Twenty-four years ago the world’s pre-eminent soccer tournament finally came to the United States. The tournament lives on to this day as one of the most ambitious projects in sports history. While the tournament was initially intended as a means of galvanizing interest in the game in America it did so much more for the world. Nearly quarter of a decade on its impact can be felt both on and off of the pitch both in America and across the world. The question is now: was it a success?
There are two ways to look at the impact of the 1994. The first would be through the lense of economics. The 1994 World Cup is not only FIFA’s most attended World Cup (3.587 million) but at the time it was also at the time its most lucrative hauling in a reported $1.5 billion dollars. In the short-term it helped give Major League Soccer a boost in its first few years and showed media companies like ESPN that investing in soccer programming will pull viewers. It wasn’t long after 1994 that the UEFA Champions League began showing up on American airwaves. It is also a very key cog in the decision for television providers to start carrying Univision and Telemundo for Spanish-speaking viewers who enjoyed Mexican football.
In the long-term football became much globalized in part due to the success of the 1994 World Cup. The technology wasn’t quite like it is today but this was also during a time in which the Soviet Union had fallen apart, capitalism/globalization were coming into play, and satellites were better equipped to handle sending video longer distances. For the first time those in FIFA were likely seeing that football was as big in places like Africa, Asia, the Middle East and North and Central America as it was in Europe and South America. It is no surprise that in the following years that the World Cup would be held in these same continents and that television contracts and sponsorship deals would rise.
But there was also a social impact as well, particularly for the United States. The misconception that folks have about the 1994 World Cup is that the United States only cared about the American side. While there was a certain level of patriotism involved (To be fair: who couldn’t say no to those fantastic jerseys) America was ready to watch quality soccer. That is why twenty years later it still holds the attendance record with 3.587 million. Americans do love their sports, but the world learned something that summer: they also love their soccer.
While the 1994 World Cup might not have been everyone’s favorite World Cup (the heat and humidity, travel, and American colloquialisms probably didn’t help) for those in North America, particularly those of a certain generation, it was the biggest tournament of all time. It was a chance to finally to put names to faces. Kids had heard of through various publications names like Jurgen Klinsmann, Roberto Baggio, Gheorgie Hagi, Romario, Bebeto, Hierro, and of course Diego Maradona. But the 1994 World Cup was their chance to actually see these people either in person or on television.
That experience, watching some of the world’s best live or on television at a reasonable hour, shifted the American soccer culture. Kids now could put faces to names and find the jerseys of their new heroes. Video recordings would be watched, re-watched, and re-watched of various matches and plays from over the course of the tournament (yours truly still has the VHS tape of The Greatest Goals of the 1994 World Cup. Thanks Mom for saving it) mimicking simple plays and patterns in the front yards of their homes. Not everyone would grow up to be professional players (although a fair number cite that tournament as the catalyst that got them involdv
The United States loss to Trinidad and Tobago in October was a real end to a certain of U.S. Soccer. Think about it this way: If the core audience for those who watch soccer is 18-36 then during the 1994 World Cup they were between the ages of a glimmer in their mother’s eye and 13 years old. Streaming did not exist at this point and unless one had parents that would let them stay up until the wee hours of the morning to watch Bundesliga highlights on public television chances are their exposure to top quality soccer was minimal. They had never really known a World Cup where the United States hadn’t qualified. Their first World Cup was one in which America hosted so there was a certain level of expectation that the U.S.A would be involved in the world’s top international competition.
But perhaps instead of being bitter and thinking about how 1994 was the beginning of the Golden Age of Soccer in the United States. It was in many ways (explosion of television coverage, additional resources at the professional and amateur levels, stronger attendance numbers), but in many ways the promise of it went unfulfilled. On the USMNT developed into a consistent side but not a world-class side. Off of the pitch finances were placed on a higher scale of importance over fundamentals. While Major League Soccer is on relatively solid ground the lower divisions in North America are not and players, coaches, officials, and supporters often feel crowded out by the bureaucracy within U.S. Soccer.
The truth of the matter is that World Cup 1994 was never intended to be a ‘cure-all’ for all problems when it comes to the U.S. and the beautiful game. No one tournament can change a sport for a country. But it can provide the spark to light interest in the game and by all measures World Cup 1994 did that for North America. The question is can World Cup 2026 re-ignite that same spark and allow the U.S. and Canada to make that next step in terms of football development.