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Why Major League Soccer’s Average Attendance Figures Are A Poor Measure Of Its Popularity

The Timbers ArmyA few weeks ago, The Atlantic Wire reminded us that Major League Soccer has the third-highest average attendance among professional sports leagues in America. They framed this by calling the NBA “549 Fans Less Popular than” MLS.

As lies, damn lies, and statistics go, those average attendance figures are tremendously misleading in terms of determining the true popularity of various pro sports leagues in the U.S. — and not just because the Seattle Sounders, who share CenturyLink Field with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, averaged 43,144 per game last season and skewed the averages a bit.

For starters, MLS has much cheaper tickets than both the NBA and the NHL:

Average Ticket Price (2012)

You can get into a Los Angeles Galaxy game for less than $30 — much less per game if you buy season tickets. Good luck getting anywhere near that low a price for an L.A. Clippers ticket, let alone an L.A. Lakers ticket. Cheap admission is helping to drive MLS attendance just as much as soccer’s growing popularity in the States, but it’s not exactly diminishing NBA and NHL attendance.

More importantly, though, the NBA and NHL have a huge advantage over MLS in one key statistic — television revenue.

U.S. TV contract revenue (per year)
$960 million
$200 million
$27 million

That is the main reason why MLS, 3rd in average attendance overall, is still considered 5th among pro sports leagues in the U.S. The NBA and NHL get much better TV ratings than MLS, which makes those two leagues more valuable to the networks. The 2012 NBA Finals averaged 16.85 million viewers per game for ABC, and the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals averaged 2.98 million viewers per game for NBC. The 2012 MLS Cup Final on ESPN? 797,000 viewers. (Going up against a major college football game, the SEC Championship, probably didn’t help much.)

What’s worse for MLS is that it is not the league where the best players in the world play. The Premier League, which struck a 3-year, $250 million deal with NBC starting next season, can boast of having the sort of world-class talent that MLS lacks, as can La Liga in Spain, the Bundesliga in Germany, and Serie A in Italy. The NBA and NHL don’t suffer from this problem. LeBron James and Kevin Durant won’t be transfer targets for Real Madrid anytime soon.

This is not to say MLS is somehow unwatchable — not when it has moments like this:

And this:

Oh, and this:

Still, thanks to its tight salary cap, MLS clubs can’t attract the world’s best players in their prime. Keeping salaries low allows the league to continue growing slowly and steadily — which, if you believe league commissioner Don Garber, is all going according to plan — but it does little to help its reputation among TV networks, who crave the ratings draw that top-flight talent brings.

One strategy, however, is working for MLS: limiting the length of TV contracts to 3 years. This puts MLS in a good position to adapt to changes in the TV market. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman probably didn’t see Fox Sports 1 and 2 coming when he negotiated that 10-year, $2 billion deal with NBC in 2011 — the largest TV deal in NHL history, but one that doesn’t allow the league much flexibility in a changing market.

In contrast, MLS’s current TV contracts expire after the 2014 season, and the arrival of new national Fox Sports channels gives Garber a bit of negotiating leverage with NBC and ESPN — in no small part because Fox takes over FIFA World Cup coverage after 2014 and seems likely to keep soccer front and center on its networks. Also, let’s not forget that NBCUniversal also owns Telemundo, so it’s not unreasonable to think they might try to outbid Univision for the Spanish-language rights to MLS and keep that league all in the family. Should a bidding war break out on either front, MLS could possibly double its TV revenue for the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons.

More TV revenue means a higher salary cap and larger minimum salaries, which attracts better-quality players, which increases the overall level of play, which makes the league even more appealing to TV networks, which leads to… more TV revenue. This is the virtuous cycle that Garber wants to perpetuate for club soccer in America, and as long as cable sports networks are raking in subscriber fees, this strategy has a chance at succeeding. The next round of TV contracts will determine just how well this plan is working.

For now, though, MLS will have to hang its hat on those average attendance figures for a little while longer.


Did you read this piece and think, “Man, this guy knows NOTHING about MLS!”? Leave a comment, or contact the author via email and/or Twitter.

16 Responses to Why Major League Soccer’s Average Attendance Figures Are A Poor Measure Of Its Popularity

  1. David Tyler says:

    Dave – Was your title just click-bait? If so, fine – you gotta drive traffic. But if you were serious, they you’re wrong.

    The avg attn figures are not misleading. They are accurate. What’s misleading is the conclusion drawn in the Atlantic Wire’s article in the absence of the context you rightly point out. Your post above correctly points out many of the reasons why MLS is further down on the popularity ladder, but your points don’t have anything to do with the attendance figures being misleading.

    Misleading attendance figures come from tricks like using tickets bought/distributed instead of turnstile attendance, or just making up the attendance based on eyeball estimates (you’d be shocked at how normal this is in college events).

    You should be attacking the conclusions misinformed individuals may draw from the attendance figures, but not from the figures themselves.

    • David Tyler says:

      (and yes, saw my typo as soon as I hit post. I’ve come to rely too much on GMail’s Undo Send feature, apparently)

    • Dave Warner says:

      Perhaps an adjustment to the headline will drive my point home a bit more. After all, the attendance figures themselves aren’t misleading, but what they suggest in terms of the league’s current overall popularity certainly are.

      And I *am* attacking some of the conclusions drawn by those numbers, because they simply don’t tell the entire story. MLS is growing, sure, but it’s got a long way to go.

      • David Tyler says:

        Great change to the title!! Frames the post really well.

        By the way, I’m a college professor and just used your post in my Intro to Sport Mgmt course (students were talking about MLS’s partnership with Foursquare).

  2. john says:

    Chicken and egg scenario for MLS regarding TV. The previous collapse of NASL means MLS have been extremely cautious in splashing cash on players.

    But the changing demographics of US with a larger soccer savvy Hispanic population bode well for MLS’s future. Missing out on World Cup 2022 hurt the growth, but a 2026 US WC would boost TV ratings immensely.

    In the meantime a successful USMNT and/or a breakthrough US world class star playing for likes of Man Utd, Real Madrid, Barca et al would see interest increase immensely.

    But failing that MLS can increase it’s potential TV market by slowly expanding to 30/32 teams like NHL, MLB, NBA, NFL. The world soccer player talent pool is almost endless as long as the salary is sufficient, MLS can continue to tap the CONCACAF and South American market.

    Expansion teams like Portland, with a passionate fan base have proved just as valuable to MLS if not more so then big spenders like NYRB, who have star players like Henry but smaller attendances.

    Given MLS is much cheaper to support, allows it to exploit smaller markets who don’t have many pro-sports teams like Orlando, Austin, San Antonio, Albuquerque, Fresno, El Paso, Virginia Beach. A successful MLS team needs a 18,000+ attendance around 20/25 home games a year.

    A 30 team MLS would surely negotiate a better TV contract? The snowballing would rapidly increase if MLS ever managed to get a NHL level of TV contract.

    • Mike B says:

      The problem with soccer TV broadcasts is there are no stoppages in the game for commercials. Sponsors have to cram all their adds back to back during the 15 minute halftime break. Football, basketball, and baseball all have endless breaks in the action

  3. jay says:

    with all due respect, you got it wrong. gate receipt is a good indicator of socio-economic demography of the fan base but NOT indicator of popularity which is reflected by attendance #. evidence #1: the WORLD’s highest paid athletes’ have consistently been golf, boxing, NFL, NBA because the US. however, golf, boxing, NFL, NBA is not popular outside US.
    evidence #2. “estimated” there were 400 million worldwide watching Superbowl which is only 12% of FIFA World Cup Final with 3.4 billion watching.

  4. chris says:

    ok, here goes nothing: what the united states doesn’t need is another sports franchise, competing with other franchises at the same time as others are playing. What the USSF needs to do is follow suit with the rest of the world(except Australia ) and combine the leagues and follow a promotion / relegation format. That allows for more financial freedom of the clubs and players and allows for a more free market to exist for sponsors and the respective tiered leagues.
    With Adidas owning the leagues, it drives away competition and good players alike. Build it and we will come!
    Also, our soccer clubs and leagues must not get greedy and price themselves out. Scotland are learning this lesson. MLS stadiums are too small and tickets are too much….btw where did get that average from? The cheapest tickets are around that much, with many well imto the hundreds…..can u say Borussia Dortmand? They are the leading example of what a true soccer club is…..

  5. diego says:

    I agree with your analysis but your ticket prices are out of date. They look to be from 2011. In 2012 ticket prices went up quite a bit. See Yet attendance was higher than ever before.

    • Dave Warner says:

      Well, the study I pulled that data from WAS published in May of 2012, so it doesn’t exactly surprise me that ticket prices have gone up. They’ve probably gone up for the NBA and NHL, too — supply and demand and all that.

  6. […] plus fans. The league is now rivaling the NBA and NHL for average attendance (though there may be reasons for that, namely cheaper […]

  7. […] plus fans. The league is now rivaling the NBA and NHL for average attendance (though there may be reasons for that, namely cheaper […]

  8. rrthomasxyz says:

    Soccer in Seattle has as a rabid following just as the Seahawks have. In derby matches (e.g. Portland and Vancouver), the Sounders can garner a crowd of 53,000 to 67,000 people. The only reason Seattle is “only” averaging around 40k this year is because of self-imposed seating restrictions by Seattle (why? I have no idea!). Portland could routinely bring in 30,000 people if they’d build a bigger stadium. The Sounders have been in Seattle in some form since the mid-70′s. Youth soccer has always been big and the colleges have a strong history in their programs. I guess it helps if your mlb team sucks, the sonics left and their is no nhl legacy. But we embrace both the Seahawks and the Sounders and hope someday mls will get bigger.

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