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Leagues: MLS

Why soccer is bigger than hockey in the United States

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.
 
1.  Attendance

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.
 
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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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37 Comments

37 Comments

  1. Donald Swanson

    May 16, 2021 at 3:41 am

    Soccer is only popular in those cities where a lot of larinos live (Miami, Orlando, LA, NY, Newark…). Real americans only enjoy NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and on a smaller scale NASCAR, Indycar and bowling.

  2. Mike

    August 5, 2020 at 10:20 pm

    MLS hasn’t caught up to the NHL, but the growth potential is much greater for MLS. The NHL is already the unquestioned 800 lb gorilla of hockey leagues in this world. MLS is still chasing Liga MX and then after that a lot of other leagues. If MLS gets to a point where its best teams dominate the region while producing legit top 50 clubs in global rankings, that’s when we will really see something.

    • Donald Duck

      August 6, 2020 at 9:27 am

      I personally think if we ever see promotion and relegation that will make the MLS take off. USL will also become bigger just because of the possibility of promotion of small teams/cities.

  3. Tom

    July 24, 2020 at 2:17 am

    Another thing to throw into the TV ratings equation is international soccer. Even if you count the World Cup as a once-every-four-years anomaly, there are other international matches played outside the World Cup that generate strong viewership. Here is the most-watched non-World Cup soccer game in 2019:

    July 7: Gold Cup Final (USMNT vs Mexico) – 2.880m (FS1) + 5.900m (Univision) = 8.780m total
    https://worldsoccertalk.com/2019/07/10/watched-soccer-games-us-tv-june-24-july-7-2019/

    A non-World Cup soccer game outdrew the most-watched ice hockey game in 2019–in a year where the NHL posted its most-watched Stanley Cup Final game in almost 50 years.
    https://icehockey.fandom.com/wiki/Stanley_Cup_Finals_television_ratings

    • Aram Gumusyan

      July 29, 2020 at 12:50 pm

      Great point

  4. Leo

    July 12, 2020 at 12:33 pm

    Lol. Bizarre title of the article when not even one bullet of the analysis put MLS ahead of NHL.

    • Aram

      July 29, 2020 at 12:49 pm

      The headline doesn’t say that MLS is ahead of the NHL.

      • JT

        August 4, 2020 at 7:53 pm

        Yes, exactly, I don6know all these touchy hockey fans continually fall into that trap. The article, and the broader question, is about a comparison of two SPORTS, NOT TWO LEAGUES. Soccer fandom and consumption is fragmented and spread out. Hockey’s is not. Knowing that, I guess it’s no surprise that hockey fans would continually try to distill the question to NHL v. MLS.

  5. 11

    July 11, 2020 at 12:18 pm

    Recognizing quality over well attended mediocrity is not a sin Mark S…and I wear my Euro Snob designation with pride!!

  6. Mark S

    July 11, 2020 at 11:59 am

    Living in “hockey mad” Minnesota, I don’t know if I would go so far to say that soccer is bigger than hockey in the US. Again, I live in a state where the annual high school hockey tournament draws a crowd of 20,000 to see the championship game. There is waiting list to get tickets to the Big School (AA) tournament. On the flip side, Minnesota United has done insanely well with their new stadium. I have attended a match at Allianz Field, and the atmosphere/experience was fantastic. I will also say that my favorite sport to attend in person is hockey. You can’t beat the energy/buzz watching a big time game of hockey at Xcel Energy Center. In the grand scheme of things, you’re trying to compare two sports that are a long ways off in terms of popularity from the football, basketball, and baseball. The casual sports fan can tell you what’s going on with the NFL, NBA, and MLB, however they’d struggle to tell you who won the Stanley Cup or MLS Cup trophy. Heck, I follow all of the major 5 sports religiously and I was struggling to remember that the St Louis Blues and Seattle Sounders won their respective leagues. It’s like trying to argue about who is better at the Olympics, the 4th or 5th place finisher in the 100m dash? Neither of them got a medal, so what’s the point?

    In Minnesota you’ll see Loons fans and Wild fans are usually the same people, and I don’t think they care which one of their teams is more popular. They just hope that their successful!

    Also, if you take the European Leagues out of the conversation…is the MLS really that more popular than the NHL? I’d have to say that it is not. I never miss an Arsenal match, however I can’t say the same thing about watching Minnesota United. Go ahead…call me an American-Euro snob! 🙂

  7. The Second Division

    July 10, 2020 at 10:37 pm

    In spite of the introduction of European sports into US TV/streaming markets, many Americans have a somewhat provincial outlook on sports; most still preferring made in America sporting events. Local sporting news is so massively dull, with no mention of European football, and little mention of hockey. It’s usually endless NBA, College and or NFL football. I thank my lucky stars that ESPN+ carries bags of Euro football, and BBC Radio 5 Live devote loads of time to the beautiful game, plus radio commentary for Premier League matches (via Express VPN, a must)! Forget ESPN and the endless yakety-yak about ‘the paint’ and ‘out of the shotgun’. Tune into BBC radio, ESPN+, and the good podcasts that celebrate the ‘beautiful game’.

  8. Azer

    July 10, 2020 at 8:01 pm

    This entire article is missing a point. Good luck finding any soccer news, highlights or discussions on ESPN’s flagship program Sports Center. There is more hockey than soccer. The same goes for all other programs whether it’s on ESPN, FS1 or anywhere. Soccer is only worth covering every 4 years and even then, they would rather tell you what the LA Lakers are up to. Do you ever see any of the pundits get passionate about any soccer. Do they ever talk about FC Barcelona or Liverpool? Let’s be honest, the NY Rangers, the Boston Bruins or any NHL team get more coverage then any soccer. Ask any of the networks or pundits what they would rather talk about. My point is hockey is more covered than soccer in the USA.

    • Donald Duck

      July 11, 2020 at 7:28 am

      Espn only hires NBA/NFL talking heads no other sports matter to those idiots. I gave up years ago on Cable ESPN and now only use ESPN+i never want to hear a “hot take” again from them.

    • JT

      August 4, 2020 at 7:48 pm

      OK but if so, that demostrates:

      1. The insularity of US sports media.
      2. Shows the popularity of soccer despite not getting the boosting power of media coverage.

  9. NaBUru38

    July 10, 2020 at 6:17 pm

    “only being able to really shine at the Olympics hurts US Hockey’s appeal”

    The IIHF Women’s World Championship has been held annually (except on Olympic years) since 1990. United States has won the past 5 editions, including as hosts in 2017.

    The problem is that NHL doesn’t care about women’s ice hockey, and the other authorities are powerless.

  10. Lee

    July 10, 2020 at 3:52 pm

    Yup, I did, too. I watched the replay with my parents. I was 6. I remember it well. In the live intro to the tape-delayed game, there were fans celebrating behind the ABC announcer. It was pretty obvious what had happened …

    Your point about the NHL bringing in four times the revenue of MLS is dead on. I love soccer, but let’s not get crazy about how popular it is in the US.

  11. Yespage

    July 10, 2020 at 3:12 pm

    If you need an article to demonstrate that soccer is bigger than hockey, then clearly, at best it is a draw.

    And why is it even a question to begin with? Soccer popularity is on soccer, not hockey. If soccer was a huge deal, more than 0.001% of America would care about the US Open Cup.

  12. Robert

    July 10, 2020 at 2:22 pm

    Popularity is not about the money, for sure for now hockey is a bigger money maker. As the article author pointed out the number of people playing soccer is much higher. This will move soccer ahead of hockey the near future.

    • Barry

      July 10, 2020 at 4:21 pm

      More kids have been playing soccer than hockey for decades. You could read that same argument about soccer overtaking hockey 30 years ago, but it hasn’t come close to happening yet. I like hockey but I much prefer soccer to hockey. I hope soccer grows into a major sport that rivals baseball and hockey in this country. And I understand why this site does some cheerleading for the sport. But there is a reality here. Americans vote with their wallets, and the results of the voting on this issue aren’t that close.

      • Aram

        July 11, 2020 at 2:19 pm

        “More kids have been playing soccer than hockey for decades” and that’s exactly why soccer has grown from being extremely niche in the 80s/90s to being a mainstream sport today. And that’s exactly why it will continue to grow. As recently as the 2000s there was very little soccer on TV. Now look at it.

        • Barry

          July 11, 2020 at 5:07 pm

          Sure, soccer is growing. That isn’t the point. For the past 30 years people have been predicting that soccer will surpass hockey and baseball because so many kids play soccer. Yet it still isn’t close to being true. That’s the point. So color me skeptical about using the same argument over and over again without it happening.

      • JT

        August 4, 2020 at 7:45 pm

        Not true. Soccer viewership and consumption has grown exponentially compared to hockey in the USA over the last 30 years. Yours is an unsubstantiated cliche. There is no way that the English Premier League would have been on American TV 30 years ago and garner more regular season American viewership than the NHL (the EPL does not have playoffs). So your statement is demonstrably false.

  13. Lee

    July 10, 2020 at 1:11 pm

    Some of this I don’t understand.

    The attendance argument: NHL teams play in arenas with limited capacity. Most arenas don’t seat more than 18,000 or so fans. Most MLS clubs play in stadiums that seat at least 20k, in lots of cases many more. By percentage of capacity filled, the NHL wins overwhelmingly. It’s not close. Plus, while it’s fair to compare markets with both leagues, it just so happens that the Kings, Rangers and Devils have been pretty lousy the last few years. Even the Sharks have had a terrible season, so that plays a role, too.

    TV audience: Where did you get the NHL number? Does it include the regional networks that show the vast majority of NHL games? If that’s an NBC-only number, it’s not at all representative of the overall NHL audience. Same goes for TV contracts. Are the regional network contracts included in that number? And it’s a little disingenuous to exclude the Stanley Cup playoffs from that number as well. That tips the scales well in favor of the NHL.

    National teams: Only relevant in the country once every four years. Not really a great metric. On the plus side for soccer, 1980 is such an extreme outlier that it’s not really relevant. There were only three or four channels in many markets back then, and the win was historic to say the least.

    Playing the game: I coach soccer and love soccer. I know plenty of kids, though, who play soccer and don’t play hockey but would much rather watch hockey. Participation doesn’t always lead to interest. To be fair, girls are quickly closing that gap, but I think the generations Gen Z and younger are unlikely to watch whole sporting events with any frequency, anyway.

    Honestly, is there any major city with franchises in both leagues where MLS is bigger than the NHL?

    • Barry

      July 10, 2020 at 2:17 pm

      The research for this article left a lot to be desired. The 1980 hockey gold medal game against Finland was watched by 32.8 million viewers and the 2010 gold medal game was watched by 27.6 million. So three hockey games, the russian game as well as the gold medal games in 1980 and 2010, drew larger american tv audiences than any soccer game in history.

      By the way, the 1980 russian game was broadcast on tape delay. It is likely most of the country already knew the final score before the telecast started. I certainly did.

      https://www.scpr.org/news/2010/03/01/12479/27-million-viewers-tune-winter-olympics-gold-medal/

      • Lee A Pender

        July 10, 2020 at 3:52 pm

        Yup, I did, too. I watched the replay with my parents. I was 6. I remember it well. In the live intro to the tape-delayed game, there were fans celebrating behind the ABC announcer. It was pretty obvious what had happened …

        Your point about the NHL bringing in four times the revenue of MLS is dead on. I love soccer, but let’s not get crazy about how popular it is in the US.

        • Barry

          July 10, 2020 at 4:24 pm

          At the time I lived in Duluth, MN. One of the radio stations up there picked up the feed from a canadian station broadcast. They claimed they were the only station in America broadcasting the game. So there I was alone in my living room pacing the floor as the US tried to hold on. A lot of the players said the last ten minutes seemed to go on forever. That’s exactly the feeling I had listening to the game live.

        • JT

          August 4, 2020 at 7:37 pm

          You’ve fell into the trap. The question raised in the article is a comparison of the GAMES, not any two leagues. Soccer consumption is fragmented and spread out. Hockey is, for all intents and purposes, the NHL. A younger soccer market in the USA, with a much steeper growth trajectory in the USA, in an increasingly globalizing USA, has a much rosier future than ice hockey. So it’s a losing battle in trying to argue hockey’s relative position going forward. But I’m sure the hockey fans will continue to do so.

      • Aram

        July 11, 2020 at 2:17 pm

        The 32.8 million and 27.6 million hockey numbers were in the column. The problem with hockey is that the national team is only relevant every four years, where as the USMNT and USWNT play big matches every year. The NHL could push international play every year but chooses not to.

        • Barry Slavsky

          July 11, 2020 at 5:24 pm

          Where are all these big games the USMNT plays every year? In five years they have had two games with a TV audience over 7 million. During the same time period the Stanley Cup finals clinching game has AVERAGED more than that.

          • JT

            August 4, 2020 at 7:41 pm

            The USMNT plays tournaments like the Gold Cup, and plays important world cup qualifiers every couple of years. And an occasional Copa America, which will likely increase. And friendlies along the way. Evidently you don’t notice them. Well, I don’t notice any ice hockey so its understandable.

  14. Barry

    July 10, 2020 at 12:46 pm

    The NHL generates four times the revenue of MLS ($5 billion versus a little over one billion). Even if you subtract out the revenue contribution coming from the canadian NHL teams and canadian broadcast rights and add in the broadcast rights fees for all soccer leagues broadcasting in the US, soccer comes no where close to the NHL in total revenue. That’s why hockey players get paid so much more than soccer players.

    Citing attendance numbers without ticket cost is very misleading. The average NHL ticket price is $94, over three times the average MLS ticket. The NHL charges three times as much to watch a game and plays 50% more games, meaning the NHL generates over four times the ticket revenue that MLS does. People are willing to pay much more to see an NHL game in person.

    Even just looking at TV rights fees, the numbers presented in the article are incomplete, ignoring local broadcast rights. Teams like the New York Rangers make $35 million per year for their local TV rights while the LA Galaxy, one of the glamour franchises in MLS, gets $5.5 million. I suspect if you added up the local TV rights for every American based team in both sports the NHL would equal or better the total TV rights for all soccer leagues broadcasting in the US.

    Bottom line, people vote with their dollars. And in this case the data is clear they would rather spend the bulk of their money on hockey.

    • nosferatu

      July 10, 2020 at 1:16 pm

      Thank you for this! I love both sports, but reading this piece was getting that familiar feeling of hockey getting piled on unfairly as it often is (just look at the reference to that ignoramus, Max Kellerman, in the opening line). The breakdown is a lot more complex, as you show here. Ultimately, though, as a fan of both sports, the good thing is that each one has been on the rise here in the States over the past decade or so, with more games available to watch and deeper coverage than ever before.

    • JT

      August 4, 2020 at 7:13 pm

      “I suspect if you added up the local TV rights for every American based team in both sports the NHL would equal or better the total TV rights for all soccer leagues broadcasting in the US.”

      But you see, soccer consumption is fragmented. LigaMX, EPL, MLS, La Liga, CL, International soccer, women’s soccer etc. Ice hockey is almost exclusively channeled into the NHL. So the cumulative comparison is in your “equal” statement. Your statement that people put their money where their fandom is and so hockey is far more popular is not even closed to being framed properly. I watch MLS, USL, EPL, Bundesliga and other soccer and only have so much money to spread around on tickets, cable and streaming packages required to consume these multiple leagues. Moreover, the NHL and ice hockey (almost synonymous) has far deeper cultural roots and history in the USA Northeast than soccer in the USA. So you have to consider the trajectories of a young but growing soccer market and a far more established hockey market. There is a reason the last Gallup poll question “what’s your favorite sport to watch” showed soccer tied for second with basketball (!) among the 18 to 34 year old demographic (also known as “the future”) and hockey considerably further down.

  15. Eurosnob

    July 10, 2020 at 11:28 am

    What is the average salary of a NHL player verses MLS player? When I googled it, I got Average NHL player gets around $4,000,000 a year. MLS average pay is $414,803. This is the reason Hockey is 3rd and Soccer is 4th.

  16. Robert

    July 10, 2020 at 10:34 am

    Very informative and well written!
    Hockey is a northern game, why they have teams in the south is a mystery. Rinks have to be inside and are energy wasteful, so it is an artificial setup.
    World football can be played anywhere. This should mean continued growth for Football. Hockey promotes violence, people love the fights.
    Football is the most artistic and free flowing sport.
    Thank you for your fine work!

    • Eurosnob

      July 10, 2020 at 11:32 am

      In the 90’s and 2000’s, TEXAS had the most professional hockey teams in the nation!!!

  17. Donald Duck

    July 10, 2020 at 9:11 am

    Saying the NBA is a great free flowing game more like a great free throwing game. Im sorry I use to watch but damn the run down the court and just chuck up 3s because you dont want to get the easy 2 layup. Not to mention it takes an hour to play the final 5 minutes because of the constant fouls and the non stop timeouts.

    Ill say this too as to the womens matches is it that we are watching for the sport or for the political and sexuality stuff sorry if that offends someone but it is true.

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