Upon entering the All Star break for the 2012 season, Major League Soccer is achieving all-time highs in both match day attendance and average television viewership. According to the site MLS Attendance, through week 17 the average match day attendance was 18,733 people, placing it higher than Ligue 1 of France and the Championship division in England. Concurrently, on both ESPN and NBC Sports Network, MLS telecasts are on pace for their best viewership averages since the league’s inception. The MLS, currently in its 17th season, has seen a gradual and notable gain in popularity despite competition from major American sports like the NFL and MLB, and European soccer leagues like the Barclays Premier League and La Liga.
The table below indicates that for the 2011/2012 season Major League Soccer ranks among the world’s top leagues for average match day attendance. While still lagging behind traditional super-leagues such as the Bundesliga and Barclays Premier League, which top the list with 45,116 and 34,601 spectators per match, respectively, MLS’s seventh place position is a positive sign for a young league. Attendance is up almost 5% on 2011’s match day average, and the construction of several new soccer-specific stadiums across the country should help boost those numbers in the coming years.
In addition to the impressive number of people watching MLS matches in person, Nielsen Ratings indicate that telecasts are averaging the highest number of viewers in the history of the league. About 345,000 people are watching each ESPN and ESPN2 telecast, a number that is up 12% from the same time during the 2011 season and 18% from the 2010 season. Similarly, NBC Sports Network telecasts are averaging 121,000 viewers to date, which is a 78% increase on the average number of viewers when the same package was offered on Fox Soccer Channel last year (albeit NBC Sports Network is broadcasting to almost double the number of people that Fox Soccer Channel was). Individual matches have also received notably high viewership: the Portland Timbers – Seattle Sounders match on June 24th marked the third highest viewership of a regular season game in league history.
There are likely several reasons for the increases in gate attendance and television viewership of MLS matches. The league has more teams than ever before (three more teams that it had in 2010), and therefore more fans have “hometown teams” that they are likely to watch on television. These teams have more “soccer-specific” stadiums than ever before, and the recent construction of venues like Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium increase the number of people who will attend games in person (Houston has seen a 20%+ increase in average match day attendance over the past year). MLS matches are also covered more extensively on television, making the games available to a wider audience. The quality of MLS’s play has unquestionably increased over the past half-decade and the arrival of international stars like Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane have done much to help ticket sales and ratings. Finally, the MLS is likely benefitting from a boost in soccer interest generated by this summer’s Euro 2012 tournament, which received strong television ratings in the United States.
Major League Soccer’s increased match day attendance averages and television audiences are more positive signs for a league that has been consistently improving in all major aspects since its inauguration over fifteen years ago. While MLS still has a long way to go in terms of competing with the major American sports and European soccer leagues, this steady climb in popular support will continue to lay groundwork for league success for years to come.