Sports

People Do Watch MLS: Examining the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL "Big Four" Myth

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About a month ago, I wrote a post poking fun of the anti-soccer rantings of Joe Anderson (aka Phun of Judd & Phun).

Recently, an Anonymous commenter (let's call him or her "Anonymous") wrote this:

I have to point out that 30 years ago soccer was hailed as the next big sport that was going to take America by storm. Well, it's 30 years later and while it is popular, it isn't even close to touching the Big 4 sports in mainstream popularity. Just because you and a bunch of like minded people think soccer is huge in this country, it isn't. Yes, there are a lot of little kids running around in soccer leagues, but when it comes to professional sports in this country, it doesn't come close to being at the top. And that is a fact.

Well, first of all, Anonymous, you didn't "have to" point that out. What?--some terrorist had a gun to your head and made you type all that?

But I get the idea. And this is an idea that is part of common thread woven throughout the big, beautiful, cigar and beer stained tapestry that is sports radio. TV and print columnists (they still exist!) are guilty of this a bit, too, to be sure. Here's the thing about that oft-expressed, perennial point that various sports guys make--it is, as Anonymous mentions, a 30 year old argument. And it hasn't aged well. In fact, almost no component has aged well Don't believe me? I'll prove it.

Let's start with a real big obvious statement, that everyone knows intrinsically:

There is no such thing as the Big Four professional sports leagues.

The "Big Four" are defined and known far and wide--the NFL, the MLB, the NBA and the NHL. Which is all and good, but it doesn't really reveal the deep divide between the supposed Big Four.

Look, maybe 30 years ago, the various sports were duking it out for eyeballs and attendance and what not, but let's get current. Even the most casual sports fan in the United States knows on a instinctual level that there is first and foremost The BIG ONE, and that's the NFL. By every metric that one can conceive of, the NFL is not just the biggest player of the supposed Big Four, it dwarfs the other leagues to the point that grouping those three with the NFL doesn't make sense.

To take an example that is particularly embarrassing to hockey (as a pro-soccer guy, I'm going to go out of my way to do that as often as possible), consider this: Round 1 of the 2012 NFL Draft, during which no actual live sports were occurring and the frequently unbearable Chris Berman bellowed at us for 3 hours straight, had over 8 million viewers (combined ESPN and NFL Network, btw). That's two cable channels, one that pretty much everyone has and one that is gaining rapidly audience share, but still is not available in every market. The 2012 Stanley Cup Finals, broadcast at least partially on NBC, averaged under 3 million viewers per game. In short, more than twice as many people would rather watch large men hug Roger Goodell than watch playoff hockey.

The NFL has the biggest TV ratings (by far) and the biggest per game attendance (by far. Consider: the worst attended 2011 NFL team averaged 1000 more people a game than the MLB's best attended team).  Now, obviously, you can argue that the NFL has the biggest stadiums and play the least amount of games, so per game attendance averages are skewed. But arguing that overlooks the obvious facts all around us.

So, let's put aside that bit. Let's consider Anonymous' central conceit that soccer isn't "even close to touching the Big 4 sports in mainstream popularity." Using the Big 4 in this context is misleading. Is the MLS close to touching the NFL? Of course not. But is the NHL? Hells, no.

I'd also like to point out that I never claimed, as Anonymous says, "that soccer is huge in this country." I don't know anyone who would. But I do argue that Minnesotan sports guys tend to wildly overestimate the popularity of the NHL, and hockey in general. Hence their confusion that "Dogs in the City" was watched by more people than the Stanley Cup Finals. "How could this possibly be?", they ask. The answer is as simple as could be--more people rather watch a guy train dogs than watch hockey. That statement is greeted without shock outside of the sports world, and certainly outside of Minnesota.

As I have said previously, soccer in the US does not draw top talent and therefore, the MLS isn't like other American professional leagues, so it is almost unfair to compare the MLS to any other league in the US. But let's tackle this main thesis, that soccer isn't coming close to touching any of the Big 4 in some detail, shall we?  Just for fun, I'm going to specifically target NHL franchises when I can. Since both the MLS and the NHL languish on networks on NBC Sports Channel, let's just look at attendance. It is incomplete data, to be sure, but it should be enough to draw some beginning conclusions, maybe.

First of all, take a look at the highest average attendance of sports teams in the US and Canada. The first MLS team (Seattle Sounders) shows up at #38. Doesn't sound impressive at first, but remember, the 32 teams in the NFL take the first 32. Here's another way to look at it: the Sounders show up a solid 31 spots ahead of the first NHL team (Chicago Blackhawks). So, that's an outlier, yeah? Let's crunch some more numbers.

All numbers 2012 Attendance per game numbers (MLS season in progress at this writing) MLS here. NHL here. MLB here. NBA here.

Colorado:
Rapids (MLS):  15,395
Avalanche (NHL):   15,498

Columbus:
Crew (MLS):  14,572
Blue Jackets (NHL): 14,660

Washington DC
DC United (MLS):  14,132
Capitals (NHL):  18,506
(I think I mentioned previously that DC United desperately needs a new stadium. Here's Washington Post columnist Tracee Hamilton on that.)

Houston
Dynamo (MLS):  21,632
Astros (MLB):  22,049

Philadelphia
Union (MLS): 18,380
76'ers (NBA): 17,502
Flyers (NHL): 20,433

Portland
Timbers (MLS):  20,438
Trail Blazers (NBA):  20,496 (#2 attendance in the NBA this past year, by the by).

Los Angeles
Galaxy (MLS):  22,483
Lakers (NBA):  18,997
Clippers (NBA): 19,219
Kings (NHL):  17,920

Is that enough data to suggest that yes, the MLS, in terms of the number of people actually coming to the game is at least competitive with non-NFL franchises? I think it is. You can take a crack at looking at other cities, and you'll see stuff like this throughout.

So, has there really been so little change in 30 years? 30 years ago, the NASL was two years away from folding. The only way for a fan of European soccer to know what was happening in Europe was to wait for cheap, shoddily written weekly soccer magazines. It was almost impossible to watch the best players in the world, period.

Since 1984, the NASL folded, the US was without a soccer league until 1993 when the MLS came into being. The MLS has been expanded at a reasonable, methodical pace; has generated fan support just about everywhere it goes, gotten soccer-specific stadiums that help it look good on TV, and has done an excellent job at getting out of markets where it doesn't work (anyone remember the Miami Fusion?).

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Meanwhile, Fox Soccer and ESPN (seemingly unaware that soccer will never be as popular as hockey) have thrown money at European leagues for the rights to broadcast games. Hell, regular old Fox stations have started airing big time Premiership tilts. I don't think Fox (or ESPN) does it out of charity. They do it because it has become a winner for them. By any metric, soccer has taken huge strides in the US, and is well on its way to surpassing hockey in every way, shape and form (or has ESPN thrown a lot of money at European Hockey championships without me noticing?)

I don't know what data the lads on the radio shows and Anonymous commenter are looking at*, but the data I'm looking suggests that soccer is here to stay and is growing.

*Just kidding. I know they haven't looked at any data at all.

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