The Economic Reasons Behind Soccer's Global Popularity

American football will never be as globally popular as soccer (what the the rest of the world calls "football"). The economic drivers behind soccer are so powerful, that there is no chance of it being over-thrown any time soon. What are these drivers I speak of? They are the economics of a child and a ball.

Understanding The Extrinsic Value of Sports

Intrinsic value refers to the inherent features and benefits a product or service has. In other words, whatever changes in the world around it, the value it still and always has. When you ask people why they love a particular sport, they often tell you it is because of the intrinsic value. “I love it for the strategy.” or “I like the action and find it entertaining.” However, economics have taught us that the real reason we enjoy a sport is for the extrinsic value, or what we bring to it.

Here are the extrinsic values which make us love a sport:

  1. Nostalgia - This is a well documented motivation for demand. (See - Evoking the Past: Exploring Nostalgia’s Relevance to Sport Consumption) All other factors I am going to list are really a break-down of this feeling. While sports have some inherent value, as we grow up we root for teams and follow seasons mostly out of a love for fond childhood memories with family, friends, and community.
  2. Repeated Experiences - Part of the reason we form family traditions, and take repeated vacations to the same spots, is that when we have experienced something fun, exciting, and rewarding; we want to experience it again. Sports games help us to reliably create familiar and enjoyable experiences, over and over. 
  3. Relatable Spectating - We get more out of a spectator event if we relate, even in a small way, with those we are watching. That means we will enjoy one sport over another if we have played it and enjoyed the experience. This doesn't mean professionally, even kids playing basketball on a playground have enough experience to relate when they watch a game on TV.
  4. Tribal Unity - Humans are very much a herd-species. We love events when we feel like “one of the group” and experience like-mindedness with others. Sports have always been a safe ubiquitous forum for having common experiences with people we may not have anything in-common with.

So this all adds up to the main reason a person will prefer and enjoy one sport over another: 
IF THEY ENJOYED IT AS A CHILD.

Soccer is the Single Most Accessible Sport in the World

Stop for a minute, and think outside the box of suburbia, salaries, and disposable income. Of all the sports in the world, soccer requires the least investment. The affluence we enjoy here in America (yes, even our lower-middle class), is not enjoyed everywhere. In reality it is the exception. The majority of children around the world are growing up at what we consider the poverty level.

Many sports require lots of equipment, gear, and tailored environments. Golf, of course, being the most extravagant of all. American football requires LOTS of gear for protection. And even if you are resourceful with a basket, you still need a flat reliable surface to practice basketball. But what do you need for a few kids to practice soccer? A ball.

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Yes, you still need a field to play soccer officially. But kids all over the world can make due with just about any surface or land available to them to practice and play soccer. No bats, no baskets, no gloves, no helmets… just a ball. So the reason most of the world loves soccer is that children around the world still have the greatest chance of being exposed to, accessing, and enjoying soccer.

What The NFL Just Doesn't Get

All this being said, the most effective way to grow a market with sports is to make it accessible and fun for children. No amount of clever commercials, big graphics, and huge stadiums are going to really make a difference for any major sport franchise. What our kids play today are what adults watch tomorrow. Because of this, soccer is here to stay for a very long time. And the way the US economy keeps going, it is going to grow in popularity here as well.