Every four years after the Olympics we hear stories about how soccer can grow in the United States. The discussion lasts a few days, and then our sports culture returns to normal with the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL (in that order) taking up the free time we have to dedicate to sports.
All that might be changing if you look closely at attendance and television ratings of Major League Soccer. According to Fox News Latino, “In 2010, MLS average attendance was 16,675 spectators per game, a 4 percent increase over 2009. The NHL drew an average of 17,072 fans per game last season, a 3 percent drop from the year prior.” The MLS franchise in Seattle, the Sounders, draws an astounding 37,264 per game. If you do a quick analysis of the average per game attendance for MLS versus the NBA and NHL, there is very little difference. One caveat is that MLS plays less than half the games (30 total) of either of those sports. Regardless, the numbers are still impressive.
Television ratings are also very solid. The league’s televised 2011 opener between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Sounders on ESPN was up 129 percent in ratings and 112 percent in viewership, drawing 604,000 English-language viewers. The game’s Spanish-language broadcast on ESPN Deportes drew another 79,000 viewers, an increase of 84 percent from a year ago.
Although soccer is largely ignored by the mainstream media, the internet and technology allows fans to follow the sport. No longer are you relying on talk radio and the nightly news. A simple Google search will allow you to catch up on information about the league on sites like ESPN.com, but also blogs created by passionate individuals. This is exactly the type of behavior that will help the sport grow and become more part of the conversation. The internet can be the tool that soccer lacked in prior attempts to break into the US market.
Can soccer ensconce itself in-between the NBA and NHL for our attention? It appears it’s finally making a serious run. With the labor unrest of the NBA you could argue that it has a real shot to move to #3 in popularity.
The key will be how the product evolves with this momentum. The NHL was considered “hot” and some people thought could challenge MLB after the 1994 strike. That was short lived as they had labor unrest of their own and quickly fell back to the fourth tier sport they have always occupied. MLS doesn’t have labor issues, but they need to continue to produce a quality product on the field, market it effectively to their niche audience, and manage the temptation to over-expand. The last thing they need are teams in markets that can’t support it. Those empty stadiums and bankrupt owners will smear a brand that is very delicate. The mainstream media will certainly pick up that story.
Soccer clearly has a niche in this country. Can the MLS use this momentum to grow the sport and put it in the conversation daily? Only time will tell, but the early returns are positive.