Whether you agree or not with the statement that soccer is the world's most popular sports, when you look at some of the data in relation to its popularity it has a pretty strong case for that title. We will take a look at some of these in some detail, but plucking just one out, the number of people in the world who label themselves as soccer fans is 4 billion, which is more than half the population of the world.
Obviously, soccer is a sport enjoyed by both male and female supporters, and one of the facts we will be looking at in this article will be how soccer has moved from being a male-only sport to one enjoyed equally by both genders. We'll also look at how soccer has expanded to all corners of the globe, and how the USA is more of a soccer-loving country than many people think.
Soccer's Popularity - The Statistics
Let's think about that figure of 4 billion soccer fans across the world and the fact that it certainly gives soccer the accolade of having more fans globally than any other sport. Its closest rival is cricket with 2.5 billion fans, but we have to consider that India, where cricket is the national sport, has a population of over 1 billion. This skews the fans figure somewhat, and points to the fact that cricket is not a sport that has anywhere near the same global appeal as soccer.
If we look at the statistics for the number of soccer players there are in the world, the last official survey from FIFA indicated that there were 265 million registered soccer players globally. However, that was done back in 2006, so the figure is likely to have risen significantly by now. Whatever the figure may be today, soccer will still be the number one participation sport in the world, with badminton and field hockey in second and third places respectively.
The Working Man's Sport
Soccer is a global sport today enjoyed by women and girls, as much as it is by men and boys, but that has not always been the case. Soccer's growth and popularity in its early days was most evidenced in the countries of the UK, such as Scotland and England. It was seen very much as a man's game and the crowds in those days would consist mainly of working-class men from the towns and cities.
It is a little known fact that the reason 3 pm on a Saturday afternoon is the traditional kick-off time for soccer matches across the UK was to accommodate those who worked on a Saturday morning. The finishing time would be around lunchtime, so the establishment of a 3pm kick-off time was so that those workers could get to the stadiums in time for the match.
While the UK is a place where soccer's popularity is huge, we must also be aware that it began to become a global sport very early on. FIFA, which is the world's governing body, was established as early as 1904, and by 1930 they were able to hold the very first World Cup. With soccer blossoming across South America, it seems apt that this was held in Uruguay, who also won the tournament. The next World Cup in 1934 saw the first African team to take part, which was Egypt.
Even so, the World Cup tended to be dominated by countries from Europe, South America, and North America for decades, but that undoubtedly changed in the 1980s. As FIFA expanded the number of teams who qualified, they also reduced the European allocation. If we compare the 1954 tournament where 11 out of 16 countries competing were European, in the 2018 World Cup Europe accounted for just 14 out of 32 teams, including the hosts, Russia.
It is not just at an international level where soccer has gone to all corners of the globe. National leagues exist in every country, and thanks to television, some of the biggest leagues in the world have fan bases which are higher overseas than in their own country.
The English Premier League is a prime example, being the most watched soccer league in the world. It is televised in 212 countries, and the estimated global audience per game is 12 million versus 2 million domestically. When you consider there are often between 3 and 5 games televised per week, the total worldwide audience over a 38 game season must be well over 2 billion viewers.
Soccer's Popularity in the USA
Soccer in the USA has been on a bit of a roller coaster ride, with some high peaks, low troughs, and no lack of thrills over the years. As we mentioned previously, the USA competed in the first World Cup, and at the time it might have been thought that soccer would progress to become the premier sport in the USA.
Unfortunately, it didn't quite make it, most likely due to the rising popularity of ‘football', or American Football. Here is where purists argue over why we call 'association football' soccer in the USA, whereas elsewhere it is normally called football, which also happens to be what we call America's number 1 sport.
Soccer in the USA was very much in the doldrums for the mid-part of the 20th century until the 1970s, when a number of high profile soccer stars from around the world were persuaded to come and join the North American Soccer League. Stellar names such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and George Best would often play in front of crowds of 60,000 and more. However, the uplift in popularity was short-lived, and the NASL disbanded in 1984.
In order to host the 1994 World Cup, the USA had to commit to establishing its own professional soccer league. It did so, and the league's popularity grew throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and this has continued to this day, with some Major League Soccer teams attracting average crowds of 40 to 50 thousand per match.
It is not only the number of fans of soccer that has increased in the USA, but the number of players has also grown too. Soccer is now one of the most played sports by children, and at the high school level, it is the number 1 team sport. The success of the USA's women's team also means that the number of girls taking up soccer is not far behind the number of boys doing so.