The impressive rise of soccer in the US

The popularity of soccer in the U.S. is growing, but for many years the sport passed most people by, including the media. Competing against the likes of fan favourites; Football, Baseball and Basketball, it was always going to be a hard sell.
However, things have changed as the big four sports experience a drop in interest, while Major League Soccer saw a 27% rise between 2012-2019. Matchday attendances have also seen huge growth, while the MLS betting market at a US sportsbook like DraftKings can rival those you’d find at a UK betting site specializing in the Premier League.

Viewing figures on the rise

Over the past 20 years viewing figures for soccer games in the U.S. have grown considerably, all be it from a low base. Previous failed attempts to sell game of soccer saw Pele appear for the New York Cosmos in the 1970’s, but this time things are different.

In the 2019 MLS season, ESPN’s English-language coverage saw a two percent increase, boasting an average audience of 246,000 viewers. The match between the Seattle Sounders and Atlanta United reached an impressive peak of 462,000.

Average viewership of the English Premier League saw a 73% increase in the U.S. rising from 262,697 to 457,00 in just ten years. Further highlighting the growing interest throughout the states, not just in the MLS but in the sport of soccer itself.

Why is soccer becoming more popular?

Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, with the Men’s FIFA World Cup attracting billions of viewers worldwide. But why is it only taking off in the U.S. now?

International Stars

Much like the days of Pele and Beckenbauer, superstar players attract attention as people want to see the world’s best players up close and personal. A wealth of big names have been attracted in recent years, putting the spotlight on the MLS and increasing interest in the game.

David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kaka, Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney and David Villa have all graced the MLS and raised the image of the league. While Gonzalo Higuain and French World Wup winner Blaise Matuidi, who currently play for Inter Miami, are part of the new generation.

The MLS is now seen as an attractive proposition for these world class talents, thanks to full stadiums and a wider fan base. Which explains why rumours linking Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to the league continue to circulate.

Not only have these great players helped raise awareness of soccer, but they have also improved the level of the game. The MLS is now an entertaining, quality product full of exciting, talented players.

The success of women’s soccer

The U.S. women are the most successful international women’s soccer team in the world. They have won four World Cups, in 1991, 1999, 2015 and 2019 and four Olympic Golds in 1996, 2004, 2008 and 2012.

Players like Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Mia Hamm and Hope Solo are household names in America. Their long and continued success, has helped push soccer into the spotlight and, more importantly, keep it there.

The women’s soccer success has played a huge part in driving up the sports participation amongst kids, especially girls. Many of whom feel that Football, Basketball and Baseball do not have any relevance to them.

American Players Overseas

The number of American’s playing soccer in the top European leagues has grown substantially. This influx of players has helped create more interest back home and further raised interest in the game.

Many of these players are playing at the highest level for some of the best clubs in the world. Zack Steffen at Manchester City, Sergiño Dest at Barcelona and Weston McKennie for Juventus are great examples.

In January 2019, Christian Pulisic was signed by Chelsea from Borussia Dortmund for $73 million. A world record for an American player.

Increased Investment

In 2009, MLS was made up of only 15 teams. Since then, it has nearly doubled in size in a decade, with aims to reach at least 30.

MLS Expansion Schedule

  • 2010 (16 teams): Philadelphia Union
  • 2011 (18 teams): Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps
  • 2012 (19 teams): Montreal Impact
  • 2015 (20 teams): NYCFC, Orlando City
  • 2017 (22 teams): Atlanta United, Minnesota United
  • 2018 (23 teams): LAFC
  • 2019 (24 teams): FC Cincinnati
  • 2020 (26 teams): Inter Miami CF, Nashville SC
  • 2021 (27 teams): Austin FC
  • 2022 (29 teams): St. Louis, Sacramento

In order to grow the leagues popularity, investment has been a key driver. But it buying a team does not come cheap.

In 2013 the owners of New York City FC agreed to pay a record $100 million fee in order to join the MLS. That record was soon surpassed by the owners of FC Cincinnati and Nashville SC, which each paid $150 million.

The MLS recently announced that the owners of the 28th and 29th teams to join, will each pay a record $200 million entrance fee. While it’s rumoured that the 30th expansion team will be expected to pay a whopping $325 million.

Former England international and L.A, Galaxy midfielder David Beckham, recently became co-owner of new expansion team Inter Miami. Austin FC, Charlotte, St. Louis and Sacramento are expected to join the MLS in the next few years.

Creating a wider national reach through expansion, is seen as essential to securing television rights, as MLS aims to become one of the top leagues in the world.

Can MLS compete with Europe?

The English Premier League not only attracts stars from around the world, but also million-dollar investment. Several clubs, including Liverpool, are owned by Billionaire Americans who know a good thing when they see one.

However, MLS is not only growing, but its attracting and creating more and more stars. With viewing figures and attendances rising, there is every reason to be optimistic about its future.

As the league continues its ambitious expansion plans, basketball, baseball, football and the big European leagues, have every reason to be worried.