Could U.S. Soccer Eclipse Basketball and Hockey? $200M Adidas Pact Suggests Yes

Last Updated Oct 21, 2010 2:56 PM EDT

Adidas (ADS.DE)'s $200 million sponsorship deal with Major League Soccer shows that the apparelmaker has noticed sports marketing's best-kept secret: U.S. soccer's audience is threatening to eclipse that of the National Hockey League and the NBA. The crucial thing to note in the new deal is that the $200 million pact is worth $25 million per year through 2018. It replaces, mid-contract, a 10-year deal for $150 million, or $15 million a year -- a 66 percent increase in annual value.

Why would Adidas make this expensive move? Consider: The MLS isn't broadcast to a large audience on TV (you have to pay for Fox Soccer Channel to see many of the games). The mainstream press's coverage of U.S. soccer is patchy at best and actively disinterested at worst (this means you, New York Times). And there's a cultural consensus that soccer just isn't important in America (ask any football or baseball fan).

Under that radar, however, the game that ought to be called American football is growing like mold. Here are some recent average attendance stats for the major American sports:
  1. NFL - 67,508.69 (2009 season)
  2. MLB - 30,213.37 (2009 season)
  3. MLS - 18,452.14 (2010 season, as of 04/11/2010)
  4. NBA - 17,149.61 (2009/10 season)
  5. NHL - 16,985.31 (2009/10 season)
Obviously, there's a caveat here: basketball and hockey teams play a lot more than once a week, so their total attendances are a lot greater. Also, the MLS numbers only cover the first few games of the season, when attendance is highest.

UPDATE: NBA spokesman Mike Bass called to say that "it's an absurd premise" to say those numbers show the NBA is an any way threatened by the MLS. He claims current average NBA attendance is actually 17,281. According to ESPN, he's probably right (the median team in the list, the Miami Heat, has average attendance in the 17,000's). Here's a different list, based on the most recent published numbers I could find for all the leagues. Click the links to see the sources:
  1. NFL - ~70,249
  2. MLB - 30,276
  3. NHL - 17,460
  4. NBA - 17,281
  5. MLS - 16,449
On those numbers, the MLS is comparable to hockey and basketball but still behind them. But you also have to consider that soccer has sustained its attendance growth despite adding six new teams to the MLS since it was founded in 1996. There are now nine soccer-specific stadiums for M.L.S. teams, up from two in 2004. (The NBA, by contrast, added one team in 2004, the Charlotte Bobcats.) In other words, while MLS attendance isn't impressive on average, it has repeatedly added entire stadia of new fans without lowering its average numbers.

The MLS is also faring well internationally. More people watch an average MLS game in the U.S. than watch the Scottish Premier League or England's Championship division. Attendances are comparable to those seen in France and Holland. More tantalizing still, MLS attendance is within striking distance of Italy's Serie A:
  1. Bundesliga (GER): 42,790
  2. English Premier League (ENG): 34,088
  3. La Liga (ESP): 28,971
  4. Serie A (ITA): 23,899
  5. Ligue 1 (FRA): 20,119
  6. Eredivisie (NED): 19,319
  7. MLS (USA): 18,452
  8. Championship (ENG): 18,113
  9. Scottish Premier League (SCO): 15,128
  10. Bundesliga 2 (GER): 15,056
Suddenly, adding an extra $10 million to Adidas' sponsorship no longer looks like a total waste of money.

Related: Image by Flickr user sam-sha-put-ski, CC.

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