On June 30, former LA Lakers player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar published an extensively researched opinion piece on the future of Major League Soccer in America, and the outlook is not quite as bright as soccer fans had hoped.
Despite his undeniable bias toward basketball’s superiority, the numbers support what is obviously just a momentary spark in soccer interest. However, his analysis of why soccer can’t compete with the biggest American major leagues leaves much to be desired. The NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL are themselves offenders of what Abdul-Jabbar believes is keeping soccer from becoming the favorite American pastime: no game drama, low numbers on scoreboards, and muted player individualism. None of these have anything to do with American disinterest in soccer. The true reasons behind the MLS’s failure to launch is its lack of accessibility to the general public, as well as its heavy percentage of international players and absent representation in the American South.
Nationwide Broadcasting is on NFL’s Side
Football (in its American sense) is without a doubt the most watched sport in the United States. It airs on CBS (CBS), ESPN, Fox and NBC, and it is important to note that CBS, Fox and NBC are available without a cable subscription. This means that 75% of its broadcasting is available for free to the general public, making it the most accessible sport of all major leagues. As such it also earns the most television revenue, raking in $5 billion each season.
Major league baseball (MLB) follows in a not-so-close second, at $1.5 billion in TV revenues each season. The 70% difference is a product of decreased accessibility. MLB airs on Fox, TBS, ESPN and the MLB Network, and of those four, Fox is the only free national channel.
The NBA and NHL are also broadcast on only one national non-cable channel, and must compete with all other programming set to air throughout the day. This severely limits the number of games watched, and thus the sport’s popularity.
In 2013, out of 115.6 million household televisions, non-cable regular-season NFL broadcasting earned an average of 15.2 on the Nielsen rating scale. Comparatively, regular-season NBA was the second-highest viewed sport in the United States at just over 1.2. MLS scraped in at just under 0.3. The 2013 Nielsen ratings for the NBA and MLS represent viewership across all channels, and do not account for the change in viewership when cable television channels are discounted.
For broadcasters, fewer teams and fewer games means less television revenue. Not counting playoffs, college and major league football games are given similar weight in broadcasting. College baseball is less televised than major league, which explains the 70% difference between the NFL’s $5 billion and the MLB’s $1.5 billion revenues per season.
Small League with No Southern Representation
While the NFL is in a league of its own in terms of broadcasting and viewership, MLS is still at a disadvantage when compared with only the MLB, NHL and NBA. It has only 19 club teams, with empty membership in the South and across a large swath of the Midwest. Every other major league sport has at least 30 teams.
And although the Midwest has few teams in any of the major league sports, a Common Census study found that the Southern states represent a huge portion of sporting game viewership across all leagues. With no regional club soccer teams, the most intense sports fans located in the South do not tune in to MLS games, non-cable or otherwise. An ESPN SportsNation poll makes clear how important regional team support is to American audiences:
General public opinion supports Abdul-Jabbar’s claims that the MLS will never make it to NFL popularity. Further results from ESPN SportsNation polls are shown below:
Where Is MLS Headed, and What Is Really Inhibiting Its Success?
But if action is what American viewers want, then why didn’t the fast-paced NHL’s Stanley Cup garner higher ratings than the NBA Finals? The word ‘boring’ is prevalent among articles recapping the 2014 NBA finals, and while it is true that basketball racks up points far faster than soccer, each goal made in a soccer game is nonetheless a strategic battle. The basketball court is smaller and the points are worth twice (often three) times as much as one goal in soccer, baseball or hockey.
Abdul-Jabbar’s call to the “American ethos” of individual feats relies more on abstract fluff than fact. He contends “soccer has its celebrated stars, from Pele to Beckham, but those skills seem muted on TV where we’re often looking at small figures on a large field and therefore these feats appear less impressive than they really are.” While soccer players do seem small and insignificant from a bird’s eye view of the field, so do football players lining up for the next play or baseball players in the outfield. It isn’t until the cameras focus in on a particular face that viewers connect with individual players. This is not particular to soccer.
While Abdul-Jabbar may be correct that soccer has only taken off in light of the World Cup and will remain benched in the major American sports leagues, aspects of his analysis fall short of explaining soccer’s failure to launch. The true reason behind low MLS popularity is general accessibility – with fewer teams to support in the most sports-heavy region of the United States, fewer Americans are willing to invest time and money into soccer.
Still, the league isn’t giving up the fight. Four new teams are slated for play in the national league, three of which will be based in the South. The Orlando City Soccer Club will begin play in 2015, while the Atlanta and Miami teams are expected to kick off in 2017.
These new teams are signing contracts with renowned international players, but while this may make matches more interesting, it threatens to again alienate viewers who are watching sporting events to support American players. For comparison, in 2012, 97.12% of NFL players were born in the United States while only 60.9% of MLS players were US-born. By continuing to define soccer as a global sport, the MLS risks negating its efforts to expand within US borders. And unfortunately, current polls and trends do not suggest national interest in MLS will be on par with the Big Four any time soon.