PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- U.S. soccer is an easy sale during the World Cup, but try keeping things that exciting through an entire U.S. soccer season.
As exciting as it's been to watch the United States men's national team -- and 15.9 million viewers for a first-round match against Ghana indicates more enthusiasm than the "Who cares about soccer?" crowd will ever admit -- the end of the World Cup means dealing with the reality of U.S. professional soccer and Major League Soccer specifically. The optimist's take is that an average of 18,497 fans have shown up to each match this year. That's up 6% from the same time last year and i up from 14,898 just a decade ago, but still down from 18,880 in 2012.
ESPN and Fox just paid $600 million to wrest the rights for MLS games away from NBC through 2022, with Univision chipping in an extra $125 million for spanish-language rights. That $90 million a year is four times what it brought in from NBC, but well below the $200 million the National Hockey League gets per season from NBC, nevermind the nearly $200 million Rogers Communications pays to air NHL games in Canada. Meanwhle, ESPN is paying $2 billion this year just for Monday Night Football, which should provide some small sense of where MLS ranks.
While it's great that the World Cup drew roughly 11 million U.S. viewers per match to ESPN, ESPN 2, ABC and Univision during the group stage alone, that success just about never translates to MLS. Fox and ESPN get a league that saw ratings decline 29% during its time on ESPN and ESPN2 and saw them drop 8% on NBC Sports in 2013. Last year, a playoff semifinal between the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake drew so few viewers that it was not only the lowest-rated broadcast among the 139 programs ESPN aired that week, but it was beaten by a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond -- a sitcom that aired its last original episode almost a decade ago.
But it should be noted that the first jump from ESPN and Fox Soccer to NBC helped increase MLS' average audience 62% in 2012 and boosted its ratings 12% from 2011. It's a small gain, but it's one that helps the MLS generate $100 million a year in revenue for its partners. Those small victories are starting to add up for MLS. In 2002, MLS had 10 franchises run by a total of three ownership groups. It had just folded franchises in Miami and Tampa and was relying on Lamar Hunt and Phillip Anschutz to keep it afloat while all but one of its teams played in buildings designed for soccer. By 2012, MLS had 19 franchises, 17 ownership groups and 14 soccer-specific facilities.
There are still issues, including the recent league takeover of sparsely attended Chivas U.S.A. in Los Angeles, its near-nonexistent television ratings and its controversial stance on the allocation of high-profile members of the U.S. Men's National Team, but the league's story is largely one of growth. New franchises are coming to New York, Atlanta, Orlando and Miami. Stars such as Spain's David Villa and England's Frank Lampard are making the jump across the pond and home-grown talent is succeeding in small, thriving markets including Kansas City, Salt Lake City and Portland.
Average MLA attendance still doesn't look like much compared with Germany's Bundesliga (more than 45,000 per game), the EPL (36,000), Spain's La Liga (29,400) or even neighboring Mexico's Liga MX (25,400). Still, it's far closer to France's Ligue 1 (19,300) or the Dutch Eredivisie (19,500) than even its most fervent supporters thought it could be a decade ago. It's also not only higher average attendance than either the National Basketball Association or National Hockey League (both below 17,700) can manage, but it's also regularly higher than Major League Baseball attendance in several cities.
There's a not insignificant issue of scale separating MLB and MLS. Last season, Major League Baseball's 30 teams drew 74 million fans to their ballparks and pulled in more than 30,500 per game. Major League Soccer's 19 clubs had roughly 6 million fans come through the turnstiles and 18,700 show up on average for each match. Baseball has its own network that it built with DirecTV and still has Fox, TBS and ESPN paying for game rights. According to Nielsen, though, half of baseball's fans are 55 or older. A full 76% are older than 34 and only 18% are a race or ethnicity other than white. The average age of viewers during last year's World Series was 54.4.
Meanwhile, 40% of MLS' viewer base is 34 or younger. A full 14% are younger than 18 and 34% are Hispanic. Translate that to a World Cup viewership and FIFA says more than 50% of U.S. World Cup viewers in 2010 were age 34 or younger. Baseball may have a huge head start -- adding its last expansion teams in 1998, when MLS was just three years old -- but soccer's future in the U.S. is looking far brighter.
That means even more minor victories. In all, 11 MLS teams are putting together a better average attendance than the least popular big-league baseball team -- the Miami Marlins (17,291 per game). The MLS teams play fewer games, but only four MLS teams play in a stadium with capacity of 27,000 or greater (New England, Seattle, Vancouver and Washington, D.C., all play in facilities built for American and Canadian football). Even with those undersized facilities, the MLS teams are closing in on their baseball counterparts. The 19,715 fans that Sporting K.C. pulls in each match is only slightly less than the 21,822 that the neighboring Kansas City Royals average for baseball.
In Houston, MLS' Dynamo is just flat-out outdrawing the Houston Astros on average this season. The 19,437 the Dynamos bring in per match is more than 1,000 fans greater than the 18,247 the Astros bring in per game.
The Astros aren't the only baseball team lagging behind an MLS counterpart. These are just the Top 5 MLS teams outdrawing baseball this year, including one that's been outshining its neighbors across the street since 2009:
5. Los Angeles Galaxy
Entered MLS: 1996
Average 2014 attendance: 20,372
Baseball teams it outdraws: Miami Marlins (17,291), Cleveland Indians (17,384), Tampa Bay Rays (17,738), Houston Astros (18,247)
The Indians and Marlins aren't playing great, but they're winning. The Galaxy took a back seat to the NBA's dysfunctional Clippers and the NHL Champion Kings this spring, yet still managed to draw more than 20,000 fans per game with a losing record (4-5-3 at the break).
This is the MLS' flagship franchise, and it makes no attempt to hide that fact. David Beckham played here, Landon Donovan plays here, Robbie Keane plays here and legendary U.S. coach Bruce Arena is still patrolling the sidelines. Donovan may have missed the U.S. team's flight to Brazil, but in L.A. he's still the man.
With four MLS Cup titles and one of only two U.S. wins in the Concacaf Champions Cup, the Galaxy have put together a set of credentials worthy of a town that expects titles. That's how you have to compete with a Dodgers franchise that pulls in an MLB-leading 43,104 fans a game and an Angels club that draws another 36,761 more for each matchup.
It has a great rivalry with the San Jose Earthquakes, it gets a Yankees/Red Sox/Cardinals-style reception wherever it goes (lots of attendance and hate) and it's become the de facto ambassador for the MLS. For a league built more on regional pride and development than on its early fading-superstar model, the Galaxy have provided some inspiration for new clubs in New York and Orlando seeking some opening-day starpower.
4. Portland Timbers
Entered MLS: 2011
Average 2014 attendance: 20,814
Baseball teams it outdraws: Miami Marlins (17,291), Cleveland Indians (17,384), Tampa Bay Rays (17,738), Houston Astros (18,247)
We just want to note that the closest Major League Baseball team -- the Seattle Mariners just up Interstate 5 -- averages only 20,832 fans per game. A Portland MLS team is 18 fans per game away from outdrawing a big-league baseball team in Seattle, which says more about soccer in Portland than it does about Pacific Northwest baseball fans.
To understand just how big soccer is in this town, keep in mind that this year's MLS All-Star Game will be the first major-league All-Star Game in this town of any kind. The NBA played its star-studded event in Vegas without so much as sniffing the TrailBlazers' home court at the Rose Garden, but MLS has no qualms bringing one of its biggest events and German Bundesliga superpower Bayern Munich into town to play the best of MLS.
There's a rich soccer history in this town, but the Timbers are just part of it. The University of Portland is a font of men's and women's national team players such as Conor Casey, Megan Rapinoe, Steve Cherundolo, Stephanie Lopez and Kasey Keller as if they're the region's biggest exports. Portland alum Christine Sinclair and women's national team star Alex Morgan helped the Portland Thorns women's team set a U.S. women's soccer record by drawing nearly 16,500 fans to the team's first game last year and won the first championship of the National Women's Soccer league.
But it's the Timbers that gave this town its soccer legacy. The team got its start in the North American Soccer League from 1975 through 1982, hung on as F.C. Portland in the Western Soccer League from 1985 through 1990 and re-emerged as the Timbers in the USL from 2000 through last year. The team was bought by Merritt Paulson and his father, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and has been selling out every match since joining MLS three years ago.
Thank the several thousand members of the Timbers Army supporters group for much of that enthusiasm. They've backed the team for nearly a decade and carry on Timbers traditions such as former mascot Timber Jim's chainsawing of a log each time the team scores a goal. The giant signs, the songs and chants, the reasonably priced (face value) resale tickets to just about every Timbers game -- they're responsible for all of it. Know how the American Outlaws sang all those songs and made all that noise for the U.S. in Brazil? The Timbers Army has been doing the same for Portland for 13 years.
3. Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Entered MLS: 2011
Average 2014 attendance: 21,000
Baseball teams it outdraws: Miami Marlins (17,291), Cleveland Indians (17,384), Tampa Bay Rays (17,738), Houston Astros (18,247), Seattle Mariners (20,832)
You get the sense that Mariners management isn't going to be satisfied until every MLS team in the Pacific Northwest has better average attendance than it does.
Vancouver is about two and a half hours away from Seattle and connected by ferry and train, but much of Vancouver would rather bathe in molten steel than deal with the border crossing and trek just to see some terrible baseball. It's not that folks in British Columbia are against baseball: Toronto Blue Jays rookie Brett Lawrie is from Vancouver and players including Justin Morneau, Jason Bay, Jeff Francis, Ryan Dempster and Rich Harden all came from B.C.
But why go through the hassle when you have an MLS team in town? Like the Timbers, the Whitecaps have roots in the old NASL and have had a built-in base of Pacific Northwest fans since the 1970s. They survived through the Canadian Soccer League, the United Soccer Leagues First Division and the USSF Division 2, but got the boost to MLS in 2011 with a little help from NBA star Steve Nash.
The Whitecaps made the playoffs only once, in 2012, but have beaten the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders for the Cascadia Cup four times since 2004, including a win last year. With none of those three teams contending for the MLS title in recent years, that's as close to one as the Pacific Northwest gets.
2. Toronto FC
Entered MLS: 2007
Average 2013 attendance: 22,591
Baseball teams it outdraws: Miami Marlins (17,291), Cleveland Indians (17,384), Tampa Bay Rays (17,738), Houston Astros (18,247), Seattle Mariners (20,832), Chicago White Sox (21,690), Kansas City Royals (21,822), Oakland A's (21,961)
You can't say it's just because the Major League Baseball teams are horrible. The A's have one of the best records in the league, and the Royals are contending for the American League Central title.
No, it's because Toronto actually gives its fans something to watch. Somewhere along the line, Toronto and MLS decided that this team was just going to become a dumping ground for top-flight talent and loaded it up with A.S. Roma and U.S. national team standout Michael Bradley, Tottenham Hotspur's Jermain Defoe, Brazilian national team goaltender Julio Cesar and Canadian national team fixture Dwayne De Rosario.
Credit team president Tim Lewieke -- the former president of Anschutz entertainment group and current head of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment -- who is best known in MLS circles for bringing David Beckham to the L.A. Galaxy in 2007. His moves have not only helped the team's record (6-1-4), but they've increased attendance 18% since last season.
1. Seattle Sounders FC
Entered MLS: 2009
Average 2013 attendance: 40,091
Baseball teams it outdraws: All but the Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants
The Sounders's biggest achievement isn't nearly doubling the attendance of MLB's Mariners, who play right next door to the Sounders' CenturyLink Field in Safeco Field. They've been doing that for nearly five years.
Their biggest coup is that they're able to outdraw the Yankees, the Mets, the Angels, the Washington Nationals, the Boston Red Sox, the Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox and the Detroit Tigers.
That's a collection of winning teams, marquee clubs and storied franchises that baseball fans would have a hard time disparaging. Yet the Sounders and their Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC backers can outdraw with ease this year. Let's put it this way: When the Sounders played a random May matchup with the San Jose Earthquakes this season, they packed the place with nearly 50,000 fans. When the Sounders' Clint Dempsey and the U.S. men's national team came into town for a World Cup qualifier against Panama last year, they drew 41,000.
Soccer culture runs deep here. Star women's national team goalkeeper Hope Solo and longtime men's national team keeper Kasey Keller are from around here, along with dozens of other professional players and coaches. Yes, Marymoor Park just outside the city teems with leagues, and active soccer fields are a common sight in much of the rest of Washington as well. Unlike other thin-skinned U.S. sports, soccer doesn't stop when a little rain falls. In the Seattle area's case, that rain's falling more often than not. If you want to play here, you have to play through it.
That fuels a passion for soccer -- specifically Pacific Northwest soccer -- that's unparalleled elsewhere in the league. Like their Pacific Northwest rivals in Portland and Vancouver, the Sounders' NASL tradition (1974-83) and longstanding lower-level rivalries gave the club a bit of a head start when it joined MLS in 2009. The ties run so deep that Sounders fans joined Vancouver and Portland fan groups to keep the Cascadia Cup -- awarded each year to the team with the best record in games between the three franchises -- out of the hands of MLS and maintain it as an independent entity.
It's a town and region that's seen soccer leagues come and go over the past 40 years, but has enough passion to keep its beloved teams constant.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.