American Soccer Growing Through MLS

Take a guess at the third most-attended sport in the United States (behind the NFL and MLB, of course). I bet you might guess the NBA or even the NHL. But both of those guesses are wrong; in fact, Major League Soccer recently passed the NBA as the third most-attended sport in America. And even though the United States isn’t considered a “soccer-crazy country”, American soccer fans have the MLS to thank for putting soccer back in the spotlight.

Founded in 1993, Major League Soccer was a key part of an American campaign to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The league started playing in 1996, with ten original teams. However, between its founding and the 2004 season, Major League Soccer lost nearly $350 million. However, the league continued to expand, growing from ten to fourteen teams in 2004. Today, the league has 19 clubs in the United States and Canada, many in small markets with little to no professional sports presence, such as Portland, Oregon and Columbus, Ohio.

The Seattle Sounders lead MLS with an average home attendance of 43,143 fans per match. Photo Credit: Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times

Another major reason for Major League Soccer’s growth is contract sponsorship. Many major corporations are sponsoring team’s jerseys, which make MLS clubs millions of dollars per year. Among these companies include Microsoft’s Xbox (Seattle Sounders, $4 million) and Volkswagen (DC United, $3.1 million). And MLS is diving into the TV market as well. After a 2006 contract with ESPN recently ended, MLS recently signed a three-year contract with NBC Sports to broadcast more than 40 regular season matches nationwide. It’s not as popular as Monday Night Football, but the coverage is nonetheless impressive.

But perhaps the most influential aspect of Major League Soccer’s rise to prominence is its international influence. MLS created a rule known as the Designated Player Rule to allow clubs to buy foreign players despite relatively small salary caps in the United States. This move has allowed superstars like David Beckham of England and Thierry Henry of France to join the best players in the United States. The MLS All-Star Game also features the league’s elite competing against the best clubs in the world, including Manchester United and Chelsea.

The MLS is growing. In 2012, the league drew more than 6 million fans, an average of 18,807 per match. With international exposure, prime television coverage, and franchise expansion, the league is set to boom in popularity. With more than 15 million children playing organized soccer in the United States, Major League Soccer provides a beacon of hope and motivation for the future generations of Americans. Ain’t that a kick in the head?

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