In their masterpiece ‘Soccernomics’, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski try to predict which nation will be the future dominant Football nation. They rank countries based on population size, success, GDP per capita and working-class population size; the metrics they believe contribute toward international success in the sport. Football’s low barriers to entry have made it thrive in cities and countries with large working-class populations. All you need is a ball to play. Thus, in theory, countries with larger blue-collar populations will produce better Footballers and are more likely to be successful.
Their prediction? Turkey. But there is one factor they didn’t take into account.
European nations are witnessing their middle-class outgrow their working-class. The populations of the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, France, England etc are increasingly completing higher education and choosing white-collar professions. In higher disposable income households, children are less confined to Football and can play other sports that require more capital to participate in. You can therefore expect these countries to lose their competitiveness in Football as their talent pool shrinks compared to countries that maintain large working-class populations whose children only play Football. This is the theory Kuper and Szymanski applied. But what if there exists a developed country with a large sports-mad population where Football doesn’t follow this model?
In Football, all nations of the world find sanctuary against the dominance of the United States in the rest of life’s domains, in firm belief that they can beat the Yanks hands down at the one thing that really matters. But this is changing.
It began with broadcasting. Andy Leary of the American Outlaws Hartford Chapter recalls how the time zone difference worked to broadcasters’ advantage; “I always remember Saturday morning on the Sports Channels. It was either fishing or a re-run from the night before. And [suddenly] you have ‘oh crap! This is a live sporting event!'”. There was money to be made from TV rights in the USA as there were no other sports available to watch early Saturday mornings. It was a cheap airtime slot as nothing clashed with CET 3pm kick-offs on the East Coast of the USA. Americans were suddenly exposed to the European leagues playing the best Football available in the 90s. By now, there has been an entire generation that has grown up watching the best Football in the world and learning from it. This has naturally translated into interest in the sport.
This is showing. The number of teams competing in Major League Soccer has doubled in 20 years, with 4 more coming. Average attendance has risen 148% since 1997, last year averaging around 21,500. That is more on average than the Championship, Ligue 1, the 2. Bundesliga, the SüperLig and the Eredivisie and fractionally below Serie A in the same year. Absolute numbers of fans at MLS games has grown massively, with an increase of 312% in the same time frame, representing almost 5 million more people at games in 2015 than in 1997. To put that into context, that is the population of Denmark. Football (our Football) is clearly growing in the USA, and the locals are developing a taste for it.
The next step was for the quality of the sport being played in the USA to improve. This has happened fairly quickly. As with other American sports leagues, a salary cap for MLS teams does exist to prevent spiraling player wages and to guarantee a relatively fair playing field. But American cities have plenty to offer a boy-done-good from Hartlepool or Stockport. Established players in their 30s recognise that staying in European leagues will only get more difficult. But a growing league in the States can offer more glory years and the opportunity to live in a glamorous city that their WAG might like. The salary cap may indeed exist to prevent dizzying price-wars in the transfer window but the truth is there are plenty of reasons to move to the USA apart from money. Do you think Chantelle would prefer Stoke or Los Angeles?
The arrival of top players in the MLS has had two clear consequences, both beneficial to the quality of Football being played by Americans: natives coming through the ranks compete against and learn from these superstars, thus improving their own abilities, and interest in MLS games increases, thus they are broadcasted more frequently (Sky Sports now broadcasting MLS games back to Europe), providing more capital into the Sport which again helps nurture talent (in theory). Stronger leagues and homegrown talent will only fuel further interest in the sport, keeping viewing figures and attendances high, providing more capital to invest in player development.
But this is not the full story. We must still go back to the first point; Football is not the same institution in America as it is in Europe. Their traditional working-class sports are American Football, Basketball and Baseball. But the average American parents are pushing their kids towards American Football less and less to avoid the risk of serious injury. “Baseball is losing popularity and Basketball is not as accessible as it once was”, believes Andy Leary. But parents understand that Football is a safer option that promotes teamwork, discipline, athleticism and skill, and their sons and daughters are engaged in the sport from a young age. Football doesn’t need to be a working-class sport in the USA for it to become popular and provide the US National Team with a strong starting XI.
The number of people playing Football in the States is now taking off. A number of factors have emerged simultaneously to shape the future landscape of sport in the USA, and existing institutions and attitudes have helped define a character very different to the usual one of Football in Europe. A new Football Empire is coming. Uncle Sam is going to beat us at our own game.