Football, not soccer: How the United States fell in love with the beautiful game

The popularity of the most-followed sport in the world is growing at a faster rate than any other, driven by Latino passion, the Messi effect, the Copa América and the 2026 World Cup

Copa America
Argentina national team coach Lionel Scaloni looks at the Copa América trophy during the draw ceremony for the 2024 tournament.Lynne Sladky (AP)
Nicholas Dale Leal

The bass drum rumbles. The fans sing in the stands. “Olé, olá, cada día te quiero más” (Olé, olá, every day I love you more.) It could be the stands at any stadium in Argentina, Colombia, or Mexico. But no. Those chanting these words, which can be heard in the mouths of countless fans the length and breadth of the continent, are the members of La12deAtlanta. It is the main Latino barra (organized fan group) of Atlanta United FC, a decade-old team that has been playing in the U.S. professional soccer league, MLS, since 2017. The 400 to 800 members travel with the team — accompanied by their drums, trumpets and huge flags — across the U.S., within the logistical constraints of such a vast country, spreading Latin American soccer passion throughout the land.

They are no exception. “All the teams in the United States have their Latino barras because there are Latinos everywhere,” says La12 president and founder Gabriel Diaz, a 35-year-old Uruguayan who has been in the Georgia capital for 20 years and celebrates part of his very identity with every goal cheered. Thousands and thousands of fans like Diaz are fertile soil for the belated growth of the world’s most popular sport in the United States: here they no longer say “soccer,” they say “football.”

Latinos are born with a ball in the cradle and grow up playing on synthetic turf fields, dusty parks, and the asphalt of the streets in front of their homes. Seventy-three percent of Latinos over the age of 16 say they are sports fans, 32% inherited a love for a particular team and 22% consider themselves “super-fans.” For thousands of them, it’s an important part of who they are. It is natural for them to seek to replicate the tradition left behind by themselves or previous generations.

The logo of the South American Football Confederation, CONMEBOL, is seen on the confederation building during a press conference to present the new logo of the Copa América 2024.Jorge Saenz (AP)

But it is something that was not always possible. Until 1996, when the first MLS season was played with 10 teams, there was no professional soccer league in the U.S. There was a failed experiment between 1968 and 1984, which saw Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer pull on the New York Cosmos jersey. But the project never had a future in a country where baseball, NFL, and basketball completely dominated the sports interests of the population. According to a Gallup poll, in 1997 soccer was tied for last on the list of most popular sports, along with figure skating. Twenty years later it had climbed to fourth place, very close to surpassing baseball.

There is no definitive data on this, but the correlation of the growth of the Latino population and their assimilation and increased cultural participation in the country, together with the rise in soccer’s popularity, leaves little room for doubt either. It can be witnessed in the selection of cities to host MLS teams, which with the debut of a new team in the border city of San Diego in 2025 will number 30 clubs. When that happens, California, Texas, and Florida alone (the states with the largest Latino populations) will have nine teams, almost a third of the entire league; New York, the country’s other major Latino population base, has two teams.

The Latinization of soccer is also contagious: 90% of Latino fans prefer to watch broadcasts in Spanish, but 65% of white non-Latino fans do as well. And more and more people are watching. According to Forbes data, the Qatar World Cup final was watched by 26 million people in the U.S., and the national team’s group stage matches pulled in between 12 and 15 million viewers. For comparison, the first game of this year’s NBA Finals was watched by an average of 11 million people. In MLS, the numbers are not yet close to that, but they already exceed one million on a regular basis. The current record is held by the 2022 MLS Cup Final, which registered more than two million viewers.

2024 Copa America
The Copa América 2024 mascot dances during the draw ceremony in Miami on November 7, 2023. Lynne Sladky (AP)

A gold mine waiting to be exploited

Viewed through optimistic — and speculative — eyes, these data yield a positive conclusion: the room for growth is still enormous and so are the potential gains. The Latino population alone is a huge market that has not yet been fully exploited. Currently, they move around $3.4 trillion a year and the increase in their purchasing power is double that of other demographic groups. In addition, as a collective, they spend on average 20% more of their income on sports products and experiences.

In this context, the fact that the U.S. has won the privilege of hosting an expanded edition of the Copa América this summer and, along with Mexico and Canada, an unprecedented 48-team World Cup in 2026, can be seen most clearly as a shrewd investment. Predictably, it will generate record profits and serve as fuel in spreading the soccer fire in the country. Investments by U.S. banks in major European clubs responds to the same reading of the soccer market. Another figure to support this idea: some 200 million people around the world watched the Super Bowl this year; the Clásico — played between Real Madrid and Barcelona — is watched by more than 600 million every year, and yet the Super Bowl generates more money.

Perhaps that’s why Inter Miami went to such great lengths — to the point of changing league rules — to bring in Lionel Messi and company. The Messi effect has been tangible financially, and intangible in the interest he has generated around MLS. In his first 24 hours as an Inter Miami player, match ticket prices increased by 1,034%, MLS gained 22 million new followers on Instagram and surpassed the English Premier League in searches for the first time in history. Sponsorship deals have also multiplied in value, as have television rights. The idea is that from this, a virtuous circle of greater investment will generate successively greater profits.

Other signings by MLS teams, while perhaps less glamorous, also point in this direction. Look no further than the recent announcement of the arrival of Hirving “Chucky” Lozano for San Diego FC’s debut season. Lozano is one of the top Mexican stars in the sport and he will undoubtedly generate his own frenzy.

Admittedly, this is not an entirely new phenomenon. In 2007, former Manchester United and Real Madrid star David Beckham signed for the LA Galaxy, where players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Steven Gerrard have also played. The image of the American league as a place to enjoy the twilight of a career on a succulent salary has not quite been dispelled yet. But if back then some of Beckham’s teammates in Los Angeles were earning salaries of less than $13,000 a year, now the league can also attract young talent from other parts of the world, like Thiago Almada, who came to Atlanta United as an up-and-comer after shining with Vélez Sarsfield in Argentina. Slowly, MLS wants to move from being a career graveyard to a springboard for the stars of the future, and eventually the ultimate destination.

Diaz of La12deAtlanta, who has been watching Almada every week for the past two years, believes in that growth. “Five years from now, for me it’s going to be one of the best leagues in the world,” he says, convinced by the interest he sees among the youngsters and knowing that the Copa América and the World Cup could mark a before and after for MLS. For him, if we add the fact that there is already such a strong existing love of soccer, it means that the sport has everything it needs to really take off in the United States: the infrastructure and the money are there. Although he admits that some things need to change in the league to make it more competitive, such as a transfer system that does not allow it to measure itself so easily against European clubs, and the fact that there is no relegation or promotion.

Projections indicate that this is only the beginning. The question remains as to whether the appetite and soccer culture of the predominantly Latino fan base will be compatible with a more mercantile, characteristically American vision: in Europe it was roundly rejected by fans during the turbulent weeks when the Super League, which had money from U.S. banks behind it, was unveiled.

The next stage of the plan begins now, with the Copa América. La12deAtlanta already has events planned for the games being played in its city, which includes the opener pitting Argentina against Canada. Maybe the mix of commercialization and Latin passion is the perfect recipe for football, not soccer.

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