Is MLS Surpassing the NBA & NHL?

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Last week published this piece comparing the average attendance of the five major sports in America . It correctly listed MLS ahead of the NBA and NHL in terms of average attendance for each sport's most current seasons.  Although misleading due to the fact that the MLS season is only four weeks old it should serve notice to the masses that MLS is gaining in popularity.  The numbers also begin to disprove the general media misconception that the domestic game is not successful.

Contrary to what most in the media believe it appears that someone actually does care about MLS.

Surely, even the most ardent MLS supporters aren't silly enough to claim that MLS is now more popular than both the NBA and NHL since it very obviously is not.  The NBA is huge business in America while the game of basketball has established a presence globally as a popular sport (quite possibly the second most popular sport in the world).  Both the NBA and NHL play over 80 regular season games so the sheer numbers tell you that there are more NBA and NHL fans in North America.  The important thing to note here is not about money or revenue or even the total amount of fans.  Both the NBA and NHL are hands down miles ahead of MLS in those categories right now.  What makes the average attendance numbers interesting is the trend developing within the numbers.  I've listed below the average attendance per season for the NBA, NHL, MLS, MLB, and NFL since MLS' debut season in 1996.


































































































*average through April 18

Some MLS critics claim that the league's attendance is stagnant while failing to note that the average attendance has actually increased by 6% since 2005.  During that same time period the NBA and NHL's attendance has stayed virtually the same with minor fluctuations.  It is actually basketball and hockey which remain stagnant. 

MLS experienced an all time high attendance average during it's first season.  Averages subsequently tailed off once the novelty of the new league wore off and soccer fans began to follow higher "quality" leagues throughout the world.  The league began to rebound after contracting unsuccesful franchises in Florida and receiving a bump due to the advancement of the US National team into the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals.  The newfound success of forner MLS players plying their trade in European leagues also increased in the run up to the 2006 World Cup.  Although still largely ignored by the media at this point the league's popularity continued to increase in small increments.

One of the commentors here forwarded me an email response from an unnamed member of the media who is not exactly a fan of MLS.  The columnist cited that although MLS has occasional success stories like Seattle, nearly every franchise had declining attendance last season from the previous year.  While it is true that 10 of the 16 MLS franchises suffered declines in average attendance from 2008 to 2009 it is also true that 21 out of 30 NHL franchises and 18 out of 30 NBA teams also suffered declines in average attendance from one year to the next.  While ignoring these facts, the columnist also ignored other "occasional" success stories like Toronto FC, Philadelphia's 10,000 plus season ticket base, and strong fan bases in Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.

 It should also be noted that Major League Baseball suffered a 7% decrease in average attendance and the monster that is the National Football League saw a small 1% dip from  2008 to 2009.  If one was to make an impartial assumption it would be fair to say that the drop in MLS attendance from 2008 to 2009 has little to do with lack of interest in MLS but rather more to do with the lack of disposable income for live sports entertainment in a downtrending economy as evidenced by the decrease across the board.

As the league continues to develop and improve, interest and support will increase.  Television ratings on ESPN2 are still fairly meager, although the network does very little to promote the programming, and it is still unclear whether the network is including ESPN Deportes viewers as part of their total published numbers.  MLS meanwhile seems to be more focused on increasing the visibilty of the league through additional markets rather than concerning itself with poor TV ratings.  The size of the United States is also not prohibitive to a league with almost half the number of total franchises as the NBA and NHL.  MLS does not have a presence in the southern part of the US which greatly affects any ratings numbers.

Personally, I don't want to see the league grow much larger than 22 teams although more franchises translates into more markets, more entrance fees, and more gate receipts.  I still feel that the quality of the NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL has been watered down by the addition of too many expanison franchises.  MLS is still developing and any perceived drop in quality through over-expansion would be a major set back.  Thankfully, the league seems aware of this and should act wisely before rushing into choosing teams 19 and 20.

The trends seem to indicate that the NBA and NHL averages will stay about the same or decrease while MLS will grow this year and next with the addition of Vancouver and Portland franchises.  This doesn't necessarily mean that MLS will be more popular then either of those leagues any time in the near future but it does mean that doubters should stand up and take notice.  As the old saying goes, "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt".









Filed under: 2010 Regular Season

Tags: Attendance, MLS


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  • I think the 2009 attendance numbers are a bit skewed by Seattle. However, the new teams in Portland and Vancouver (and Montreal?) will help continue the trend. And the addition of big stars following the World Cup will help this year and next.

    I totally agree that the league and the sport is on a steady upward trend. I can't wait until the complaint is that stadium size is too small. But scarcity will be good in the short term because it helps to buffer against bad weather (I cringe when I see tomorrow's weather report).

    But, there's work to do. I was at a car dealership yesterday and had a Fire sweatshirt on. One of the sales mopes asked me which fire department I worked for (sigh). Luckily, my evening was brightened when the checker at Jewel commented on the team and we had a brief discussion of the season so far.

  • In reply to oliotya:

    On the surface Seattle appears to skew the numbers slightly but given the fact that all other sports attendance decreased the change is not as dramatic even if you discount Seattle's numbers.

  • In reply to oliotya:

    At first, I was surprised by this. But when you think about it, The NBA and NHL are really not a whole lot better. I'm sure there are skew teams like Seattle in the NBA too(my guess would be Lakers or Cavs), so it evens out. Maybe its just because they don't have a Seattle team and we do.

  • In reply to patrickhattrick:

    Although there are no teams in the NBA with a disparity comparable to Seattle's, there are teams with considerably lower average attendance than the top teams. In the NFL the Dallas Cowboys average an amazing 89,756 while the Bears average 62,250 and the Raiders are at the bottom with 44,284. The Seattle argument doesn't really matter. Bottom line is there are still butts in the seats watching MLS games whether it's in Seattle or New England.

  • In reply to patrickhattrick:

    Anyone who has attended Fire games over the past 13 years can attest to the continued growth in the teams popularity. Slowly but steadily soccer is becoming a mainstream sport. New stadiums in NY and Philly this year and Portland and Vancouver next year will only increase average attendance. Mainstream media needs to pick up on this or be left behind. I stopped reading the Trib, Sun Times and Daily Herald several years ago due to their lack of coverage. Ditto for local TV news. Younger people use the internet for news and soccer is everywhere on the net. Go Fire! Go MLS! Go USA!

  • In reply to bigredmachine:


  • In reply to oliotya:

    No doubt! June 12 can't get here fast enough.

  • In reply to cesba:

    I just don't see it...but am hopeful

  • In reply to cesba:

    Slowly but surely attendance will increase. The world cup will renew some peoples interested and I know they will want to come out and see if they can get into this whole soccer thing...

  • In reply to Adam25:

    I'm telling you, target the high school kids. RJ Reynolds learned that lesson ages ago and it earned them billions.

  • In reply to oliotya:

    how about:

    target the immigrant and poor kids. France learned that lesson ages ago and it won them a world cup and then another world cup final.

  • In reply to oliotya:

    Soccer is a mainstream sport with the people , if it was not , Nike would not waste their time with it. Soccer however is not mainstream with idiot media people like Booers and Berstien and Norman Chadd.

  • In reply to FireStingDoug:

    Norman Chad is a knucklehead that has no thought process. I had my beef with him for that column he wrote. He is not worth a second mentioning. His World Series of Poker on ESPN is dying out and unwatchable. That is a fantastic job breaking down the attendance for the 5 major sports in America. Here are the attendance for the Rays and White Sox series. 4/20: 19,260. 4/21: 17,023. 4/22: 18,207(look like 9,000 fans). Average attendance: 18,163. Earthquakes and Fire home opener 20,276. I went to the Rays and White Sox game on Tuesday with my dad (he is a White Sox fan), it was hardly anybody there and the loudest cheer was a section full of White Sox fans booing at a guy with Cubs jacket. I am used to the soccer environment with fans making a lot of noise compare to baseball that is too quiet.

  • In reply to oliotya:

    Absolute numbers are nice but what is the percent capacity? I think it says something different if you say that the NBA is operating at greater than a 95% capacity level than if they were operating at an 80% capacity level. The 95% case would suggest that actual attendance numbers might be limited by capacity, while 80% would suggest that there are at least some issues filling seats.

  • In reply to eamuscatuli72:

    The capacity point is a valid one. The NBA had several teams close to or at capacity (the Bulls are one of them). Half of the teams in the NBA were under 90%, some of which were in the 70% range.

  • In reply to oliotya:

    Coverage is key in making the league and sport successful in this country. I have 5 frends that went to their first Fire game and 3 of which could give a rip about soccer. They are all season ticket holders this year. I have another friend who goes basically every week and hates sports but became interested in Soccer. A good supporter section and a following of passionate loyal supporters is equally important. My first Club that I followed was Chelsea, I had little interest in the Fire because I thought the MLS wasn't a real league. When I went to my first Fire match and saw how real it was to section 8, the players on the pitch and even the majority of fans scattered through the stadium, it told me that these supporters deserve and demand respect and also that there is nothing that can compare to supporting your home club and being at the match.
    We do need to send emails, make calls, and make ourselves heard. If enough people consistenly spoke up eventually they will have to hear us. It's important to me that the league survives, grows and eventually becomes a league where we see top talent wanting to play in.

  • In reply to oliotya:

    This entry is featured in today's "Hot on ChicagoNow:"

  • In reply to laurenstrec:

    wow!!! that was cool 57 second video on The soccer one was the best. Thanks're awesome.

  • In reply to laurenstrec:

    Thanks for the nice words about soccer , with the help from people like you , soccer will keep growing. As I am sure you know, the media is tryng to suppress the sport

  • In reply to oliotya:

    The fire department comment... I get that all the time now that I've moved to Baltimore.

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