Is MLS Interest Skyrocketing? Discover the Latest Trend in Soccer

Football has a very different meaning in the United States than it does in the rest of the world. The National Football League is an uncontested goliath generating an average of 17.5 million views per game. 

Soccer, the world’s most popular sport, has struggled to be taken as seriously. Comedian Daniel Tosh once said, “See, our country already has entertainment so watching people chase a ball for four hours to end 0 – 0 is not enjoyable – unless, of course, the bleachers collapse and half of Europe dies.”

Fortunately, the last three years have proven that domestic soccer interest can be generated through tamer means. From the expansion of the MLS to Ted Lasso, soccer has grown considerably in cultural relevance. 

In this article, we examine that development through Datos generated U.S Soccer web traffic patterns from the last three years. We also look at the history of soccer in the United States. 

Global Context

Nelson Mandela once called soccer “One of the most unifying activities among us.” It’s difficult for many Americans to grasp just how true that is. The world’s most popular sport is played by 250 million people around the world. It’s watched by several billion people—nearly half the planet’s population. 

American football, by contrast, has around 400 million fans globally. It’s a staggering number—more people than even live in the United States—and yet it’s a mere fraction of the international interest in soccer. 

Why? While the exact calculus would be impossible to distill in a few sentences, soccer has several key factors going for it. For one thing, the game is simple. The rules are easy to follow and to play the game, you need only a round ball and a little bit of open space. 

Naturally, the game’s rich culture and popularity also lend to its ongoing success. European teams are embroiled in deep, longstanding rivalries, which fuel fan passions while creating micro-communities around the game.

These factors, combined with the fact that Europe has fewer sports competing for attention than the United States does, have solidified soccer as an unrivaled giant on the international stage. So why has American interest in soccer been considered tepid for so long?

 History of Soccer in the United States

Soccer simmered to life in the United States beginning in 1913 with the formation of what was then called, “The United States Football Association”— one of the first governing bodies outside of Europe to be officially recognized by FIFA. 

The game grew quickly in popularity for the same reasons it had taken off around the world. Play was cheap, fast, and easy. 

While the sport struggled to gain serious traction throughout the mid-twentieth century, it experienced a big boost thanks to the North American Soccer League, which began in 1968.

The league averaged five-figure attendance for its first several years and began broadcasting games in 1975. Its popularity peaked that same year when Pele signed on with the New York Cosmos, generating record-setting attendance and viewership.  

Pele was an enormous boon for the league. Considered the most famous athlete of the 1900s,” the Brazilian generated a level of interest in American soccer that unfortunately could neither be replicated nor sustained. 

He completed his three-year contract in 1977 (after leading the Cosmos to their league championship victory) and the game’s status in America waned from there. The NASL found that it could not keep up with its own expansion. Having invested too extensively in new franchises and bloated player contracts, it collapsed in 1985. 

Nevertheless, the seeds for American interest in soccer had been planted.  In 1984, 535 universities had active soccer teams, up from 128 thirty years earlier.  

Duke’s head soccer coach John Ronnie discussed the collegiate boom with the New York Times in 1984. Ronnie explained, “The most important development, though was [Universities] realized five years ago that soccer can be a revenue-producing sport. So, they started building facilities exclusively for soccer and hiring coaches full time.”

In 1994, the United States hosted what was then the highest-attended World Cup of all time

Nearly thirty years later, the game is enjoying renewed, even record-setting popularity in the United States. To find out what’s happening, we analyzed three years’ worth of MLS-related related web traffic. 

Our Findings

To evaluate how American interest in soccer has evolved over the last several years, we at Datos examined web traffic patterns ranging from the last quarter of 2020 to the third quarter of 2023. The charts below describe the peak traffic levels for the MLS website, the Ticketmaster page dealing with soccer, and ESPN’s soccer-related page.

As you can see, interest on all fronts has increased significantly over the last several years. Each metric peaks in the third or fourth quarters of their respective years around when the MLS season is heading into the playoffs. 

Our findings reflect the overall trends surrounding American soccer, which has increased sevenfold since 1990. Today, MLS has approximately 10 million fans. The league reported record attendance in 2022 and is poised to do so again this year. 

More than a century after its initial introduction, the United States is finally embracing soccer with an open heart. 

Conclusion: Why now?

So why is soccer suddenly experiencing a big boom, after so many failed starts? It’s a convergence of factors.

For one thing, international soccer viewing has become more accessible to American sports fans in recent years. In 2015, NBC gained the rights to English Premier League broadcasting. Those matches are now viewable on the Network’s streaming platform, Peacock. The service recorded 17.7 billion minutes of viewership. 

High-profile American money has also recently been pumped into the global soccer industry. Bill Foley, owner of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, purchased A.F.C Bournemouth. Actor Michael B. Jordan purchased a minority share of that same franchise. And Deadpool actor, Ryan Reynolds is the co-owner of Wrexham, a team operating in Whales. 

Simultaneously, the Premier League toured the Eastern part of the United States in a series of exhibition matches against American teams in the summer of 2023. Each game generated an average attendance of 44,000. They had an average of 216,000 television views. 

Another thing? Ted Lasso. The Jason Sudeikas-led comedy that told the story of a fictional English soccer franchise featured consistently on the Nielsen top ten chart, reaching a series high of almost 800 million streamed minutes between April 24-30th, 2023. 

The soccer economy has arrived in the United States. MLS has added eleven teams in less than ten years. They plan to add 1-3 more in the next several years. Professional sports teams create tremendous financial opportunities, both for local economies, and investors. 

St. Louis City–the most recent MLS team–built their stadium CityPark, in a declining downtown area. Early estimates indicate that the new team will generate $8.4 million in local spending annually. 

It’s also worth mentioning that the MLS may be having a Pele moment in the form of Lionel Messi. The European sensation signed to Inter Miami in the summer of 2023.

It’s an exciting time for soccer fans and analysts alike. We at Datos look forward to observing soccer fandom behavioral trends for years to come. There will certainly be a lot to work with: In 2026, the United States will host the World Cup again for the first time in more than three decades. 

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