American football’s injury crisis will be its undoing—which is great news for soccer

The hits keep coming.
The hits keep coming.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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This Sunday, Feb. 7 millions of people around the world watched America’s biggest game night: the Super Bowl. But even though the Denver Broncos came away technically victorious last night, the bright lights of San Francisco’s Levi’s Stadium could not hide the fact that one brand of football is on the rise while another may soon be in decline.

Simply put, the National Football League is on the edge of a crisis. There are increasing concerns about head injuries, with more and more NFL players becoming sidelined with concussions after earthquake-shaking hits. In one very illuminating example from last year, rising San Francisco 49ers star Chris Borland called it quits at the age of 25, convinced he would suffer longterm damage if he continued to play. ESPN dubbed Borland “the most dangerous man in football”—and they have a point.

In the Hollywood movie Concussion, Will Smith plays doctor Bennet Omalu, the first expert to connect football with catastrophic brain trauma. Omalu discovered CTE (chronic encephalopathy) during the autopsy of a former professional player, and has spent the past decade attempting to warn the public—and the NFL—about the dangers of CTE. “I think 90% of players who play to the professional level have some degree of the disease,” Omalu told Time Magazine in December of 2015.

That’s a scary number. And the fear over brain injuries may be slowly lowering participation in football, even as overall participation in high school sports has risen. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations. 1.08 million American teens played football in high schools in 2014-5, down from 1.13 million in 2008-9.

In 2014, Bloomberg revealed that 50% of parents questioned in a survey said they wouldn’t let their kids play football. And even the players who have made fortunes from the lucrative game aren’t exactly excited about the prospect of having a football-playing kin. Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson told TMZ that his young son “won’t be playing football,” a sentiment echoed publicly by former New York Jets star Bart Scott.

Clearly, more and more parents are hesitating when little Jimmy asks to join the local pee wee football team. At the same time, however, hints of an American football decline—at least among young players—are dovetailing with growth elsewhere. In particular, participation in soccer across the US has grown 8% over the last five years. In 2014, over 3 million boys and girls were registered as part of the US Youth Soccer League, the largest member of the United States Soccer Federation.

At least some of this growth is due to the influx of Latino Americans, who treat soccer as their religion—particularly in Central and South America. According to Pew Research, America’s Hispanic population reached 55.4 million in 2014, a new high. That’s a lot of demand.

There’s also the issue of cost. In a country that is still recovering from one of the worst recessions in its history, football fees are no small issue. In Dallas, for example, high school football cost schools an average of $229,376 in 2011. A soccer team can be put together for a fraction of that cost. It’s also cheaper for parents—at the lowest level, the average soccer player’s kit (shoes, shin pads and a jersey) is likely cheaper than almost any sporting equipment.

Moving into the college level, there are 994 men’s and 1,183 women’s college soccer programs, with intercollegiate women’s soccer seeing particularly strong growth, in part due to the success of Title IX. According to analysis from FiveThirtyEight, soccer could become the top sport for high school women within the next decade. Victories at the Olympics and this summer’s World Cup for the US women’s team have boosted both the prestige and professional opportunities associated with soccer, enticing some top-tier female athletes to look at the game as a career rather than a hobby.

Meanwhile, driven by affordable seating, the influx of foreign stars playing for Major League Soccer teams, and a thirst for recreating the atmosphere of the FIFA World Cups, America’s male professional teams are likewise starting to flourish. According to Major League Soccer figures, 2015 was a banner year for attendance, with crowd size increasing 12.7% from 2014. The number of sell-outs also rose 21% to 161. And although the average attendance in the NFL is still much higher (around 47,000 more people per game), those numbers fell in 2015—the second straight year of downturns.

Oh, and the revolution’s getting televised, too. People still talk about the 2014 men’s World Cup, when 26.5 million people in the US (ABC and Univision combined) tuned in to watch a final the US was not even playing in. Meanwhile, 25.4 million Americans watched the US women’s team’s dominating 5-2 victory over Japan in the final of the women’s World Cup in 2015.

And it’s not just World Cup soccer. The English Premier League—now shown on NBC and NBC Sports—reported a ratings jump of 23% in the first 11 weeks of the season compared to last year. There is still plenty of work to be done attracting armchair viewers to domestic soccer. But the MLS has seen a 40% jump year-on-year, thanks to Fox Sports 1’s excellent efforts. Where once Americans were only willing (or able) to watch  soccer a few times a year, the sport is slowly becoming a more ubiquitous presence in homes and sports bars.

So participation is growing, and viewership too. The biggest question now is will soccer be able to win the hearts of American football fans? It’s going to be a struggle.

As much as American soccer enthusiasts want the sport to take the place of “America’s Game,” it’s clear the NFL won’t be going down without a fight. For one thing, while viewership has declined slightly over the past few years, the league’s TV audiences remain stratospheric (114 million Americans watched last year’s Super Bowl), fuelled by fans as well as fantasy gambling apps like FanDuel and DraftKings. These kinds of numbers generate massive profits for team owners. At the same time, the NFL is attempting to expand in the global market, including bastions of soccer fanaticism like England, Germany and Mexico. It’s an ambitious gamble, and a reminder of the impressive resources the NFL has consolidated over the course of its relatively short history.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be beaten. American football has long considered itself somewhat invincible, even as modern science continues to prove its very human stars are anything but. If injuries continue to take center field, the next generation of American athletes—and more importantly their parents—will be forced to weigh health risks against tradition. It’s one thing when you’re watching a stranger get knocked out on live television, but it’s quite another when that athlete is your child.