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Measuring the Popularity of Soccer in the USA

Tomorrow is the start of the 2014 World Cup, so I thought I would take a moment to discuss the popularity of soccer in the United States. It is hard to pin down the true popularity of a sport, but I thought two important measures could serve as a barometer of the sport's popularity in the USA: average attendance numbers for MLS (Major League Soccer) games and MLS revenue. These two measures do not fully capture the popularity of the game in the USA, but they certainly establish a sort of minimum level of interest. Beyond the fact that attendance and revenue are not perfect measures of a sport's popularity, there is something else to keep in mind. Many American soccer fans (especially, 1st generation Americans) primarily follow soccer from other countries, so the MLS numbers are not a true reflection of the popularity of soccer in the USA. For example, NBC reported that almost 5 million Americans watched their English-language coverage of the last 10 matches of the English Premier League this season. With those caveats in mind, look at the three charts below:   

The average (per game) attendance for the 2013/2014 seasons of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS. This chart shows that the MLS has the third highest average attendance at its games; however, the NHL and NBA attendance numbers are limited by the fact that they are indoor sports which are played in venues with smaller capacities.   

 

This next chart, which I borrowed from Wikipedia, shows the annual revenue for the major American sports. It also includes TV revenue. This chart shows that the MLS has a long way to go to in terms of revenue generation. The NBA earns ten times the revenue of the MLS, and the NHL earns 6.6 times the revenue of the MLS.  

Annual revenue comparison

 League

Total Revenue (bn $)

TV Revenue

National Football League

$9.00

$5.0 bn

Major League Baseball

$7.00

$1.5 bn

National Basketball Association

$5.00

$930 m

National Hockey League

$3.30

$600 m

Major League Soccer

$0.50

$40 m

 

This penultimate chart which I found in a 2013 Forbes article lists the revenue of each of the MLS teams for the 2012 season. One bright spot is that 11 of the 19 teams are profitable. Many of the world's soccer clubs operate at a loss every year, so the MLS is doing well in terms of profitability.   

Rank

Value ($M)

Revenue ($M)

Operating Income ($M)1

Seattle Sounders

175

48.0

18.2

LA Galaxy

170

44.0

7.8

Portland Timbers

141

39.1

9.4

Houston Dynamo

125

32.6

8.2

Toronto FC

121

30.9

4.5

New York Red Bulls

114

28.1

-6.3

Sporting Kansas City

108

27.7

5.1

Chicago Fire

102

24.5

-3.2

FC Dallas

97

24.2

0.6

Montreal Impact

96

26.2

3.4

Philadelphia Union

90

21.4

1.1

New England Revolution

89

17.1

2.6

Vancouver Whitecaps

86

23.0

0.0

Real Salt Lake

85

23.0

-0.1

Colorado Rapids

76

18.1

-2.9

San Jose Earthquakes

75

15.0

-4.5

Columbus Crew

73

18.6

-1.6

DC United

71

17.7

-2.8

Chivas USA

64

15.0

-5.5

FORBES estimates; revenue and operating income is for 2012 season
1Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization


Lastly, here are the results of a survey conducted by YouGov and Upshot which involved online interviews of people from 19 different countries. It looks like the USA had the least amount of interest in this World Cup among the nations surveyed.