"American Football"? U.S. Soccer Overtakes NBA, NHL in Attendance

Last Updated Oct 29, 2011 12:59 PM EDT

U.S. Major League Soccer has eclipsed both the NBA and the National Hockey League in terms of average attendance at games -- a feat that explains why Fox and Telemundo just paid an incredible $1 billion for the rights to broadcast the Word Cup in 2018 and 2022. That price was more than twice what ESPN and Univision paid to broadcast the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.

It also explains why NBC has signed on to broadcast football during primetime next season.

Of course, mere attendance at stadia isn't the full measure of a sport's popularity. The indoor arenas of basketball and hockey have structurally smaller audience capacities than the capacious outdoor arenas of football. And percentage attendance at NBA and NHL games tends to be nearer capacity than attendance at soccer. (And then, of course, there's the unsolved mystery of why "sold out" games at certain clubs seem to feature so many empty seats ...)

Nonetheless, it appears that soccer is well on the road to becoming America's third favorite sport, after throwball American football and baseball. That will have a major impact on sports sponsorship and advertising budgets -- providing more media for advertisers to buy and increasing competition between the different sports for sponsor opportunities, such as Adidas's $200 million pact with MLS.

Here's how the most recent attendance numbers break down:

  1. NFL: 66,960
  2. MLB: 30,352
  3. MLS: 17,872
  4. NBA: 17,319
  5. NHL: 17,126
MLS has a long way to go to catch baseball and football. Most MLS stadia have a capacity far below their average park gate counts. But look at the growth rate in soccer than the NFL and baseball don't have: 5.5 million people watched a game of soccer in 2011, up 37 percent from 2010. New teams with new stadiums are planned for Montreal and for a second franchise in New York. Historically, MLS has managed to both increase attendance at individual grounds at the same time as adding entire new grounds.

MLS is also fairing respectably on the international soccer stage:

  1. English Premier League: 35,283
  2. Germany Bundesliga: 42,101
  3. Spain La Liga: 29,128
  4. Mexico Primera: 26,722
  5. Italy Serie A: 24,031
  6. Argentina Primera: 19,843
  7. France Ligue 1: 19,650
  8. Netherlands Eredivisie: 19,116
  9. Japan J League 1: 18,428
  10. U.S. Major League Soccer: 17,872
  11. England League Championship: 17,388
  12. Brazil Serie A: 14,839
  13. Germany Bundesliga 2: 14,539
  14. Scottish Premier League: 13,677
Americans fill their arenas fuller than the football mad Brazilians or the Scots. And they're breathing down the necks of superpowers such as Argentina, France and Holland.

In the next few years, get ready for the definition of "American football" to require a little more clarification.


Image by betancourt, CC.