When Giannis Antetokounmpo won his NBA championship, his multiple countries of origin (Greece and Nigeria) celebrated along with him. And the Greek Freak’s achievements in basketball no doubt seeded more dreams of kids to be the next Giannis, driving interest and participation in the sport at all levels. Likewise when kids in China saw Yao Ming become perhaps the most recognizable athlete in the world. A sport rose even as those athletes left to join more elite leagues abroad.
This is part of the soccer story in the US. The best soccer leagues in the world are now more accessible than ever in a number of ways for Americans, and the status of soccer in this country is ripe for continued growth. We can watch every game, we can see Americans succeeding at the highest levels of the sport, and we can see US sports culture wrap its arms around the globe’s most popular sport. Because even if Major League Soccer (MLS) isn’t about to match the NFL or NBA in viewership and popularity in the near future, the growth of soccer isn’t solely tied to our mid-tier (though ascending) domestic league.
“It’s not necessarily about what’s happening here, but the interest [level],” explained Cody Sharrett, Social Media Manager for US Soccer, referring to the growing interest of Americans’ in the top European soccer leagues. “I think about being in high school, the access to professional soccer was so limited…The access to watching soccer has changed so much just in the last 10 to 15 years.”
And there’s nothing quite like an international tournament to introduce and endear the best soccer plays the United States has produced to burgeoning and existing US soccer fans. Even if many ply their trade thousands of miles away, fans can still fall in love with them and the sport they play. Son Heung-min may only be visible to South Korean fans through telecast or screen, but there is little doubt the Tottenham star is among the most famous individuals in the country. Part of the goal coming into and out of the 2022 World Cup for Sharrett and US Soccer is to likewise elevate American soccer stars into transcendent household names, no matter which league for which they compete in club soccer.
“We break [fans] down into avids, casuals, and emerging fan bases,” explained Sharrett, who is with the US Men’s National Team in Qatar for the World Cup, managing the social channels. “The avids are gonna care no matter what. Our goal for this upcoming World Cup is to make the casuals and the emerging fan base know who Matt Turner is, know who Weston McKennie is; even Christian Pulisic playing at one of the biggest clubs in the world and you see him on TV all the time right now in the VW commercial — making his face just as recognizable as a LeBron James or a Patrick Mahomes or a Serena Williams.
“I think that that plays into our goal of making soccer the most preeminent sport in America. It’s like, yeah, Messi and Ronaldo are popular here, but we want an American player to be just as recognizable in our own country as those two…”
Sharrett noted that some of the country’s most famous athletes are already soccer players — primarily from the women’s team. The next challenge he said, about which Sharrett is hopeful, is to ensure the string of Mia Hamm to Abby Wambach to Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe continues on for the ensuing generations. Of course, it helps that the USWNT has been so successful in international competition this century and that women’s club soccer worldwide has really only grown in prominence in the past decade, giving the US’s domestic league a fighting chance. A fan of Alex Morgan can latch onto the San Diego Wave FC of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) or a Rapinoe supporter can watch her play for the OL Reign. The best men’s players, right now, play overseas. So US Soccer can’t necessarily be concerned with creating more MLS fans — if American fans watching the World Cup decide to check out more Lille games to see Timothy Weah or watch Leeds United matches to see more of Brendan Aaronson — they’re consuming more soccer and soccer is consuming more of them.
The nature of fandom is also necessarily different in this framing, too, because it often isn’t backed by local identity and culture. Sharrett sought to sum all this up, bringing together the ideas of US Soccer representing a sport and the country’s best athletes and driving fans to be fans of it, wherever that takes them.
“I think if you can entice somebody to become a Weston McKennie fan, then they’re gonna end up supporting Juventus, and then they’re gonna support the national team as well,” said Sharrett, who also spent time with teams in the NBA (Trail Blazers and Timberwolves), WNBA (Lynx), and MLS (Crew). “I think they go hand in hand. But as you talked about, we are a national team.
“I was talking with somebody about this the other day, and I kind of miss the locality of it all. Like being in Portland, being in Minnesota, you could rely on some regional flavors and nuances, and we don’t necessarily have that on the national team level because we are a huge country, and the cultural diversity of the regions of the country and backgrounds of the country — not to be cliche, but it is a melting pot…”
The national nature — literally posting on behalf of an entire nation — presents many challenges, as Sharrett alluded to above. You can’t rely on local identity, you have to try to meld this incredibly diverse nation of ours. Beyond that, too, Sharrett pointed out another unique consideration when it comes to US Soccer’s social strategy during the World Cup. Shockingly (or perhaps not, depending on your frame of reference), you can cross match highlights and footage off the list of content. It’s not easy to accomplish all of the objectives we’ve discussed in this article given the constraints. But Sharrett and his team focus on what they can give fans, and how powerful that can be to propel the endearment of these elite players to potential and existing soccer fans in the States.
“We’re gonna have access to the team that none of those other outlets have, so that’s a huge responsibility is showing that behind the scenes,” he explained. “One of our themes is brotherhood on the team and that’s always showing that it’s a young group of hungry players that are near the same age group, and they all just kind of vibe together. It’s showing that it’s a family.”
This is how it all comes together. How fans get emotionally invested in all of it — the players, the team, the sport. The sport is the north star for US Soccer, the remit for everybody in the organization. Sharrett talked about the vast room for growth soccer still has, potential growth that really no other sport can match because others have largely reached maturity. There are more soccer fans in the country than ever before, yet the ceiling is far higher.
Sharrett told me: “You’ll see it in every job posting that we have — our goal and our role is to grow the sport and to make soccer the most preeminent sport in America.”