When Football Ruled the Airwaves in England

In the 1980s, the number of new TV channels – including free, cable, and satellite channels – increased dramatically. Many of these new channels took on the challenge of carrying sports around the world. Sports like cricket (played in India), Australian Rules Football (which barely existed even in other parts of Australia), soccer (which was still being resisted in America), and the National Football League (NFL) were now thrust onto the world stage by these new media outlets.

In 1982, Britain created Channel Four and began broadcasting NFL games. The games were hugely attractive to British audiences. There were people in communities such as Manchester, England who suddenly identified themselves as fans of the San Francisco 49ers, and even William “The Refrigerator” Perry of the Chicago Bears became a cult hero in Britain. For a year or two in the 1980s, the Super Bowl had higher ratings in Britain than the beloved soccer program “Match of the Day,” which was shown on the same weekend as the Super Bowl. However, this invasion of American football into the living rooms of Britain did not last because English soccer rose to the challenge. The English soccer teams cleaned up their stadia, kicked out most of the hooligans, sold the rights to its games to “Sky Television” and, in general, began a major revival. Channel Four dropped the NFL and the invasion, originally led by British TV, was repelled.

In the 1970s in America, soccer was slowly becoming a part of American life and, even though the US had four major professional sports leagues, the game of soccer began to be a part of American childhoods. The gap in the American sports market surprisingly proved to be within football itself where it was all male, too dangerous, and too expensive for mass participation. Soccer was the answer because women could easily participate, it was not as dangerous, and it was inexpensive to play. As of 2009, less than 1,000,000 people in the entire world played tackle football as compared to the 265,000,000 who (according to FIFA) played soccer. The British viewed soccer as a “man’s game” but Americans saw it as “soft” sport, safe for girls as well as boys. Arguably, soccer has benefited from feminism. Another trend supporting soccer’s growth is the large Hispanic population in the US (now estimated to be over 50,000,000), which has more than tripled in size since 1980 and now outnumbers the population of Spain. So the way that the situation as shaken out is that in the United States, more kids under 12 play soccer than play all of baseball, football, and ice hockey combined. Kids “play” soccer but only “follow” football.

There is a strong soccer culture in America but, according to the authors of Soccernomics (by Kuper and Szymanski), it is different from other soccer cultures. Major League Soccer (MLS) is part of a mosaic that includes kid’s soccer, college soccer, indoor soccer, Mexican, English, and Spanish soccer, the Champions League, and the World Cup. There is an audience for all of this in the United States. For example, in 2006, 17,000,000 Americans watched the World Cup final between Italy and France but only 13,000,000 watched an average game of the NBA Finals. About the same number (17,000,000) viewed the average World Series game that year. 

Sometimes I think MLS team owners fret over the apparent marginality of MLS because newspaper coverage is sometimes found toward the back of the sports section near the car ads and the ratings for some games fall below bass fishing tournaments. And the lowliest MLS player earns far less than the lowliest NBA or Major League baseball player. But suburban families love soccer, and the game thrives because “soccer moms” think soccer is innocent and free from violence. And the game is certainly not awash in money. The hand that rocks the cradle may indeed rule the soccer world in the United States.

Support your local MLS team, and pack those stadiums this summer!