Soccer surpasses NHL as 4th most popular sport in United States

4th most popular sport

Indisputably, soccer is the world’s most-popular sport. But is it the 4th most popular sport in the United States?

The beautiful thing about soccer is that it extends beyond just one league. Taken as a whole, the sport is bigger than ever before. In spite of this, it is no secret that MLS pales in comparison to the major European Leagues. Those leagues have devout fanbases stateside. Having said that, Liga MX garners even more support than MLS and the Premier League.

For instance, in 2018, the Liga MX final pulled in almost 5 million viewers combined over two legs. Each game averaged around 2.5 million viewers, more than MLS. Such is the nature of the diverse culture persisting in the United States.

As stated above, European leagues also rake in consistently large numbers. For example, the Premier League, the most-followed European league in the U.S., averages numbers that rival American leagues. Over the last three seasons, the Premier League averaged roughly 450,000 viewers per game. While the NBA and NFL pull in larger audiences, these are national broadcasts on primetime that we get the numbers for. It is important to consider things like kickoff times, broadcast locations and overlapping fixtures when looking at Premier League viewership.

READ MORE: How kickoff times influence soccer viewership in the U.S.

This also ties into the growth. The NFL and NBA over the aforementioned period of time showed dropping audiences. While the Premier League viewership in the U.S. dipped in 2020/21, there is consistent developments over the last decade.

Yes, the beauty of soccer is that it extends beyond one league. However, it also makes it more difficult to compare it against other sports. If Liga MX, Premier League, MLS and LaLiga numbers were combined into one soccer “entity,” how would it compare? And what metrics would be used to compare the popularity? TV viewing numbers alone aren’t enough. It’s a combination of various metrics.

Let’s take a closer look.

How Soccer is the 4th most popular sport

Ask most Americans on the street to name the top four sports in this country. Chances are it will be the same answer. Football, basketball, baseball and hockey.

We have heard that same top four so many times that it is ingrained in our sports culture. For instance, watch any sports talking heads show on ESPN, FOX or a different broadcaster. That top four list of football, basketball, baseball and hockey is again beaten into our brains. Not surprisingly, soccer is largely ignored on these shows.

However, what they — and many fútbol fans — may not realize is that soccer has eclipsed hockey. Soccer is the fourth most favorite sport to watch among American adults, according to Gallup. Not only that, but soccer is breathing down the neck of baseball. In that same Gallup poll, baseball’s two percent lead over soccer is the slimmest margin that a third spot has held over fourth in the last 20 years.

Furthermore, the average age of a baseball fan is 57 and rising. With soccer, it’s 35. In the same manner, nearly 70 percent of soccer fans in America are younger than 40 years old.

Moreover, soccer is the second most popular sport in the United States among Americans aged 12-24. Baseball ranks number five among that age group.

Just as important, soccer is making huge gains among Hispanic Americans and younger viewers. Firstly, soccer is the most popular sport among Hispanic Americans aged 12-24. Secondly, the sport of soccer is also increasingly popular among Americans aged 6-17. In fact, eleven percent of the TV audience who watch Premier League soccer on NBCSN are kids 6-17, compared to only 4.6% of World Series audience, 9.4% of NBA Conference Finals audience and 9% of NHL Conference Finals.

What these numbers tell us is that soccer has broken the top four glass ceiling. It is now the 4th most popular sport. Equally important, soccer will become the third most popular sport in the near future.

In fact, LAFC lead managing owner Larry Berg boasted this in 2020: “I think [MLS] 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.”

Playing the game

The global nature of soccer and its relative ease of access means it persists in other avenues as well.

For example, simply playing the sport. There are a multitude of reasons that children in the United States avoid certain sports. Concussions largely push parents and children away from American football. Soccer is not immune to that, perhaps that is why we see modified regulations regarding heading for children in youth soccer.

Comparatively, soccer ranks third in terms of most-popular team sports for children aged 13 to 17. Basketball and Baseball are the only two higher, with soccer edging out tackle football. The one caveat is that the survey, conducted by the Aspen Institute, is that flag football and tackle football are counted separately. Combined, American football ranks third.

Soccer may sit behind baseball, basketball and football, but it is comfortably in front of ice hockey, field hockey and lacrosse. Lacrosse and soccer are certainly growing among American youth. However, as things stand, soccer is firmly the 4th most popular sport in terms of popularity.

Baseball is slipping, in more ways than one. As Aram Gumusyan reports:

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.

Quantity of soccer games a big factor

According to Nielsen, soccer garnered the most engagements based on traditional and digital viewership. For example, among each major sports league, soccer occupied four of the top-five leagues in terms of broadcast hours. Due to soccer’s enormous and diverse fanbase, LaLiga, the Premier League, the Bundesliga and the Champions League pushed out more content than almost any other sports league. The one exception came from the NBA, which sat in third in terms of broadcast hours.

Digitally, soccer leagues remain at the top. In terms of followers, the Champions League, LaLiga and the Premier League rank in the top-four. Once again, the NBA reaches the number-three spot in the rankings.

However, while these leagues dominate in terms of follower count or broadcast hours, they remain relatively average in terms of growth. Of course, it is hard to grow a league that already has an extensive reach.

MLS making a difference too

One league going under relatively strong growth is Major League Soccer.

Generally, American populations look at MLS as a subpar league, something not up to the standard of the European game. Ergo, smaller crowds show up, less people care about in on social media and it warrants less recognition than other sports.

In the United States, there is a traditional big-four. The National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League are widespread leagues that receive considerable followings.

Historically, sure, these are the four most popular leagues in the United States. Few would argue with the pedigree of the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball. However, in the modern era, soccer edges hockey as the fourth member of that illustrious club in the United States.

MLS influence on 4th most popular sport?

It can be hard for soccer in the United States to compare with such a drastically different timeline. The NBA began 75 years ago. The NFL, or at least the leagues that became the NFL, started just over 100 years ago. The NHL played its first season not long before then at 103 years ago. Major League Baseball holds the honor of being the oldest league, starting way back in 1903. However, the National League dates back 27 years before then.

Comparatively, Major League Soccer is young. While other leagues came and went, notably the National American Soccer League, Major League Soccer continues to grow. Starting in just 1996, MLS was the new league established after the 1994 World Cup in the United States.

Despite its public-thought not living up to the popularity of its competitors, the league has a solid, and growing home, across the country.

In fact, if we use the same Nielsen ratings as before, we see the MLS is actually one of the world’s, not just the country’s most popular leagues. Moreover, it shows that the MLS is fast-approaching the National Hockey League. First off, the cumulative reach of different leagues favors the NHL. Comparatively, the NHL has a cumulative reach of 359 million. However, according to Nielsen, 55 percent of that reach comes from China, where the NHL leads all U.S. events.

Personally, I cannot explain that phenomenon. The NBA’s circumstances with China prevented the league from airing in the country for the 2020 season. Certainly, that contributed to the NBA’s low reach, and perhaps it expanded that of the NHL.

In terms of broadcast hours, the MLS exceeds the NHL despite having less teams and less games played per season.

Growth

It is great having large numbers, but executives and fans alike still want more. Whether that be more fans following teams or more games played, there is seemingly endless potential.

Fortunately for American soccer fans, MLS shows considerable growth over the last decade. Entering the 2019 season, MLS experienced a 27% rise in interest since 2012, according to Nielsen Sports Sponsorlink. Moreover, stadium attendance continues to rise. Since 2009, the average attendance of MLS games jumped by over 6,000 up to 2017. Similarly, the average percentage of capacity during MLS games moved from 70% to 93% on that same span.

Top-four league in the U.S.?

If we base popularity on capacity at stadiums, MLS would rank second or third behind the NFL and MLB. Of course, that is only because these two sports take place outside. As a result, the relatively smaller, indoor capacities of NBA and NHL are a reason why they are not higher.

A better look would be at average capacity percentage. As seen previously, the average percentage capacity entering the 2019 MLS season was 88.3 percent. Clubs like Atlanta United and Orlando City, both of which are relatively young clubs, helps that trend. Comparatively, the NHL averaged 96.1 percent capacity in 2019/20, the NFL hit 95.15 percent, NBA at 95.2 and MLB struggled to just 66 percent capacity.

Few would argue MLB is smaller than MLS. There is so much more than stadium capacity that goes in to popularity. For instance, the 2020 World Series represented the least-watched Fall Classic over the last near-60 years. The six games between the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers yielded an average TV audience of 11.35 million people in the United States. The NHL, generally considered the smallest of the big-four leagues in the U.S., pulled in an average of 2.15 million viewers as the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars in six games. On the other hand, the 2020 MLS Cup Final brought in 1.071 million viewers on FOX. Moreover, that number shows a 30 percent jump from the 2019 final.

Right now, MLS may not be as big as the other four leagues. That’s fair, but that is not necessarily the aim of this story.

Rather, soccer as a sport is bigger than hockey in the United States. In conclusion, it is officially the 4th most popular sport. Baseball, watch out.

25+ Channels With Sports & News
  • Starting price: $33/mo. for fubo Latino Package
  • Watch Premier League, Liga MX, MLS & World Cup
  • Includes ESPN, FOX, Univision, TUDN and more
Favorite Leagues At The Best Price
  • Starting price: $7.99/mo. for Live TV Package
  • Watch Argentine league, Brasileirāo and Copa Libertadores
  • Includes beIN SPORTS, GolTV, TyC Sports and more
Many Sports & ESPN Originals
  • Price: $6.99/mo. (or get ESPN+, Hulu & Disney+ for $13.99/mo.)
  • Features LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, Copa del Rey & more
  • Also includes daily ESPN FC news & highlights show
Live TV, Soccer & Originals
  • Starting price: $4.99/mo.
  • Features Champions League, Serie A, Europa League & more
  • Includes CBS, Star Trek & CBS Sports HQ
175 Premier League Games & PL TV
  • Starting price: $4.99/mo. for Peacock Premium
  • Watch 175 exclusive EPL games per season
  • Includes Premier League TV channel plus movies, TV shows & more
Get All 3 And Save 30%
  • $13.99/mo. for ESPN+, Disney+ & Hulu
  • Includes Bundesliga, LaLiga, NHL & the home to UFC
  • Features Marvel, Star Wars + shows & movies for your entire family

227 Comments

  1. Ricco Richardson December 9, 2021
  2. Trip December 9, 2021
  3. JP December 9, 2021
  4. Leo December 9, 2021
  5. Giovanni December 9, 2021
  6. JP December 9, 2021
  7. Michael December 9, 2021
  8. Ra December 9, 2021
  9. greg December 9, 2021
  10. Mercator December 9, 2021
  11. dave December 9, 2021
  12. Turfit December 9, 2021
  13. Turfit December 9, 2021
  14. Michael December 9, 2021
  15. dave December 9, 2021
  16. Mercator December 9, 2021
  17. dave December 9, 2021
  18. Michael F December 9, 2021
  19. Ra December 9, 2021
  20. Edwin December 9, 2021
  21. Jack December 9, 2021
  22. Mercator December 9, 2021
  23. Giovanni December 10, 2021
  24. JP December 10, 2021
  25. Michael December 10, 2021
  26. Azer December 10, 2021
  27. El Jefe December 10, 2021
  28. dave December 10, 2021
  29. Ra December 10, 2021
  30. Roberto December 10, 2021
  31. Giovanni December 11, 2021
  32. Ra December 11, 2021
  33. Mercator December 11, 2021
  34. locofooty December 11, 2021
  35. locofooty December 11, 2021
  36. Roberto December 11, 2021
  37. Ra December 12, 2021
  38. Michael F December 12, 2021
  39. Ra December 12, 2021
  40. Michael F December 12, 2021
  41. Michael F December 12, 2021
  42. Michael F December 12, 2021
  43. UnitedFan 3478 December 12, 2021
    • Christopher Harris December 13, 2021
  44. Michael December 12, 2021
  45. Michael F December 13, 2021
  46. SteveK December 13, 2021
  47. greg December 13, 2021
  48. Michael December 13, 2021
  49. Ra December 13, 2021
  50. Mercator December 13, 2021
  51. JP December 13, 2021
  52. Ra December 13, 2021
  53. Mercator December 13, 2021
  54. Hans December 13, 2021
  55. Michael December 13, 2021
  56. Hans December 13, 2021
  57. UnitedFan 3478 December 13, 2021
  58. Mercator December 13, 2021
  59. Lou December 13, 2021
  60. Mercator December 13, 2021
  61. Ra December 13, 2021
  62. Hans December 14, 2021
  63. Nosferatu December 14, 2021
  64. locofooty December 14, 2021
  65. Michael F December 14, 2021
  66. Ra December 14, 2021
  67. dave December 14, 2021
  68. Michael F December 14, 2021
  69. Mercator December 14, 2021
  70. Michael F December 14, 2021
  71. Michael F December 14, 2021
  72. JP December 14, 2021
  73. Michael F December 14, 2021
  74. Michael F December 14, 2021
  75. Ra December 14, 2021
  76. Michael F December 14, 2021
  77. Michael F December 14, 2021
  78. Ra December 14, 2021
  79. greg December 14, 2021
  80. Mercator December 14, 2021
  81. Michael F December 14, 2021
  82. Michael F December 14, 2021
  83. greg December 14, 2021
  84. SteveK December 14, 2021
  85. Michael F December 14, 2021
  86. Hans December 14, 2021
  87. Michael F December 14, 2021
  88. Ra December 14, 2021
  89. Michael F December 14, 2021
  90. Hans December 14, 2021
  91. Michael F December 14, 2021
  92. Mercator December 14, 2021
  93. Michael F December 14, 2021
  94. Ra December 14, 2021
  95. Michael F December 14, 2021
  96. Mercator December 14, 2021
  97. Michael F December 14, 2021
  98. Ra December 14, 2021
  99. Ra December 14, 2021
  100. Michael F December 14, 2021
  101. Nosferatu December 14, 2021
  102. JP December 14, 2021
  103. dave December 14, 2021
  104. Michael F December 14, 2021
  105. dave December 14, 2021
  106. JP December 14, 2021
  107. Nosferatu December 15, 2021
  108. Turfit December 15, 2021
  109. locofooty December 15, 2021
  110. JP December 15, 2021
  111. Michael F December 15, 2021
  112. SteveK December 15, 2021
  113. Turfit December 15, 2021
  114. Ra December 15, 2021
  115. JP December 15, 2021
  116. Michael F December 15, 2021
  117. Ra December 15, 2021
  118. Ra December 15, 2021
  119. SteveK December 15, 2021
  120. Michael F December 15, 2021
  121. Michael F December 15, 2021
  122. JP December 15, 2021
  123. Ra December 15, 2021
  124. Michael F December 15, 2021
  125. Michael F December 15, 2021
  126. Mercator December 15, 2021
  127. greg December 15, 2021
  128. Michael F December 15, 2021
  129. Mercator December 15, 2021
  130. Michael F December 15, 2021
  131. SteveK December 15, 2021
  132. SteveK December 15, 2021
  133. Ra December 15, 2021
  134. SteveK December 15, 2021
  135. SteveK December 15, 2021
  136. greg December 15, 2021
  137. Michael F December 15, 2021
  138. Ra December 15, 2021
  139. SteveK December 15, 2021
  140. JP December 15, 2021
  141. Ra December 15, 2021
  142. Mercator December 15, 2021
  143. Michael F December 15, 2021
  144. Ra December 15, 2021
  145. Mercator December 15, 2021
  146. Michael F December 15, 2021
  147. JP December 15, 2021
  148. Michael F December 15, 2021
  149. Ra December 15, 2021
  150. greg December 15, 2021
  151. Ra December 15, 2021
  152. Michael F December 15, 2021
  153. Ra December 15, 2021
  154. Michael F December 15, 2021
  155. Ra December 15, 2021
  156. Michael F December 15, 2021
  157. greg December 15, 2021
  158. Ra December 15, 2021
  159. Michael F December 15, 2021
  160. Ra December 15, 2021
  161. Ra December 15, 2021
  162. SteveK December 15, 2021
  163. Turfit December 15, 2021
  164. Michael F December 15, 2021
  165. Ra December 15, 2021
  166. Michael F December 15, 2021
  167. JP December 15, 2021
  168. SteveK December 15, 2021
  169. JP December 15, 2021
  170. Ra December 15, 2021
  171. Mercator December 15, 2021
  172. Ra December 15, 2021
  173. dave December 15, 2021
  174. Michael F December 15, 2021
  175. Michael F December 15, 2021
  176. Michael F December 15, 2021
  177. Michael F December 15, 2021
  178. Hans December 15, 2021
  179. Ra December 15, 2021
  180. Michael F December 15, 2021
  181. Mercator December 15, 2021
  182. Ra December 15, 2021
  183. greg December 15, 2021
  184. Ra December 15, 2021
  185. Michael F December 15, 2021
  186. Michael F December 15, 2021
  187. greg December 15, 2021
  188. Michael F December 15, 2021
  189. Ra December 15, 2021
  190. Ra December 15, 2021
  191. Mercator December 16, 2021
  192. dave December 16, 2021
  193. JP December 16, 2021
  194. Michael F December 16, 2021
  195. Mercator December 16, 2021
  196. Ra December 16, 2021
  197. Ra December 16, 2021
  198. JP December 16, 2021
  199. Ra December 16, 2021
  200. Michael F December 16, 2021
  201. Mercator December 16, 2021
  202. Michael F December 16, 2021
  203. Michael F December 16, 2021
  204. Giovanni December 17, 2021
  205. JP December 17, 2021
  206. Michael F December 17, 2021
  207. greg December 18, 2021
  208. SteveK December 18, 2021
  209. SteveK December 18, 2021
  210. Mercator December 18, 2021
  211. JP December 18, 2021
  212. Ra December 18, 2021
  213. SteveK December 18, 2021
  214. SteveK December 18, 2021
  215. Mercator December 18, 2021
  216. JP December 18, 2021
  217. Hans December 18, 2021
  218. SteveK December 18, 2021
  219. Hans December 18, 2021
  220. Leo December 18, 2021
  221. Ra December 19, 2021
  222. Ra December 19, 2021
  223. Michael F December 19, 2021
  224. Ra December 19, 2021
  225. Michael F December 19, 2021

Leave a Reply

Translate »