MLS’ (Un)Popularity: A Scientific Sampling

ESPN Sports Poll

The usual way we soccer supporters in the U.S. measure interest in the sport is via television ratings and attendance figures, as both are readily available in the public domain and easy to digest. Unfortunately, this is a pretty weak sampling of fan interest as a whole in the American population.

Within the American sports industry, the longest-running and most widely respected research service on fan interest in American sports is the TSN/ESPN Sports Poll: their major clients list includes pretty much every league and major sponsor. As for soccer, MLS’ marketing arm SUM use their results in their marketing package — though they probably won’t be mentioning the results released this week that list MLS as the lowest in fan interest amongst American sports.

The poll was created in 1994 by a professor at Temple University, Dr. Luker, who believed a scientific random sample of the whole U.S. population was needed to establish an accurate poll of nationwide fan interest across all sports. Their methodology is as follows:

  • Interviews occur 360 days of the year
  • Questionnaire approximately 27-30 minutes in length
  • Representative of US population, 12+ in age
  • Online sample of 2,300 interviews per month, approximately 27,000 annually using TNS’ 6th Dimension Panel
  • RDD/CATI sample of 1000 per month, for probability sampling and accurate projections of fan-base sizes are used to weight the online results

The bad news for MLS, as mentioned above, is that it ranks last of the 21 sports and leagues listed in terms of fan interest over the past twelve months. International soccer is also listed three places further up (so total interest in the sport of soccer is most likely higher than either ranking, though the same goes for other team sports divided between the college and professional levels).

Interest level in soccer was gauged at 27.8% in the survey, less than half of the leading league the NFL at 63.8%. A good spin for MLS is that this is well above its historic low of 10.1% suggesting considerable growth over the years, though also below its historic high of 35% (data has been tracked by the poll since the league began; unfortunately, we couldn’t find specific figures for other years to put dates to these high/low numbers).


July ’09 12 mth ave. All-time high All-time Low
NFL 63.80% 69.20% 77.70% 55.10%
College  Football 57.30% 61.40% 69.30% 52.10%
MLB 60.80% 59.80% 67.00% 33.00%
NBA 47.00% 51.20% 64.70% 39.50%
College  basketball 47.80% 50.50% 59.30% 42.50%
Extreme/ action sports 46.90% 46.60% 53.40% 39.80%
Figure Skating 43.00% 46.40% 64.40% 41.40%
Boxing 38.80% 38.70% 45.10% 28.20%
NASCAR 35.30% 38.60% 53.80% 31.80%
MMA 33.90% 36.10% 39.20% 31.70%
Minor League Baseball 37.10% 35.90% 43.20% 27.00%
PGA Tour 35.80% 35.60% 42.50% 30.00%
Horse Racing 34.40% 35.30% 42.70% 26.20%
NHL 36.00% 34.10% 47.10% 25.80%
WNBA 31.50% 32.60% 48.00% 28.20%
WTA 32.90% 30.70% 41.50% 26.20%
ATP World Tour 31.60% 29.70% 34.50% 25.00%
Int’l soccer 31.70% 29.40% 40.00% 5.60%
IndyCar 27.10% 29.40% 35.20% 21.70%
NHRA 25.50% 28.60% 34.00% 21.30%
MLS 29.20% 27.80% 35.00% 10.10%

The league did score better in avid fan interest, coming 14th of the 21 listed. It should also be noted that, as you can see, MLS was only 6.1% behind the NHL in general fan interest. Indeed, in professional team sports it’s only the expected big three of the NFL, MLB and NBA who are streets ahead of all other professional leagues.

As an MLS partisan, I’ll take the positive spins, but it’s still tough not to feel a twinge of pain for the league when we see interest in it sitting below even IndyCar and the NHRA nationwide.

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