NBA and NHL Get the Boot: MLS Is the 3rd Most Attended Sports League in America

Jed Hughes@JedhugheskfCorrespondent IAugust 8, 2012

David Beckham (#23) of the LA Galaxy and Bernardo Corradi (#23) of the expansion Montreal Impact are two popular stars of the MLS
David Beckham (#23) of the LA Galaxy and Bernardo Corradi (#23) of the expansion Montreal Impact are two popular stars of the MLSRichard Wolowicz/Getty Images

In just 16 years, the world’s most popular sport has climbed to become America’s third highest spectator sport on average. While soccer's relevance has been questioned by critics for many years, recent figures indicate that Major League Soccer (MLS) now averages higher attendance numbers than both the NHL and NBA respectively.

The MLS kicked off in 1996 as a result of a FIFA mandate requiring that a professional soccer league be launched in the United States if the country wanted to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup.  The primary objective was to expand interest in the sport in North America.  It has taken almost two decades, but that long-term goal seems to have been achieved.

The NFL leads with 67,358 during its 16-game regular season, and MLB averages 30,334 per game. Dating to the MLS all-star game, the soccer league is averaging 18,733 in attendance per game during the 2012 season, significantly higher than the record-setting 17,872 in 2011.  In comparison, the NHL averages 17,455 in attendance per game, while the NBA averages 17,273.  Additionally, Nielsen Media Research indicates that MLS telecasts are averaging a record high 345,000 viewers on average for each game shown on ESPN/ESPN2, and up 12 percent from 2011.

The MLS has parlayed these heightened exposure totals into record franchise values, expansion fees and TV revenue. In 2011, the network inked a deal with NBC Sports worth three years and $30 million dollars. Although this pales in comparison to the 10-year $2 billion TV contract NHL signed with NBC last year, the growth is encouraging for professional soccer.

Further, the MLS signed a record apparel sponsorship deal last September through its 8-year, $200 million contract extension with Adidas. The $25 million in revenue each year is a significant increase over the preceding contract with Adidas valued at $15 million per annum. The length and scope of this  agreement is an indication of confidence that soccer will retain popularity in the United States.

The two most recent FIFA men's and women's World Cup tournaments have undoubtedly helped the MLS. Having a competitive U.S. team in these two important tournaments helps drive the overall popularity of the sport. The memorable 2010 FIFA World Cup match pitting the U.S. against Algeria—won by the Americans on a last minute game-winning goal by Landon Donovan—raised soccer to a new level of consciousness. 

Donovan, of course, is a star on the LA Galaxy alongside David Beckham, easily the most recognizable soccer player in the U.S.  Meanwhile, other top European stars, including France's legendary Thierry Henry, have come across the Atlantic to secure some late career paydays.

According to NBC Sports, more than three million kids registered in a soccer program last year. Just look at local playing fields on any given Saturday; they are filled with young soccer players. For its part, the MLS is actively involved with many local soccer leagues and enlists its personnel to visit and demonstrate skills to young players. 

While the MLS still trails the other major sports leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB) in annual revenues, soccer's popularity in the United States is undoubtedly on the rise. Naysayers have long believed that the sport would never take hold in America, but the MLS's recent success proves that soccer has indeed scored big in the U.S.

Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice.  Among his high profile placements are Mark Murphy, CEO of the Green Bay Packers; Larry Scott, Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference; and Brady Hoke, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.  Earlier in his career, Mr. Hughes coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA).  Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.


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