A new poll by released by ESPN claims that MLS is just as popular among 12-17 year olds as Major League Baseball. Coincidentally, the 2014 MLS season kicks off this weekend. According to the poll, 18 percent of Americans ages 12-17 are “avid fans” of MLS – the same number that identify as “avid fans” of baseball. Obviously MLS is a lot more likely to crow about this development than baseball. (Both sports were about 10 percent more popular than the NHL, but far less popular than the first-place NFL which clocked in around 39 percent.)
Something to consider: the 2013 MLS Final on ESPN drew only 505,000 viewers – the lowest in the game’s history. Comparatively the 2013 World Series averaged around 15 million viewers – an increase of 17 percent from the previous year. As I discussed with ESPN’s Taylor Twellman back in 2013, MLS continues to improve in almost all aspects except making a dent in the television department. It’s one thing for a place like Seattle to draw 50,000 people on a consistent basis, but there is almost zero MLS chatter on a national level. Will the teenage kids who identify as MLS fans continue to do so into adulthood and watch the games on television? That’s where the progress will be made.
But an opinion poll isn’t going change much. Baseball will continue to print money – likely improving on 2013’s record $8 billion in revenue – although its national popularity will never recapture what it was 30 years ago. MLS might continue to build more young fans, but unless those fans begin watch the league’s national telecasts, it will continue to struggle for relevance.
If there’s one kernel in the ESPN report worth highlighting is a quote from Rich Luker, the creator of the poll:
"“[David] Beckham’s stardom definitely plays a role,” he said. “EA Sports’ FIFA [franchise] has also contributed to the liking and knowledge of the sport in a way other sports video games have not, because Americans really did not know much about soccer before they started to play, as opposed to Madden, where they already understood plenty about the NFL.”"
I’ll maintain nothing has contributed more to soccer’s widespread growth and overall acceptance in America than the FIFA video game series. Contrast that with baseball, which has one officially licensed game – MLB: The Show – and it’s available for PlayStation users. It’s easy to poo-poo this idea, but if you’re 11 years old playing a sports video game, you’re absorbing the players, teams, uniforms, etc. You’re familiarizing yourself with the sport without even knowing it – something that was impossible with soccer less than two decades ago.