The 1994 FIFA World Cup is largely credited with creating a great “first wave” of US football fans. Major League Soccer, currently the highest-grossing division of men’s soccer in the United States, was launched in 1993 as part of a deal with FIFA that earned the Americans the rights to host the World Cup.
The second wave of popularity in the sport is coming, and it will accompany the return of global soccer tournaments to North American shores: the 2024 Copa America, the 2026 FIFA World Cup, and the 2028 Summer Olympics. Sports Innovation Lab and Jung von Matt’s report on US football fans provides an essential roadmap for brands and properties looking to tap into the growth potential of this market. The report details a diverse landscape of soccer interest in the United States and highlights the white spaces where brands, properties, media companies, and technologies can all participate in authentic and impactful ways.
US football fans – unlocking the potential
Popular interest in soccer in the United States still lags behind the rest of the world. US football fans are still relatively new, and rarely generational. While fans inherit an NFL or MLB team from their family, the options for new soccer fans are often wide open. Why might a US-based fan choose to support Angel City FC or Juventus? Which soccer stars do they care about, and how did they find them? The United States is arguably the last open, valuable market for soccer growth, and potential fans are here to be won.
- There is room for growth with only 24% of US sports fans following soccer
- The women’s game is big here like nowhere else
- OTT and digital media have accelerated growth opportunities for global properties and brands
- US football fans spend more on soccer than other sports fans
- Global tournaments (World Cups, Olympics) will create a “second wave” of attention in the US
Who are US football fans?
There are five soccer fan personas that are specific to fans in the United States. The report provides descriptions and insights into who those fans are and how they consume soccer. It also measures the avidity and engagement levels of each persona, examines where the personas overlap, and explores the role sports betting plays in US soccer fandom.
- US-based soccer fans are different from fans in the rest of the world
- US football fans are new and complex, so you cannot copy/paste your approach
- Sports businesses need to authentically address US fans
- Beyond just “soccer fans,” there are five critical fan personas in the US market: The National Team Fan, The Player, The Pop Culture Fan, The Parent, The Gamer
US soccer fan persona – The National Team Fan
Supporting their National Team in international competition is the root of fandom for the National Team Fan. Second, only to the Pop Culture Fan in engagement and avidity (possibly due to the cyclical and less frequent nature of international competition), the National Team Fan is also likely to make their soccer fandom a stronger part of their identity and spend time and money following and supporting their favourite teams. While this fan lives in the US, they are not necessarily a fan of the US national teams. International competition can bring out the strong international identities and affinities of fans with family origins in other countries.
US soccer fan persona – The Player
The Player became a soccer fan at a young age through participation in youth soccer. Their affinity for the game started by playing–and has not necessarily translated into other forms of fandom. These fans expressed less engagement or avidity than other fan personas and are less likely to spend on soccer–related merchandise, attend games in person, or pay to watch soccer games on streaming platforms.
US soccer fan persona – The Pop Culture Fan
The Pop Culture Fan is the most avid and engaged of the fan personas. While the origin of their fandom is a little more varied–from getting hooked by watching a TV show to growing into fandom through friends or family members–soccer is a constant presence in their lives. Pop Culture Fans are more likely than other fans to buy merchandise, attend live matches, and subscribe to streaming services, taking advantage of multiple opportunities to express and engage with their fandom.
US soccer fan persona – The Parent
Unlike other fan groups, where fandom might begin earlier in life, Parent fans become fans as adults when introduced to the game through their kids. Closely connected to the Player fans, they will likely have an additional emotional attachment to the sport, as it represents a shared experience with their kids. The Parent fan persona was the least likely to spend time and money on items associated with fandom (i.e., tickets, merchandise, streaming services), suggesting that competing life priorities—including fandom of other sports—may put a limit on their ability or desire to express their fandom more consistently.
US soccer fan persona – The Gamer
Gamer fans have a broader, more global fandom of soccer. This is evidenced by being the only persona that was more likely to be fans of a non-US-based league (English Premier League). These fans also have the strongest overlap with the National Team Fan persona, suggesting that their fandom might reside at a larger, more macro level (i.e., biggest leagues, biggest teams, biggest tournaments, etc.). Gamers may have less connection to a local team or player due to the digital and global origin of their fandom.
The opportunity in women’s football
Unlike anywhere else in the world, the investment and appetite for women’s soccer are profoundly validated by the United States market, making the case for ongoing investment and brand participation in women’s soccer.
Girls‘ soccer has grown perhaps more than any other women‘s sport. The NCAA claims that women‘s soccer is the women‘s sports program that has seen the most growth in US higher education, having increased 1,409% between 1982 (when the NCAA held its first women‘s soccer championship) and 2020-21.
- The women’s game in the US is a big opportunity space for the sports industry
- A major legacy of Title IX is women’s soccer participation
- That legacy has led to success on the international stage for US women
- The professional game is growing in the US rapidly
- The history of women’s soccer in the US is proof that investment works
Opportunities for brands to engage US football fans
- The beautiful gain. Get your share of a market that is about to explode. The tremendous growth of MLS, the sustained success of women’s soccer, and the demand for top international competition translate to a US market with massive potential. All the presented intelligence will help businesses succeed in the buildup to the 2026 World Cup™ and beyond
- It’s more than the game. Make use of the whole ecosystem of entry points the unique US personas offer (game, merch, stars, styles, events, media outlets, betting, fantasy, esports)
- Women’s soccer is a force. Invest in women (clubs, players, fans) as an accelerator for overall soccer fandom.
- Blueprint of future soccer. Trailblaze the future of the sport through the unparalleled US sports and entertainment DNA.
- A community affair. Leverage the inclusive fan and stadium experience by using soccer as a positive space for brands.
- Foster multinational (soccer) pride. Celebrate the diversity of soccer in the US by paying attention to different nations with different soccer cultures and characters. Emphasize the rich heritage and achievements of the sport inclusively.
Need help to engage US football fans?
If you’re looking for advice from sports sponsorship agencies, Strive Sponsorship can help. Contact us for sponsorship, commercial, content, media, operations, investment, and communications consultancy services.
Frequently asked questions
Is soccer gaining popularity in the USA?
Soccer is gaining popularity in the USA. The sport has seen steady growth in recent years, with increasing participation rates, higher TV viewership for domestic and international games, and growing interest among younger generations. The addition of expansion teams to the MLS is a testament to this. The co-hosting of the 2026 FIFA World Cup is likely to be a further catalyst to growth.
Where are the soccer fans in the USA?
Soccer fans in the USA can be found nationwide, but the sport has particularly passionate followings in cities with MLS teams, large immigrant communities, and strong youth soccer programs.
Where in the US is soccer most popular?
Soccer is most popular in metropolitan areas with diverse populations and a strong soccer culture, such as Los Angeles, New York City, and Miami.