Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Numbers on Soccer

On Tuesday night, I'm attending the opening of Major League Soccer's 2011 season. In fact, I'll be at all of the Seattle Sounders FC games this season as a season ticket holder.

I have to admit, if you had told me 10 years ago I'd be an MLS season ticket holder, I probably wouldn't have believed it. But, 15 years in, MLS is starting to gain some respect as a soccer league. Players in offseason training with Barclay's Premiership teams in England come back reporting that the gap is closer than ever. And, to be honest, the way Seattle cheers its team on makes the games worth it out of the box... 36,000 rowdy, chanting, singing fans.

When I first went to a Sounders game, I was stunned by the crowd. I've attended a lot of sporting events in my life, been in some jacked up crowds... but never have I seen a crowd quite like the Sounders fans that fill Qwest Field.

It makes some sense. More Americans grew up playing soccer in the last generation than any other sport. I imagine folks my age follow the sport worldwide more than our parents did. It makes sense that the sport would grow.

Major international competitions have become sought-after programming on TV - last year's World Cup got great ratings. The final - which did not include the USA or any Spanish-speaking country - got 24.3 million viewers (15.5 on ABC, 8.8 on Univision). You may find it interesting that Game 7 (game 7!) of last year's NBA finals scored 28.2 million.

That got me thinking... the Sounders set the pace for MLS attendance for a variety of reasons. Seattle is a soccer town. But take a look at the per-game averages for some cities' MLS and NBA teams:

Los Angeles
  • MLS Galaxy 21,473, NBA Lakers 18,997
  • MLS Chivas USA, 14,574, NBA Clippers 17,423

  • MLS Toronto FC 20,453, NBA Raptors 16,358

  • MLS Union 19,252, NBA 76ers 14,315

New York/New Jersey
  • MLS Red Bull 18,441, NBA Knicks 19,717, NBA Nets 13,715

  • MLS Dynamo 17,310, NBA Rockets 16,151

Now, this isn't really apples to apples. The NBA offers fans 42 home games. MLS give home fans 17. At the same time, In Philadelphia, the NHL Flyers draw 400 more per game than does the Union, so, you can say there's something bringing fans to seats for the hockey and soccer sides that's missing on the NBA side.

And ticket prices make this an unfair comparison in many ways. One can only imagine how many people might shell out for NBA seats if they could sit down low for $500/season like you can in many MLS stadiums.

TV ratings for MLS still lag, though, who knows? If you ask me, the discerning sports fan watches Sounders FC host David Beckham, Landon Donovan and the LA Galaxy Tuesday night instead of two iffy NCAA college basketball "play-in" games. ESPN is certainly hoping so.

More than anything, though, the attendance figures - which will likely only be bolstered by big crowds in expansion Portland and Vancouver, plus a likely bump in Kansas City with a new soccer-only stadium opening in June - show that if we base our "major sport" lexicon based on fans-in-seats, pro soccer has arrived in the USA. It's up to MLS to sustain and grow the interest.

But if you are one of those who says "no one in America cares about soccer," the numbers say you're not just using hyperbole.

You're flat out wrong.


A.J. said...

Indoor lacrosse in Buffalo has almost 20,000 per game...and i can say without a doubt that very few people in the US care about that sport. Soccer will always be a niche sport here I fear. As awesome as the game is, for most people it's more exciting to watch a baseball game. But as popular as the game is with kids, you never know. Either way, my soon-to-be 3-year-old will be signed for soccer in the fall!!!

Jay said...

I agree most people still prefer other sports, but the NLL isn't getting NBA game 7 ratings for it's worldwide competition.

To be honest, I think we measure sports on to short a term. Like the Panthers in Charlotte, even though they have a following, it will be much more solid when the generation of 20-somethings that grew up around Charlotte starts buying season tickets. And taking their kids. Lots of folks I knew there grew up rooting for other teams before Carolina got a team.

This all takes time and, much as many Americans don't have the patience to watch a 1-1 soccer draw, I think many are quick to write the MLS off because they only see what's on ESPN's home page.