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: