Can the MLS fan base compete with NFL?

When the latest attempt to launch soccer in the US got underway in 1996, the early signs were not promising. It began in 1996 with just ten teams. Eight years later, it still had ten teams. In those early years, survival was all that mattered.

However, as the new millennium wore on, MLS began to do more than just survive. Beginning in 2005 with the addition of Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake, the number of teams involved has increased steadily. One club a year was added between 2007 and 2010. In 2011, Vancouver and Portland joined, followed by Montreal in 2012. Three years later, New York City and Orlando were added, and last year it was the turn of Atlanta and Minnesota to get an MLS franchise.

Can the MLS fan base compete with NFL

Feb 10, 2018; Nashville, TN, USA; Members of La 12 with the Atlanta United team parade outside First Tennessee Park before the friendly against the Nashville SC. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

This year, the league is taking another crack at launching a second LA team, bringing the total number of clubs in MLS to 23. New franchises in Miami and Nashville will be launched in the next two years, and there are plans to expand to 28 teams at a later date.

If those plans come to fruition, MLS will have added 18 new teams in a decade and a half. The last time that a soccer expansion of those proportions took place in the US was when the old North American Soccer League added six new teams in one year, in 1978. However, the prospects for MLS look much brighter than they did for the ill-fated NASL.

For a start, the MLS expansion teams have generally proven to be successful on the pitch and at the gate, with Seattle and Atlanta standing out in particular. The Sounders regularly attract crowds of over 40,000 and have won numerous trophies, while Atlanta United FC won 15 games in their first season, finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference.

Expansion has also been underpinned by a steady growth in attendances across the league. The average MLS attendance has been climbing consistently. In 2000, the figure had bottomed out at 13,756. By 2010, average attendances had risen to 16,675, and in 2015, the 20,000 barrier was crossed. Last season saw another new high of 22,113, putting MLS seventh in the global attendance charts, ahead of Ligue 1 in France, Argentina’s Primera Division and Eredivisie in the Netherlands.

Not only is MLS proving to be an exciting attraction for sports fans, but it has also captured the imagination of the betting public with millions of people across the globe keen to bet on the MLS. That television audience is also crucial for the commercial deals that will sustain MLS in the long run, and it is also rising. Last season, the combined viewing figures for MLS were up four percent on 2016.

To put that growth in perspective, however, the MLS fan base still has a long way to go to rival the NFL, which is still the most popular sport in the US. Figures for 2016 showed that the average attendance at an NFL match was an enormous 69,325.

A successful international team would certainly help MLS to close the gap. The presence of the USA team at the 2014 World Cup served as a huge boost to soccer in the country, so from that point of view, the failure of the USA to qualify for this summer’s tournament is disappointing. Nevertheless, MLS has a lot in its favor, most notably its positive image and growing popularity with young people. A poll carried out by ESPN in 2015 found that soccer was the second-favorite sport for millennials and youngsters aged 12 to 17, and that it is the only professional sport in the US with a fan base that is growing.

Meanwhile, the NFL is beset with problems. Disciplinary issues, political interference, and the ongoing controversies about the harmful physical effects of playing the game are all contributing to the sense of a sport in crisis. MLS can benefit from the growing disillusionment with the NFL by continuing to offer an attractive product, at a fan-friendly price. Whereas many NFL stadiums have priced out working class fans, MLS games are usually priced more accessibly, in turn making it easier for whole families to get to the game.

Establishing soccer in the US has always been seen as an uphill struggle, but it seems that MLS has broken the cycle. The sport is catching the imagination of young fans across the nation and there is every reason to believe that in the next few years, the MLS fan base will continue to grow and rival that of the four established sports, including the NFL.

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By Mo Johnson, Copyright © 2006-2017

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