SALT LAKE CITY – Prior to the US' somewhat premature exit from the tournament, the United States was experiencing World Cup Fever. Maybe you noticed—the signs have been everywhere. They've been on the television, radio and internet, in bars and restaurants, and even on your cell phone.
The US vs. England match was the most watched World Cup opening round match in US history, according to the USA Today, with approximately 10.8 million viewers, or a 6.1 in TV ratings jargon. Among the markets in the US that were caught up in World Cup Fever, Salt Lake City ranks surprisingly high on the list as it came in fifth among US markets for the opening match with a 10.2 rating. So what’s the reason for this?
In part, this interest is tied to Real Salt Lake. According to defender Nat Borchers, “it’s mainly because we are the only game in town when the [Utah] Jazz aren’t playing, and we have a really strong group of fans.”
“Major League Baseball isn’t here, and that’s a major plus for RSL because there is a big chunk of the year where [RSL] are it,” said David James, a local TV sports anchor and RSL broadcaster.
Although soccer in the Salt Lake market, the smallest in MLS, does benefit from the lack of a major alternative in the middle of the summer, there is clearly more to it than that. For instance, the Latino population in the city (21.5 percent, according to American Survey Estimates) probably boosts the level of interest in the sport, especially when it comes to the World Cup.
In addition, Real Salt Lake’s recent success has likely introduced many local neo-soccer fans to the game.
“Everybody loves a winner,” said James. “More people are interested because [RSL] win.”
However, two additional—and significant—reasons are tied to the city’s predominant religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
First, because of the propensity for large families, the demographic in Salt Lake City is a young one and, for whatever reason, soccer seems to attract the youth in this country.
The second reason is the large numbers of return missionaries. These young adults, primarily men, live abroad in foreign countries as young adults for a period of two years, sharing the message of their church. It’s in foreign lands such as Spain, Mexico, England and Brazil that many of these lads catch the spirit, excitement and passion of the Beautiful Game.
Once back, many of these young adults develop into avid fans of the game. Furthermore, the World Cup gives them the chance, in some instances, to reconnect with their adopted second country.
James summed this up well: “The soccer numbers skew higher here because of the number of return missionaries who go somewhere where soccer isn’t a game—it is part of the culture.”
So while it may surprise some that Salt Lake ranked so high among World Cup viewership for the opener, many who are familiar with the culture understand the dynamics at play. But for those that aren’t, all they have to do is look at the obvious signs to realize that World Cup Fever is rampant in this city.
Join the Debate! MLSsoccer.com's "ExtraTime Radio" is LIVE every day during the World Cup, 5-7 pm ET. Call in at 888-MLS-GOAL.