Most soccer fans today accept the idea that the world's most popular sport will continue to grow in the U.S.—albeit slowly—and that the game's rise is supported by increased TV coverage, rising quality of MLS teams, and fan education and awareness that takes place during spectacles such as the World Cup.
But there's another reason: high school.
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the U.S. temporarily went soccer crazy and the now-defunct North American Soccer League purchased Pele's star power to try and create instant fans, the game became immensely popular among white, middle-and upper-class kids. They joined private soccer clubs by the millions, prompting many to believe that soccer would soon be America's most popular sport.
Of course, it didn't. We all know that. The kids who played soccer for fun grew up and became fans of "real" American sports. There are some obvious reasons why. For example, there wasn't enough history of soccer in the U.S. to create a narrative of the sport, the way we talk about baseball and summertime, or football and grit. Soccer was also a sport that kids played only as an organized activity, which limited creativity and, frankly, limited fun.
But also, soccer was an activity not widely available in the most democratic of our sports organizing bodies: high school. In 1969, for example, just over 2,200 high schools in the country fielded a soccer team. Almost 14,000 high schools had a football team. Back then, soccer was available only to the people who had the time and money to join a private club.
Today, about 14,000 high schools still have a football team. Baseball and basketball produce similar numbers—almost all high schools had teams in the big three sports in 1970 and almost all high schools still have teams in the big three sports. And soccer is joining them. Today, just over 11,000 high schools have soccer teams. That means that soccer is (finally) no longer just the domain of white, middle-and upper-class youth. When sports are accessible through public schools, everybody can play.
One of the reasons why soccer has spread throughout high schools so quickly is because Hispanic immigrants and their children request it. And while an increasing number of Americans have learned to enjoy soccer, the reason games are now broadcast on ESPN, while hockey games are not, is because soccer fans, most of them immigrants and the children of immigrants, have an increasing amount of money to spend on advertisers’ products. As an audience, soccer fans have rising clout. This makes soccer's place in American culture quite different than it was 30 years ago. In Woodburn, Oregon, for example, a high school with a 70 percent Latino population, soccer is by far the school's best sport. The football team is so bad that it recently went two years without winning a game.
And it's not just Hispanics who play in high schools. As increasing numbers of Hispanic kids create more high school soccer teams, they influence the sport choices of their white, black, and asian peers. Not only do we have an increasing Hispanic population that influences which sports are available on television, the passion that many young Latinos have for soccer is rubbing off on the non-Latino kids they go to school with. If one of the problems soccer in America has had is the lack of street games, informal play, and a narrative of the sport as a masculine activity, the melting pot of public high schools is providing a solution.
Soccer is not going to replace football, baseball, or basketball anytime soon. But based on cable viewership and game attendance, it may have already surpassed hockey as the fourth most popular American sport, and as the effects of Hispanic immigration continue to spread, so will soccer's popularity. Most Americans today don't care about soccer because it's too foreign. But Americans are changing, and so is their view of futbol, er, soccer.