ESPN’s Max Kellerman may have spoken for many in sports media when he recently said, “in the United States of America, no one really cares about hockey. The old joke is, in every town there’s 20,000 hockey fans [and] they all have season tickets. So the arenas are always sold out, but the TV ratings don’t do anything. It’s not one of the four major team sports.”
So what is America’s fourth-favorite team sport – hockey or soccer? It’s an important question for fans of both sports because if you watch FOX and ESPN talk shows, follow mainstream media voices on social media, read local newspaper sites, or listen to sports talk radio, you won’t find much hockey or soccer coverage. Which is why it’s important for both sports to attract more fans for better coverage, better TV deals, and more investment in each sport.
Hockey and soccer share more in common with each other than with baseball, basketball, and football. They’re both free-flowing sports, unlike stop-and-start baseball and football. Basketball is free-flowing as well, but in hockey and soccer the misses can be as thrilling as the makes. With goals being relatively rare, hockey and soccer fans savor the chances created by intricate passing and intelligent movement. Superficially, hockey is just soccer on adderall. And when it comes to popularity, both hockey and soccer are foreign imports that have been trying to break into the American mainstream for decades.
A Gallup poll from 2017 found that 7% of Americans consider soccer to be their favorite sport to watch, good enough for fourth best. Hockey was the fifth-favorite at 4%. But polls aren’t as convincing as the amount of people who push through stadium turnstiles or pay for pricey cable and streaming packages to actually watch the games.
So let’s take a look at America’s love for hockey and soccer, with the caveat that it’s not as simple as comparing the NHL with MLS. Major League Soccer, fueled by 25 years of remarkable growth, is a lot closer to the NHL in stature than many might think. But it becomes an unfair fight for hockey once you add in all the foreign soccer leagues like Liga MX and the Premier League that Americans enjoy watching. We’ll put aside the question of which soccer league is America’s favorite, except to note that while Liga MX and the Premier League have more national TV viewers than MLS, as Jon Marthaler said in Minnesota’s Star-Tribune, “add local TV and match attendance to the national TV numbers and the idea that MLS is third place – or worse – in its own country doesn’t stand up.” What we’ll see below will show that while more people watch the NHL’s biggest games than any soccer league’s biggest matches, overall more people watch and play soccer than hockey.
As compared to MLB, the NFL, and the NBA, both the NHL and MLS are better known for their raucous live crowds than for big TV ratings.
MLS clubs averaged 21,310 fans per game in 2019 while NHL teams averaged 17,380 per game in its mostly completed 2019-20 season. It was similar the year before, as the overall MLS average crowd per game in 2018 was 21,873 while the NHL’s in 2018-19 was 17,377. But MLS clubs play fewer matches and generally play in larger stadiums than NHL teams. Nine American MLS clubs, Atlanta, Seattle, Cincinnati, Portland, the LA Galaxy, Orlando, LAFC, NYCFC, and Minnesota average more fans per game than fit in the Chicago Blackhawks’ rink, which is the highest-capacity NHL arena in America.
There are 13 MLS clubs that go head-to-head with the NHL in the same market. The NHL has the slight edge when comparing the average attendances for its mostly completed 2019-20 season with the 2019 MLS season. Seven NHL teams averaged better crowds than their MLS counterparts. But MLS won the head-to-head battle with the NHL the season before, with the New England Revolution being the swing club.
Save for the two LA MLS clubs over the LA Kings and the Red Bulls over the New Jersey Devils, no MLS club is more relevant than its NHL counterpart in a shared market. But NHL teams have the advantage of a long history in some of America’s biggest cities that has created generations of fans. MLS has made significant strides over its brief 25-year existence. MLS’ five most popular clubs – Atlanta United, the Seattle Sounders, the Portland Timbers, and the two LA clubs, have crossed over into mainstream relevance and renown. And the new kids, Nashville and Miami, have the potential to join those clubs in widespread popularity.
MLS fans are now famous the world over for their loyalty, passion, and more importantly, their social consciousness. This is an audience that emerged sui generis over the past 25 years. And MLS’ newest clubs are its strongest. Nine of 2019’s best supported MLS clubs were recent expansion sides. MLS’s biggest success is in Atlanta, a city in which the NHL failed twice with the Flames and the Thrashers.
Women’s soccer is a far bigger phenomenon than women’s hockey in America. Last year, the NWSL average attendance for its 9 clubs was 7,337 a game. The Portland Thorns, with 20,098 fans per game, and the Utah Royals, with 10,774 fans per game, enjoy the strongest support in the NWSL. Meanwhile, the National Women’s Hockey League is trying to establish itself. The NWHL’s average attendance in the 2018-19 season was 954 fans a game.
The NHL, MLS, NWSL, and NWHL rely heavily on gate revenue. But as fans may not be able to return to stadiums in big numbers anytime soon, massive TV viewership will be more important than ever.
2. Each League’s Most-Watched Game in 2019
Championship game audiences are a good indicator of how wide a league’s reach is. With around 100 million viewers, the Super Bowl is routinely America’s most-watched TV program of the year. The NBA Finals and World Series attract tens of millions of viewers. These numbers are why they are mainstream sports worthy of mainstream media coverage.
8.72 million tuned in to watch last year’s Stanley Cup Game 7 between the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins. With 3.3 million viewers on Univision, 2019’s most-watched soccer league match in the United States was the Liga MX Apertura Final’s second leg in which Monterrey downed Club América on penalties.
The most-watched MLS match of 2019 was Atlanta’s 3-3 draw with the Red Bulls, which aired after the Women’s World Cup Final on FOX and drew 1.61 million viewers. FOX didn’t release streaming numbers for the match. The Premier League’s most-watched match of the 2018-2019 season was Arsenal 2-0 win over Manchester United in March. It snagged 1.68 million viewers and streamers across NBC, Telemundo, and the NBC Sports app. 2.9 million watched Liverpool’s Champions League Final triumph over Tottenham on TNT and Univision. And 1.27 million viewers watched Seattle beat Toronto in the MLS Cup Final on ABC and Univision.
Going up against an NFL Sunday hurt the 2019 MLS Cup Final’s viewership. In 2018, 1.76 million people watched the MLS Cup Final when it was held on a Saturday.
Over the past ten years, the average audience for each Stanley Cup has been around 5 million viewers per game. And an average of 7.16 million people have tuned in for each of the last five Stanley Cup clinchers. There’s no single Liga MX, Premier League, Champions League, or MLS match that can reach the Stanley Cup’s heights.
3. Regular Season TV Audience
Regular season TV audience is a good measure of a league’s core fanbase. There are lots of casual sports fans who don’t watch actual games all that often. Following a team on social media is easy. So is wearing a t-shirt. And there are plenty of people who attend games just for a good time or as a social activity. Imagine someone saying that they’re a Travis Scott fan but admitting that they’ve never heard his music. Or a Christopher Nolan fan who’s never seen his movies. Yet these kinds of fans exist in sports. The true supporters are the ones who actually make the effort to watch regular season games.
With an average of 737,000 viewers per match in 2019, Liga MX reigns supreme over all other soccer leagues and the NHL when it comes to average TV audience. But Liga MX is buoyed by having most of its matches air on broadcast TV. Whereas the vast majority of Premier League, NHL, Champions League, and MLS regular season matches are on cable.
What’s old is new again, so leagues are realizing that they need to get back on broadcast television. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban echoed NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s concerns when he said, “the majority of homes with millennials and younger in the household, they don’t have traditional cable TV. And so the number of options for them to get our games is minimal and that’s going to hurt our ratings because other than MLS, we [the NBA] have the youngest viewing the league…[O]nce we start having games on broadcast television then things should pick up significantly.”
Over-the-air Fox broadcast four MLS matches last year, and those averaged a robust 862,000 viewers. Before the pandemic, MLS was wisely planning on moving more regular season games from cable to over-the-air Fox, ABC, and Univision. As writer Jabari Young noted for CNBC, “MLS having more network exposure increases sponsorship value for media partners and ratings for the league, especially in the era of cord-cutting.”
Overall, MLS national TV ratings are not far behind the Premier League and ahead of the Bundesliga, La Liga, and the Champions League’s group stage, which is its regular season equivalent. MLS’ average across FOX, ESPN, ESPN2, FS1, FS2, Univision, UniMás for the 2019 season was 268,081. And last seasons’ four single-elimination playoff matches on ESPN and ESPN2 attracted an average of 388,000 viewers. Local TV ratings aren’t available for each MLS club, but shouldn’t be overlooked when discussing MLS’ popularity relative to other soccer leagues.
NBC uses a different, slightly inflated, metric that most other networks for measuring viewers. It reports a total audience delivery average of 457,000 viewers during its Premier League match windows in the 2018-19 season on its English-language networks. The 2018-19 Champions League group stage on TNT averaged 202,333 fans.
Last year, NWSL matches on ESPN’s networks averaged 81,000 viewers. The playoffs on ESPN2 did better, with an average of 148,000 viewers. The opening match of this year’s NWSL Challenge Cup, airing on CBS, was an unprecedented success as its average audience was 527,000 viewers. It was the most-watched match in NWSL history. CBS will also air the NWSL Challenge Cup Final on July 26th.
The NHL’s total audience delivery average was 424,000 viewers and streamers on NBC, NBCSN, and the NBC Sports App during the 2018-19 regular season. But it’s in the playoffs where the NHL really shines. An average of 1.53 million viewers watched or streamed 2019 Stanley Cup playoff games across all rounds.
All these numbers only give us a rough idea of each league’s audience. There’s an element of “apples and oranges” with these viewing numbers aside from the slightly different reporting methods. NHL games are often on weeknights. “Wednesday Night Hockey” is NBCSN’s stalwart league showcase. Champions League matches on weekday afternoons face no other live sports competition in America. Premier League matches air on weekend mornings where the only other competition is from Spanish and German soccer. Further helping the Premier League is the fact that La Liga and the Bundesliga have been on cable channels, BeIn Sports and FS1/FS2, that don’t have NBCSN’s reach. The Bundesliga will be moving to ESPN+ beginning with the 2020-21 season.
MLS, on the other hand, must go against weekend NBA and NHL playoff games in the spring. The summer brings competition from baseball and the many international soccer tournaments that now air in America. Then in the fall, MLS drowns, just like every other sport in America, against college football Saturdays and NFL Sundays.
4. National TV Contracts
TV viewership matters more than live attendance because that’s where the big money is. NBC pays the NHL $200 million a year to broadcast its games. In Canada, where hockey ratings are significantly higher, Rogers Communications is paying the NHL an average of $416 million a year. That money helps maintain the NHL’s status as the world’s best hockey league and helps keep good European players away from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
MLS earns approximately $90 million a year in TV money from ESPN, FOX, and Univision and will be looking for a bigger payday when it negotiates its TV rights again in 2022. NBC pays the Premier League approximately $166 million a year for broadcast rights. CBS and Univision will be paying around $150 million a year to broadcast the Champions League. Liga MX clubs negotiate their American TV rights deals independently. This past season, Liga MX matches aired on Univision, FS1, and ESPN Deportes among others. A current value isn’t available, but as of 2018, Liga MX American TV rights were worth around $110 million a year.
But these contracts pale in comparison to America’s three most popular sports -baseball, basketball, and football’s money machines go “beep-beep” like Gucci Mane’s.
Turner and ABC/ESPN are paying the NBA approximately $2.7 billion a year for broadcast rights. Fox is paying MLB approximately $728 million a year, and Turner will now be paying around $470 million a year to MLB for its deal. ESPN pays MLB around $700 million a year.
Baseball and basketball have similar regular season national audience sizes. For example, in 2019, ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball averaged 1.6 million viewers, while national NBA broadcasts during the 2019-20 season averaged around 1.64 million viewers. But baseball is becoming more of a regional sport than a national sport. The World Series was once the 2nd-most watched team sports championship in America. But the NBA Finals average audience beat the World Series in 9 of the past 10 years.
And of course, American football is in a different stratosphere. For example, in 2019, CBS averaged 7.1 million viewers for college football while ESPN’s NFL Monday Night Football averaged 12.6 million viewers. The NFL earns $7.6 billion a year in all for its broadcast and streaming rights. And ESPN recently acquired a package of the SEC’s best games for $330 million a year.
After seeing those numbers, MLS commissioner Don Garber and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman might think of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s words – “there’s plenty of money in this country. It’s just in the wrong hands.”
5. National Teams
When it comes to soccer, American fans stay true to the red, white, and blue. US Soccer has pulled in massive, mainstream viewership numbers over the years. The most-watched soccer game of all time in this country remains the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final between the US and Japan, which drew 26.67 million viewers. And between 2015 and 2019, USWNT matches averaged 929,000 viewers.
The USMNT’s dramatic draw with Portugal in the 2014 World Cup group stage remains the most-watched men’s soccer match in America of all time, with 24.7 million viewers. Last year, USMNT matches averaged 737,944 viewers.
And when it comes to international matches, it’s not just US Soccer that draws big numbers. Germany’s win over Argentina in the 2014 World Cup Final drew 26.72 million viewers.
The most-watched hockey game of all time remains the 1980 Miracle on Ice game between the USA and the USSR. 34.2 million tuned in to the tape-delayed broadcast in prime time. 32.8 million then watched two days later as the US won gold against Finland. In 2010, 27.6 million people watched as Sidney Crosby scored in OT to give Canada the gold against the United States.
But the NHL impetuously pulled its players from the Olympics, causing viewers to tune out. Only 1.6 million tuned in for a US – Slovakia Olympic group stage game in 2018. To make up for its Olympic exodus, the NHL organized a World Cup with its players in 2016. The average Hockey World Cup viewership was 425,000 while 766,000 tuned in for a US-Canada group stage game on ESPN.
Bringing back the Hockey World Cup with pros in 2016 was a decent effort, but holding it every four years is a tough way to grow a new tournament. The NHL could host a blockbuster annual tournament featuring Canada, the US, and Russia to replace its divisional 3-on-3 All Star game. Thankfully, it looks like the NHL will now allow its players to play in the 2022 Beijing and 2026 Milan Cortina Winter Olympic Games.
Women’s hockey is growing in popularity. 4.9 million tuned in for Canada’s Olympic Final win over the US in 2014, and 3.7 million watched the US get revenge over Canada in 2018. But only being able to really shine at the Olympics hurts US Hockey’s appeal.
6. Playing the Game
Handball, which requires only a wall, a ball, and one pal to play against, might be the only sport that’s easier to play than soccer, where you need at least 3 pals.
So comparing soccer participation with hockey is difficult because it costs so much more to play hockey. And rinks are hard to find outside of the Northeast and Upper Midwest. For example, Los Angeles County only has eight.
One study, from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association in 2018, estimates that 2.2 million kids ages 6 to 12 play soccer while 324,000 play hockey. The same organization, in 2018, estimated that there are 11.9 million soccer players of all ages, and 2.5 million hockey players. USA Hockey has 383,652 registered youth players and 561,700 overall. US Youth soccer estimates that there are 3 million soccer players aged 5 to 19.
No single soccer league can match the NHL’s reach when you consider both its regular season and Stanley Cup playoff viewership. But as a whole, soccer is bigger in the United States than hockey. More people play the beautiful game and more people watch it on TV. And the USWNT is a bigger phenomenon than any American hockey team since the 1980 Miracle on Ice. Still, there are many media members who think that America only has three major team sports.
Hockey writer Greg Wyshynski explained, “soccer and hockey exist outside of the ‘Big Three.’ It’s an odd disconnect between the size of their fan bases and the coverage they receive. Part of it is that the hosts and commentators in sports media are ill-equipped to talk about these sports in in-depth ways without resorting to generalizations and hot-takery. Part of it, though, is a slavish dedication to decades of NFL/MLB/NBA overkill that leaves no room for coverage of other sports.”
LAFC lead managing owner Larry Berg boasted back in February that, “I think we definitely have the demographics in our favor in terms of youth and diversity. I think we’ll pass baseball and hockey to be the number three sport in the U.S. behind football and basketball.”
Hockey versus soccer? Like the little girl says in the meme, why not both? Of course, true sports fans should appreciate and enjoy both. But there’s a finite amount of TV money and premium TV time slots out there. So the NHL, MLS, Premier League, Champions League, Liga MX, Bundesliga, La Liga, and the NWSL continue to face the same fight in attracting as many fans as possible to make their leagues as attractive as possible to TV networks.
Why is that important? Money and respect. Money means the best players. And respect means mainstream coverage. Sports are the ultimate communal experience; we don’t want to watch sports in a vacuum. We want to exult with others in victory and wallow in shared misery after defeat. Sports are how we bond with family, friends, and strangers who become friends.
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