There is a modern-day pilgrimage in progress in America — a phenomenon University of Michigan economics professor and co-author of “Soccernomics” Stefan Szymanski refers to with tongue-in-cheek as “colonization.”
The pursuit is not of religious freedom, fertile land or El Dorado, nor is it driven by famine or economic depression in the home country. It is the search for economic opportunity in the form of a coveted resource: the American soccer fan.
In every facet of life, Americans look for the best in the world. Sports are no exception. For competitions they care about the most, the best could always be found on home soil, and American major leagues — with casual explicitness — bestow upon their winners the status of world champion without those teams ever having played a game outside national borders (Canada aside).
The Giant is Awake
Though the rise of soccer’s mainstream popularity in the New World is old news, it has been reaching remarkable heights, and the 2026 World Cup will be providing the next big boost. According to the most recent Gallup poll, soccer is already on a par with basketball today as the second most popular sport to watch among the much-coveted 18-34 year-old demographic and even ahead of basketball among Gen Z.
This has brought about a phenomenon in this country. While Major League Soccer (MLS) has come a long way, the fans’ appetite for Michelin-starred soccer cuisine can still only be satisfied with foreign dishes. What started out as a bunch of exotic folks congregating in Irish pubs to watch the English Premier League (EPL) on weekend mornings has since reached critical mass. Changing demographics, an influx of streaming channels and abundant editorial coverage of international leagues —coupled with a vacuum created by aging giants MLB and NFL — have accelerated the evolution. And European clubs and leagues are gearing up to capitalize on it.
Over the last few years, FC Bayern Munich, FC Barcelona and LaLiga, to name just a few, have set up offices in the U.S. Nearly all top European leagues and clubs sent representatives to New York for this year’s Leaders Week, the high-profile gathering of decision-makers that mean business in the North American sports market. Additionally, 14 of Deloitte’s Top 20 Football Money League clubs are participating in this summer’s International Champions Cup (ICC), the pre-season showcase of Europe’s best.
Expectations are high, global fandom boardroom talk is buzzing and clubs have been zeroing in on the U.S. and China as key targets. While China’s market holds immeasurable potential — not only since President Xi Jinping declared it a political agenda — soccer is still in its infancy stages, and the marketplace is a landscape even harder to navigate than anticipated.
That said, penetrating the American Promised Land is no easy trek, either, and it has been tried before. Early explorers set out decades ago with hopes of quick returns on new talent and followers among a vast nation of athletes and sports fanatics with disposable income. Clubs like Bayer Leverkusen and Ajax Amsterdam started sending scouts to the East Coast back in the 80s and 90s. Manchester United entered into a joint marketing agreement with the New York Yankees in 2001 to cross-pollinate jersey sales. FC Barcelona already opened a U.S. office back in 2006. However, most of these ventures ended in disappointment.
The New Soccer Landscape
Fast forward to 2018, the American soccer fan base and culture have matured. There are roughly 3 million registered youth soccer players in the U.S. The MLS, meanwhile, generates the same amount of interest domestically as the EPL, and U.S. fans are the second largest group of ticket holders — after Russians — for this year’s World Cup, even though their national team isn’t competing.
Whatever the outcome of the promotion/relegation debate and the pace or absence of player development reforms, the growth of grassroots soccer, cultural heritage and the mainstream’s understanding of the game will continue at a fast rate. This will be fueled by the rise of the 2026 World Cup “North Star” and substantial new funds made available for growing the sport’s infrastructure – money less so needed for investment in event infrastructure unlike preceding World Cup editions.
European clubs (and not to forget many of its U.S. investors from the Glazer family to Stan Kroenke) are more determined than ever to market their duty-free products stateside, engage with existing and new fans and create a “European Dream” for American youngsters aspiring to play professional football overseas.
One issue for many clubs, though, is that Americans like to climb on the bandwagon. Choosing sub-elite teams on “FIFA” (the EA Sports video game, not the governing body) jeopardizes bragging rights the same way as one’s allegiance by show of jersey. To better their odds of aligning with the best, 52% of both casual and avid fans have no shame in selecting multiple favorite teams across all leagues of interest — most commonly and conveniently those subscribed to winning titles. How many times have you spotted a Leicester City (ranked as high as 14th in the Money League) jersey paraded in urban America?
The U.S. soccer market is convoluted but developed, fans are well educated and the competitive landscape is complex. In April 2018 alone, 260 soccer matches were broadcast on U.S. television, featuring 187 different teams. The U.S. audience has nearly unlimited options at its disposal across not only MLS and Europe, but also Mexico (in fact, Liga MX has the highest average TV viewership in the U.S. across all professional soccer leagues) and South America. Unless they’re seated at the very top of the soccer pyramid or employ an American wunderkind named Christian, European clubs can’t rely on on-field results to grow their following, but rather need to develop a game plan.
Club rights holders not only have to redefine themselves both as media entities delivering direct-to-consumer content, but also as brands with refined and innovative marketing strategies. Most soccer clubs in Europe have the luxury of a century-long heritage and generational affinity where vying for new consumers has been neither a concern nor an opportunity. Marketing to a foreign emerging audience is uncharted territory for many.
Just like any other business’ export plan, a property’s go-to-market approach requires a well-defined segmentation, targeting and positioning strategy. “Kick-and-rush” is outdated, both on and off the field. What is the key differentiator to make soccer followers engage with a club and develop affinity? For black-and-yellow Borussia Dortmund with its traditional working-class following, Pittsburgh and the Steelers are a smart brand fit for a regional start-small and grow-from-there approach. And it’s no coincidence that Dortmund will play one of its ICC matches this July in its newly adopted “sister city” at Heinz Field. Juventus F.C. went all-in on an ambitious rebranding and lifestyle diversification approach to lay the foundation for its global brand vision. Others invest in grassroots and try to develop club affiliation in the U.S. from a young age up through academies or other player development initiatives.
Knowing your brand and what can make it unique outside the comfortable confines of home territory is just as important as understanding the new landscape and committing to a long-term vision and investment.
The “Land of Opportunity” is no longer a soccer colony. And without a clear road map, patience and perseverance, New World explorers can easily end up returning home empty-handed.