Is soccer really more popular in the U.S. than NASCAR?

As the first day of World Cup competition begins in Brazil, a new study claims that soccer is more popular in the United States than NASCAR.

The sport, according to the advertising intelligence and research firm Exponential (via Adweek.com), dwarfs NASCAR, with 22 times the number of people watching online. As with every poll, of course, the numbers can be misleading and the key words there may be “watching online.” Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and other drivers may have thriving Twitter feeds, but NASCAR users aren’t necessarily as frequent internet users and that can skew numbers. What NASCAR has, senior director of insights Bryan Melmed tells Adweek.com, is “an outsized cultural identity” compared with soccer. The Exponential study was intended to show “hidden marketing opportunities” involving soccer in the U.S.

“In the U.S., soccer is generally perceived as being further down the totem pole in terms of popularity, with NASCAR holding a more favorable position,” Melmed said. “As you dig deeper and look at the actual behavioral and trend data, however, it becomes clear that soccer’s fan footprint domestically is much stronger than believed—and growing.”

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 46 percent of Americans believe the sport will become more popular in the next decade, but there has been little change in the number who consider themselves fans of professional soccer over the past two decades. Some 28 percent identify themselves as fans today, compared with 31 percent on the eve of the 1994 World Cup. From The Post’s story:

Soccer participation has also seen changes in the past 20 years. More than 12.2 million Americans played soccer in 1994, a number that rose to nearly 13.8 million by 2004, according to research from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. But since then, the number of players has slipped to 12.7 million. And while more adults are playing than ever before, the number of young players — among those age 6-12 and 13-17 — have fallen below their 1994 marks.

And a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll indicated that two in three Americans did not intend to follow the tournament, with only seven percent saying they intended to follow it closely.

Whatever the numbers, the audience skews young, which makes it attractive for advertisers like McDonald’s, Samsung, Adidas and Budweiser. The Exponential study found that, among other things, American millennials are 16 percent more interested in soccer than any other age group and that American soccer fans are 4.6 times more likely to have an income that tops $250,000. The audience also is more likely to be progressive and/or liberal.

“As for why liberalism and soccer have any sort of association, it stems from the ‘60s and ‘70s, when soccer’s popularity in the U.S. ballooned as a counter-culture response to football’s traditional all-Americanism,” Melmed said. “[The] counter-culture championed a more global view and soccer was certainly a global sport.”

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.
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