Data Viz Final Project – Bryce Kerr

Is Major League Soccer approaching the popularity of the other major sports?

Soccer is the most popular sport worldwide but has never gained the same support in the United States. In the U.S the “Big Four” professional sports: Football, Baseball, Basketball and Hockey rule. The NFL is by far the most popular sport, followed by the MLB and then the NBA and NHL. Over the past few years there have been discussions about soccer gaining popularity in the U.S. I believe that soccer is expanding in the United States, but I want to see if it is closing in on any of the other sports.

There is a professional soccer league in the states (MLS), but there are leagues overseas, specifically in Germany, England and Spain, that have a large following from soccer fans in America. The English Premier League and the German Bundesliga are probably the two best soccer leagues in the world. Soccer is the only sport of the five that I mentioned where the best league is not in the United States. The NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL are all the cream of the crop. The MLS unfortunately has to compete not only with other professional sports for viewers and fans but also with foreign soccer leagues. No other professional sport faces the same problem that soccer faces in the U.S., which partially explains why the MLS hasn’t taken off the way that the other leagues have. Despite all of this, the MLS is growing each year.


The MLS was founded in 1996 and consisted of 10 original teams. The league has been around for only 20 years but has seen great expansion in that time. There are now 20 teams in the MLS and the league plans to expand to 24 teams by 2020. Atlanta and Minnesota are in line for the next two teams coming in 2017. In addition the league wants to add another LA team and bring the MLS back to Miami.

Major League Soccer is still very young compared to the other four leagues. The MLS and its 20-year history are peanuts in comparison to the NFL founded in 1920, MLB in 1903, NBA in 1946 and NHL in 1917. Without the history it is more challenging to attract fans. Many people are fans because their parents were fans. Since the MLS has only been around for 20 years, there are less people that are born MLS fans compared to the other major sports. In general the youth of the league puts it at a disadvantage.

TV deals are major sources of revenue for professional sports leagues

The other sports have had major television deals in place for years. The “Big Four” have proved in the past that they can attract viewers, so networks feel more secure investing more money in those sports. In fact each sport has its own network in the United States: NFL Network, NBA TV, NHL Network and MLB Network. The NFL has the largest U.S. TV contracts, earning more than $6 billion annually. The NHL has a TV deal in the U.S. for $200 million each year. Another step in the right direction for the MLS, they struck a deal in 2014 that will earn the league $90 million per year for 8 years.

U.S. Professional Sports Leagues by Revenue
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The MLS trails the other four leagues in TV viewership as well, partially due to the smaller number of MLS games televised compared to the other leagues. Though the biggest game in each sport was televised nationally in 2014. The Super Bowl attracted more than 100 million viewers. The NBA Finals and the World Series both brought in more than 13 million viewers. And the NHL Stanley Cup drew about 5 million viewers. The MLS Cup was the highest-rated game of the year, earning 1.6 million viewers. The MLS didn’t draw nearly as many viewers as the other major sports, but 1.6 million viewers were the highest since 1997. The MLS is growing not only in terms of TV viewership but also in tickets sold.

The Seattle Sounders averaged over 44,000 fans per game last year. Seattle was easily the best MLS team in terms of attendance. The Minnesota Vikings had the worst attendance rate in the NFL last year, but they still managed over 52,000 fans per game. While the Sounders attendance rate was less than every NFL team, it was better than every NBA and NHL team, and every MLB team not named the Dodgers. The Los Angeles Dodgers brought in on average over 46,000 fans each game.

The two newest teams in the MLS, Orlando City SC and New York City FC, had the 2nd and 3rd best attendance rates, respectively. Orlando City SC finished the year with an average attendance rate of just less than 33,000 fans per game. That number is less than 10 MLB teams but is still better than all NBA or NHL teams. NYC FC raked in almost exactly 29,000 fans per game in its first season. That number would be 20th among MLB teams. The Chicago Blackhawks lead the NHL in attendance rate last year at 21,816 fans per game. As for the NBA the Chicago Bulls lead the league, bringing in 21,811 fans on average per game. Only five MLS teams averaged more than the two Chicago franchises.

2014-15 Average Game Attendance for 5 Major U.S. Pro Sports Leagues
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One must take into account the different schedule lengths for each sport. In each NFL season there are 16 regular season games. That leaves each team with only 8 home games to sell tickets to. The lack of games becomes added incentive for fans to attend. There are 162 games in the MLB season, giving each team 81 games at home. That makes it hard for teams to get fans to the stadium every day. It is much easier to sellout 8 games over the course of 17 weeks than to sellout 81 games over a 6-month period. So average attendance for NFL games is much higher, but total attendance numbers will be a lot higher for baseball due to the volume of games.

The same thinking applies to professional soccer. The MLS currently plays a 34-game season compared to 82-game seasons for the NBA and NHL. So one would expect that the MLS average attendance numbers would be higher than the numbers for the NBA and NHL. And the graph above shows that this was the case last year. It also shows the low total attendance for the MLS. The graph doesn’t show that 2015 was the best year in terms of total attendance in MLS history. So attendance numbers might still be lower than ideal, but they are also on the rise.


There are a few logical contributing factors for the 12.7% boost in attendance from 2014 to 2015. One is that more fans came out to see Orlando City SC and New York City FC play this year because both teams were brand new to the league. Both teams missed the postseason, yet managed to post higher attendance numbers than every other team except the Sounders. Folding Chivas USA before the start of last season also gave the MLS a bump. In 2013 and 2014 Chivas USA had the lowest attendance numbers (less than 9,000 per game) in the MLS by far, so just removing them from the equation gives the league a boost. In addition 2015 was the first season the San Jose Earthquakes played in their new stadium. The Earthquakes experienced a 40.4% spike in attendance from 2014 to 2015, partially because of the new stadium. Despite these factors, it is hard to denounce the growth the MLS is making.

Only 3 of the 18 eligible teams (NYC and Orlando didn’t play in 2014) saw more than a 1% decrease in attendance from 2014 to 2015. Most teams (12 of 18) witnessed an attendance increase. In 2015 the MLS set a new record for sellouts. 161 of the 340 games played were sold out, beating the previous record of 133 sellouts set in 2014. With Chivas USA out of the picture, the Colorado Rapids took over as the team with the lowest attendance rate. However Colorado averaged 15,657 fans per game, which would have been the highest average attendance rate in 9 of the 20 MLS seasons. The MLS has seen an increase in average attendance by 35% since 2009.

Professional soccer in the U.S. is definitely progressing. The MLS is growing each year, but I don’t think it has quite caught up to the “Big Four” yet. The NFL and MLB are definitely still the two top dogs, and it seems for now the NBA is more popular than the NHL. The MLS is closing in on the NHL and the NBA to a lesser extent. Hockey and Basketball have proved to be popular sports, and are still “bigger” than soccer in the United States; however, the MLS is gaining steam. The MLS still has a long way to go to catch the NHL, let alone any of the other three, but sometime soon we might be calling them the “Big Five.”

 

Sources:

ESPN, Sports Business Daily, Forbes.com, Statista, Wikipedia, mlssoccer.com, The Washington Post, Nielsen, Sports Media Watch