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The real reason soccer will soon be on par with the NBA and the NHL

Vancouver Whitecaps v Los Angeles Galaxy

CARSON, CA - JUNE 23: Landon Donovan #19 of the Los Angeles Galaxy gestures toward a Galaxy cheering section after the game with the Vancouver Whitecaps at The Home Depot Center on June 23, 2012 in Carson, California. The Galaxy won 3-0. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

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ESPN’s Roger Bennett examines the growing popularity of soccer in the United States and finds a serious advocate for the sport.

The takeaway: “Rich Luker, a 59-year-old baseball-loving social scientist based in North Carolina, is the brains behind the ESPN Sports Poll, the complex database that recently pronounced soccer as America’s second-most popular sport for those age 12-24, outstripping the NBA, MLB and college football.”

There are a lot of stats to back up the claim, but here’s the most convincing argument: “We are talking generational change. A generation of kids have now grown up as having MLS as part of their reality.”

Think about that for a second. It’s HUGE that kids can a) go to MLS games, b) watch MLS games (and European games) on television, and c) (most importantly) see men being paid to play soccer.

If you’re a 12-year-old kid, you don’t care that the average MLS player makes little when compared with the average NBA star; you care that they are getting paid. The details don’t matter; the reality of the possibility of becoming a professional athlete does.

The lament about soccer is always that the youth levels are hugely popular, but then kids choose other sports. The reason for that, at least in part, is that 15 years ago, it was much, much harder for a teenager to picture himself as a professional soccer player. (Raises hand.) Now, however, that barrier is being removed, meaning fewer kids will quit.

Luker again: “The game was massive up to the age of 13, when sport was all about bonding with male peers, but in middle school, it became all about cross-bonding with other genders and high school football shot right to the top. You simply can’t beat the social lubrication of the homecoming football game.”

And, no, you can’t. But you can equal it. And for a massive percentage of the population, it’s a heck of a lot easier to picture being a professional soccer player than an NBA star.