Soccer musings: MLS growth, popularity and salaries

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Major League Soccer (MLS) was founded in 1993 because FIFA made it a requirement for the U.S. to be able to host the 1994 World Cup. It struggled to gain traction at the onset but has continued to increase in popularity. According to Forbes, average attendance has increased 35 percent from 2000 (13,700 fans) to 2013 (18,600 fans), and an ESPN poll showed that the percentage of people who considered themselves “avid fans” increased 43 percent from 2002 to 2012.

From the Forbes piece:

MLS’ avid fan base is the fastest growing of any sport, outpacing all others in the ten-year periods from 2001 to 2011 as well as 2002 to 2012. And the gains come from nearly all ages of both genders.

I’m not sure if it’s impressive that a professional sports league that started out as a simple obligatory response to FIFA has grown so quickly, or if it’s incredible that it took this long for U.S. sports fans to get on board with arguably the world’s most popular sport.

[A somewhat tangential fun fact: The median base salary for MLS players as of May 2013 was $75,000 and the average was $141,900. For comparison, the median salary in the MLB in 2013 was $1.1 million and the average was $3.4 million. (I’m including the median because in both leagues there is significant income disparity between a handful of players at the top and the rest of the league, which makes the average a little misleading.) In fact, a lot of professional-caliber players in the U.S. elect to play in semi-pro leagues while they work full-time jobs in finance or other more lucrative industries.]

Clark Hunt, chairman and CEO of the Kansas City Chiefs and founding investor-owner in MLS, told Forbes he thought that soccer could be the No. 2 sport in the U.S. in his lifetime. (Hunt is 48.) I don’t know that I’d go that far yet, but between the facts and figures and anecdotes from various people, it does seem like the MLS could be on the verge of a pretty considerable growth spurt. It got me thinking about the start of other professional leagues in the U.S., and I believe the NBA also struggled to gain popularity, particularly with TV audiences, early on. I’m not as familiar with the history of the NHL, but I’d be curious if there are analogies with MLS since they’re both sports that were popular elsewhere first, before expanding to the U.S. Maybe a topic for another time…

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