Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Soccer In America: A Big Four Sport In The Public Mind?

Occasionally, there's a debate among fans just how far soccer has come in the United States. It's clearly more popular than ever, and the country now boasts a league that, according to some scouts, is on par with the English Championship (Division 2). Another way to chart the progress of soccer in the U.S. is to  take a look at the numbers provided by Google's terrific and innovative Ngram viewer tool. In case you haven't been following what Google has been up to, the tool calculates how frequently particular phrases or words have occurred in a particular corpus of books (e.g., "British English", "English Fiction", "American English", "French", etc.) over selected years.

So let's take a look at two things: has the growth of soccer been reflected in the lexicon of American English? And how does soccer compare to the other big professional sports in North America on this score?

Below is a graph of trends in how commonly used various terms are in books in American English, defined as books published in the United States. To compare the use of terms related to the big sports, the graph compares the usage of the terms soccer, football, basketball, hockey, and baseball in the written language. And to have a complete historical record, I thought we should start before their emergence as major sports - so first, here's a graph of these terms since 1850. What do we see?

To begin, the graph shows the historical origins of the major sports in America, with football taking off around 1880, and baseball about ten years later. Both sports had started to enter the dictionary in increasing numbers after 1900 and saw considerable growth throughout the first three decades of the 20th century. Basketball wasn't far behind, historically speaking, increasing its popularity in written American English throughout the 1910s and into the 1920s and 30s. By World War II, football was a clear No.1,  baseball No.2, and basketball No.3. Far behind, soccer and hockey brought up the rear at roughly the same level. 

In the aftermath of WWII, something curious happened. The popularity of virtually all major professional sports stagnated in published American English. In fact, throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, there was a decline in football, baseball, and basketball. To get a clearer look at this pattern, here's the graph of the occurrence of the major sports from 1950 onward.

As the graph shows, the relative standing of the major sports did not change until the 1980s, when baseball steadily overtook football from the late 1980s onward. Football caught up and by today, baseball and football are even.

But something else interesting has happened, and this has to do with soccer. While most professional sports increased their popularity as part of the lexicon of American English, soccer's increase has been among the steepest. Since the early 1990s - a time of the World Cup and the launch of Major League Soccer - soccer's popularity has increased considerably. And it has left hockey well behind. This is even more remarkable, given that a number of professional hockey franchises were moved from Canada to the United States (mostly in the South and West) during this time. Yet, hockey is about as popular today as it was in 1980.

So what does language tell us about the pecking order of professional sports in the United States? In written American English, football and baseball share the top spot, and by some distance, are followed by basketball. And soccer is the undisputed No.4. In a country of 300 million - 19 times the population of the Netherlands and 30 times as populous as Portugal - that's not half bad, if you ask me.