Is it odd that soccer in the United States was once considered a women’s sport? This is not just stereotypical — the popularity of soccer, known as football internationally, rose stateside with the victories of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team in the FIFA World Cup in the 1990s. In both 1999 and 2003, the U.S. hosted the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Since then, the popularity of the sport has continued to sprout, finally cementing itself in the core of American sports culture.
This marks a change in tradition; The great American pastime has always been baseball. Introduced to Japan in the late 19th century, baseball, like basketball, has spread across Europe and throughout East Asia. The National Hockey League employs many international players. Even as the most popular sport in the U.S., American football has been slow to diffuse overseas.
In 1993, Major League Soccer was founded as part of an agreement to host the 1994 Men’s FIFA World Cup in the U.S. It was the first time the team had participated in the tournament since 1950. Although they have never claimed a title, their qualification helped fuel the sport’s rising popularity. Domestic broadcasts of the English Premier League followed in the early 2000s, paving the way for expanded coverage of Mexican and Spanish leagues. In 2002, the men’s team made the FIFA quarterfinals, their highest placement since 1930. Subsequently, the floundering Major League Soccer’s popularity resurged, developing legitimacy after a decade of unprofitability due to its niche market position. Although the men’s team did not qualify for the World Cup this year, the sport’s rising popularity will not wane. Rather, its popularity has paved the way for its European cousin, rugby, to be introduced here from its hub overseas.
Developed in England, rugby today is played worldwide. However, it has only recently begun to creep into American athletic consciousness. Having a reputation as a collegiate sport played in the Ivy Leagues, the rise of rugby in the U.S. was stifled by the rapid growth and popularity of American football, a game that evolved from it. Although the USA Rugby Union was founded in 1975, it took almost 40 years for the sport’s popularity to grow domestically. The U.S. won two Olympic rugby championships in the 1920s, but the sport was thereafter removed from the Olympics. The revival of rugby for the 2016 Summer Olympics came hand-in-hand with its rise in the U.S. As the decade of soccer’s rising popularity came to an end, rugby remained close behind. Attendance at professional games more than doubled in the past decade, and USA Rugby has since joined the Olympic Committee. This decision led to NBC broadcasting rugby on television at both the collegiate and professional level. As viewership rose, the English Premiership and related European tournaments were resultantly broadcasted.
The introduction of two popular foreign sports into American discourse may come as a surprise, but the bigger surprise is the omittance of one in particular that has enjoyed international crowds since its origin centuries ago: Cricket. Developed in the Middle Ages, cricket has since spread from England to the majority of nations once governed by its empire, including Australia, Bangladesh, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Baseball has dwarfed the popularity of cricket in the U.S. much like rugby had been by American football.
The exclusion of the U.S. from international cricket may have been because of its popularity within the British Empire, of which the U.S. was no longer a part. Administrative developments like the suspension of the U.S. governing body from the International Cricket Council have contributed to its slow growth domestically. Even as bureaucratic blockades prevent its growth, the rising number of immigrants to the U.S. has contributed to the sport’s growing popularity.
Cricket is the second most popular sport in the world behind soccer. Behind the FIFA and Rugby World Cups, the Cricket World Cup is the third most watched sporting event in the world. Cricket may not have been introduced to U.S. markets earlier because executives have been waiting for the prime time to sign away the broadcasting rights. Although pay-per-view and package deals have been the main ways for Americans to watch, this pattern has begun to shift overseas as international media can no longer profitably broadcast the sport. Consequently, now is the time to finalize these contracts. Recently, CBS has been approached by an Australian delegation for exactly this purpose. Cricket, like rugby, may initially latch on as a collegiate sport. Furthermore, it has been called America’s fastest-growing sport. The U.S. hosted the Cricket All-Stars in 2015, who toured throughout the country. Then, a licensing agreement made between Global Sports Ventures LLC and the United States of America Cricket Association is expected to bring a franchised Twenty20 professional league to the U.S., effectively bringing the professional sport home. As viewership increases and Americans become more involved, the popularity of cricket will continue to grow until it becomes a staple in American athletics.