We had gathered for a picnic, enjoying grilled hot dogs and hamburgers before heading to Target Field to celebrate a friend’s 50th birthday by watching a Twins game.
But instead of gathering in the backyard around the grill, most of the group, white guys in their 50s and 60s, huddled around a TV indoors on a beautiful Minnesota Sunday morning, watching the World Cup.
This group, the least likely demographic to be soccer fans, cheered for Croatia, the underdog, while analyzing the powerful French side.
For years, observers have predicted soccer (football to the rest of the world) would find more fans in the United States.
But World Cup TV ratings were down this year by 40 percent, presumably because the American team failed to qualify.
That’s too bad. If you didn’t watch, you missed several thrilling games including Croatia eliminating Russia on penalty kicks, Belgium beating Brazil and Germany knocking off Sweden in the fifth minute of extra time.
I was in Ulm, Germany, the night of the German victory. Thousands of fans filled the city square to watch on giant TVs. Around the city, crowds gathered in bars and restaurants and spilled out onto the street to see the game. Elsewhere, city streets were deserted.
Thanks to patient and knowledgeable coaches, I learned about soccer’s nuances and strategies as our oldest daughter played town, travel and school ball for 10 years. When she went to college and her soccer career ended, my spouse and I continued to be fans, mostly by watching the English Premier League on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
The closest we came to seeing England’s top league in person was riding by stadiums in London and Manchester when visiting our younger daughter. We did get to see an English soccer team play…the York Minstermen…who, after several relegations, now play in the National League, five levels below the Premier League. Despite their recent poor record, the team, started in 1908, will be moving to a new stadium in 2019.
A few years ago, we also began following the Minnesota United Football Club, better known as the Loons, who played in Blaine. In 2017, the team moved up to Major League Soccer.
While near the bottom of the MLS standings, the Loons are drawing more than 22,000 fans per game and on July 18 attracted more than 27,000 fans.
The team is playing at TCF Bank Stadium while a new stadium rises in the Midway district of St. Paul. Allianz Field will seat 19,400. The team has more than 1,000 people on the waiting list for 14,500 season tickets and the Loons anticipate selling out all 17 home games in 2019.
Will the fans still be around if the team continues to finish near the bottom of the table and the novelty and newness of the state-of-the-art stadium fades?
Demographics and dollars say yes.
A Gallup poll found 7 percent of Americans named soccer as their favorite sport to watch. While that may not sound like much, the figure represents a significant, three-percentage-point gain from just four years ago. Soccer is the only sport to post such a large increase. Football (37 percent, down from 39 percent), basketball (11 percent, down from 12 percent) and baseball (9 percent, down from 13 percent) all showed declining numbers. Hockey was at 4 percent, up from 3 percent.
Among adults aged 18-34, soccer was the favorite sport of 11 percent, tying basketball. Six percent chose baseball as their favorite sport.
The 2015 Women’s World Cup finals viewership beat the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup finals that summer.
And here’s what really matters: Twelve years ago, Toronto Football Club paid $10 million to join what is now a 23-team league. Today, the average MLS team is worth $223 million.
Some 3.4 billion, or nearly half the total world population of 7.6 billion, watched the World Cup.
How will America’s interest increase as domestic teams attract more fans and the country prepares for the 2026 World Cup?
Seventy-five years ago, sportswriters and newspaper sports sections focused on horse racing, boxing and baseball. Of those three pastimes, only baseball remains part of the mainstream discussion anymore.