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Economic power and sports success

2013 July 29
by Victor Matheson

Yesterday the US Men’s national team wound up a successful Gold Cup, the biannual North American soccer championship, by beating Panama 1-0 in the title match. The US win was an all-time record 11th in row for the Americans who dominated the tournament from start to finish. While the US does not have a particularly strong soccer tradition, winning the title came as no surprise. Since the tournament began in 1991, the US has a 48-6-7 record in the tournament, has won the championship 5 times, and has another 4 second place and 2 third place finishes to its name. There is one simple reason for the Americans’ success: economics.

There is a fairly lengthy scholarly literature on the relationship between sports success and economics. Whether one looks at medal count in the Olympics or FIFA rankings for either men’s or women’s soccer, there is a strong correlation between population, GDP, and GDP per capita and sports success. A large population gives a country a large pool of potential athletes from which to draw, and a high GDP or GDP/person gives the country the resources required to adequately train its athletes.

Thus, it should actually come as no surprise that the US is the dominant soccer-playing country in its region. It has a GDP five times larger than the rest of North America combined and a population that also exceeds the rest of the continent. Aside from the US, only Mexico, a six-time winner of the Gold Cup, is consistently a real challenger for regional supremacy, and again it is all about economics. Excluding the US and Canada, Mexico’s population is larger than the rest of the continent combined and its economy is roughly three times bigger.┬áIndeed, Canada, with the region’s second largest economy and third largest population, is currently the real underachiever.

So, kudos to the Americans for their on-going win streak and latest championship, but let’s keep things in economic perspective. Aside from a nice win against economic and soccer power Germany to begin the streak, the American’s last 10 wins have come against countries with a combined GDP of roughly the same size as Boston’s.

3 Responses
  1. July 29, 2013

    It doesn’t hurt that we’ve also hosted the tournament every year except for two, in which we co-hosted with Mexico.

  2. Duane Rockerbie permalink
    July 30, 2013

    Yes but you would think with all of that economic power, the US team could have designed some nicer shirts. Clearly when it comes to soccer fashion, the US is lagging well behind.

  3. Nick Evans permalink
    August 7, 2013

    GDP can’t be that much of an explanation if the US is actually less successful (5 wins to 6) than Mexico.

    Also, what’s the GDP of Germany’s reserve team?

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