figure for the 2014 World Cup final.
Nor is the interest just confined to the men’s game. The US Women are the most successful team in the world, winning their fifth World Cup in France in 2019.
The 1999 World Cup final between The USA and China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena attracted a crowd of 90,185, a world record for a female sporting event.
The sport is growing in Asia as well, especially in two of the world’s biggest markets, China, and India.
Already well developed as the number one sport throughout the Middle East – 80% of the population of the UAE identify as football fans, the highest in the world – and traditional regional powerhouses like Japan and South Korea, the product continues to develop in new markets as domestic leagues become more established.
Soccer is also seen as a way of extending state power and influence!
In China, for example, the country’s president, Xi Jinping, has explicitly set the goal of winning the World Cup by 2050, and enormous resource are being spent on developing training facilities and new stadiums.
And even in a country like India, which is cricket ma, soccer is on the rise, especially since the inception of the Indian Super League which has developed a whole new domestic audience for the sport.
Factors that would make soccer a dying sport
It is important to mention first of all the impact that the pandemic has had on the sport, especially at the professional level.
FIFA has put the cost to the global game this year at US $14 billion in terms of lost revenue, a third of its estimated economic value. And the longer hat matches that matches continue to be played without crowds or with very limited fans in the stands, the more those losses will rise.
Many smaller clubs will not survive, and local sides that have been at the heart of communities for years may simply disappear. Already Macclesfield Town in England has been forced to close its doors this summer.
At the same time, many people have lost their jobs, or seen their income seriously affected by the recession that has followed.
They will not be able to afford any longer the costly subscription fees needed to watch most professional leagues on satellite TV stations.
Another factor is that children in general are not playing as much sport in their spare time as they used to, linked with a rise in obesity amongst young people who are generally more sedentary than their peers of 30 years ago.
The rise of the internet and video games is a major factor here, as is the fact that urban development has led to the erosion of public spaces where soccer can be played.
Since 1990, for example, the UK has lost green space to urbanisation every single year and the trend, if anything is increasing.
One thing that is unlikely to happen though is for another sport to take its place. No other sport comes close to it in terms of global reach and popularity – it remains the world’s favourite game.
Factors that would help the sport flourish
1. Room to expand
There are some factors that will help the sport develop, particularly in the three markets where there still remains room for development – the US, China, and India.
As yet, the men’s national teams in these countries have yet to achieve much success, even at a regional level!
However, a good run at a major tournament like a World Cup, a Gold Cup, or the Asian Cup would have a positive effect on the popularity of sport in the country.
Young people would have national heroes with whom they could identify and want to follow in their footsteps.
2. Women’s soccer
Another factor that would help it grow is if the women’s game continues to flourish. It is worth remembering that, in countries like England, women were not even allowed to play football until 1970.
That gave more enlightened nations like the US, Japan and even countries like North Korea a head start, but Europe is catching up fast.
More girls are playing football there than ever before, and women’s leagues are beginning to flourish, with teams like Lyonnais Fémenin, Wolfsburg and Arsenal amongst the best in the world.
Formerly confined to just a handful of teams, now many professional sides have their own ladies’ team as well. And the more teams there are and the more opportunities to play, the more standards and quality will rise, attracting more spectators.
Another factor that will help soccer expand is the internet and technology. Now more and more people, either via smartphones, pcs or other mobile devices can access the best action from the top European leagues, wherever they may be in the world.
That is why, if you are in the backstreets of Botswana, in a crowded market in Shanghai or in a shanty town in Brazil. You are as likely to see somebody wearing a Manchester United, Barcelona or Ream Madrid shirt as somebody wearing their local team colours.
And whilst cost has hitherto been a factor, there are a host of streaming services, many of them illegal, enabling anybody who wants to do so to watch any match of their choice, anywhere in the world.
Final Thoughts: What’s the future looks like
Soccer is already the world’s number 1 sport in terms of participation, and, because of its low cost and simplicity, nothing is likely to even threaten its dominance.
Equally, in terms of the viewing public, it still has room to grow in terms of market penetration in three of the world’s biggest markets.
This is not a sport that is dying but one that continues to prosper. I even thin that soccer is one of the best, if not the best sport ever!