By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - After winning the right to co-host the 2026 World Cup, U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro hailed the victory on Wednesday as a "lightning rod" that will inspire more American children to take up the sport.
"We believe that soccer ... will become the preeminent sport in North America and I am not just speaking for the U.S.," Cordeiro told a conference call after FIFA's Congress voted for the United States, Canada and Mexico's joint bid over Morocco.
But while soccer's popularity in the United States can expect a boost, it was unlikely to dominate anytime soon, sports experts said.
Soccer has enjoyed a surge in popularity since the United States hosted the sport's biggest competition in 1994 but it has a long way to go before it surpasses American football, baseball and basketball.
"We probably aren't going to get the large increases in youth soccer participation that we did after 1994," said Victor Matheson, a specialist in sports economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. He said, however, that he expects 2026 to "help continue soccer on its really positive trajectory here."
Two years after the 1994 tournament, Major League Soccer began with 10 teams and has grown to 23 teams, 20 in the United States and three in Canada. Youth soccer got a bump as participation rates rose to 2.4 million in 1995 from 1.6 million in 1990. Today, that number stands at 4 million.
The United States and Canada did not qualify for this year's World Cup, which began on Thursday in Russia. Mexico did and will play its opener against holders Germany on Sunday.
The three hosts were all expected to qualify automatically for the 2026 tournament as has been the tradition for host nations.
"There is likely to be a small positive impulse from it in terms of soccer's popularity but it's not going to be a sea change," said Andrew Zimbalist, economics professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
The last time the United States staged the World Cup, critics said it would be a failure given perceived lack of interest in the game, with many saying the best players would be virtual unknowns to the American audience.
The tournament, however, proved critics wrong as it went on to set still-standing World Cup records for total attendance (3,587,538) and average attendance per game (68,991).
Companies may be clamouring for sponsorship by 2026, especially since FIFA's World Cup bidding processes were tainted with a corruption scandal in giving the 2018 tournament to Russia and 2022 to Qatar, sports experts said.
"It's always hard to forecast eight years out," said George Belch, a marketing professor at San Diego State University.
"But by the time we get to the 2026 World Cup I think the big companies and the big sponsors in the U.S., and perhaps internationally, are going to welcome the opportunity for a somewhat controversy-free World Cup."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; editing by Grant McCool)