In just 16 years, the world’s most popular sport has climbed to become America’s third highest spectator sport on average. While soccer's relevance has been questioned by critics for many years, recent figures indicate that Major League Soccer (MLS) now averages higher attendance numbers than both the NHL and NBA respectively.
The MLS kicked off in 1996 as a result of a FIFA mandate requiring that a professional soccer league be launched in the United States if the country wanted to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The primary objective was to expand interest in the sport in North America. It has taken almost two decades, but that long-term goal seems to have been achieved.
The NFL leads with 67,358 during its 16-game regular season, and MLB averages 30,334 per game. Dating to the MLS all-star game, the soccer league is averaging 18,733 in attendance per game during the 2012 season, significantly higher than the record-setting 17,872 in 2011. In comparison, the NHL averages 17,455 in attendance per game, while the NBA averages 17,273. Additionally, Nielsen Media Research indicates that MLS telecasts are averaging a record high 345,000 viewers on average for each game shown on ESPN/ESPN2, and up 12 percent from 2011.
The MLS has parlayed these heightened exposure totals into record franchise values, expansion fees and TV revenue. In 2011, the network inked a deal with NBC Sports worth three years and $30 million dollars. Although this pales in comparison to the 10-year $2 billion TV contract NHL signed with NBC last year, the growth is encouraging for professional soccer.