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Just How Popular is Major League Soccer?

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An in-depth look at Major League Soccer's attendance and television ratings.

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ABC/ESPN recently wrapped up their coverage of the 2010 World Cup, which took place over a month's time in South Africa. What a month it was, as even with South Africa's time zone placement causing all the games to be broadcast live between 11am and 3pm, this rendition of the World Cup was able to break the record for a soccer match watched in the United States, twice, once for the U.S./Ghana knockout game, and a second time for the Spain/Netherlands final, which drew a 24.3 rating, per Nielsen Wire. Not surprisingly, Major League Soccer is hoping to capitalize on the buzz created by this tournament, to the tune of an uptick in attendance figures and TV ratings.

When it comes to attendance, MLS is currently enjoying the fruits of debuting the Seattle Sounders last year, and the Philadelphia Union this year, per mlsnet.com/stats. In fact, average attendance, 16,481 as of July 18, is just below the National Hockey League's average attendance on the year of 16,985. The biggest draws are recent additions Seattle (36,139) which has probably benefitted from an influx of former Sonics fans and a lack of an NHL team, and Philadelphia (22,619). Los Angeles is the largest draw of the old guard, averaging 20,687 on the year, up 7.2 percent over last year, and only 5,000 short of the Home Depot Center's 27,000-seat capacity. The Home Depot Center was sold out for Landon Donovan's first game back after the US were eliminated from the world cup, the first sellout of the year.

At the bottom of the pile is recent returnee San Jose (9,515) which is playing their home games at Santa Clara University. Capacity at Buck Shaw Stadium is just over 10K, so that attendance figure doesn't have much room to grow until the Earthquakes move into a larger facility. The completion of a proposed soccer specific stadium by A's partial owner Lee Woolf would be a huge help, but there are no concrete plans for the Earthquakes to stop dragging down the curve.

In the meantime, MLS hopes it can receive a boost similar to the one the NHL enjoyed from their international competition this year. The U.S./Canada gold metal game in the Winter Olympics drew in 27.6 million viewers, 3 million more than the World Cup final. For the NHL this meant their highest rated Stanley Cup game since 1975, Game 2,her which drew a 4.1 rating.

Looking just at television numbers, the NHL really looks like MLS' closest competition. The NHL game of the week on NBC averaged a 1.0 rating on a Sunday, which is a rating MLS has managed once, when David Beckham made his LA Galaxy debut. 

But unlike the NHL, MLS plays their nationally televised game of the week on ESPN2, on a Thursday. Not exactly a giant ratings draw, but on average MLS has been able to pull in a 0.2 rating, which looks small and is small, but is comparable to the numbers the NHL was able to draw back in 2003 on ESPN2 (0.24) and to the numbers the NHL is currently getting on Versus (0.3). The highest draw this year for the MLS is 0.3, which was Landon Donovan's first game back after the World Cup. Last year, when the Seattle Sounders were capturing some attention with their rabid fan base, the high mark was a 0.5 rating in a game against D.C. United

Aside from this hopeful World Cup boost, Red Bull New York recently signed former French national team star Thierry Henry, and his debut should be well covered, and there are rumors floating around the former Brazilian national team standout Ronaldinho might be signing with the LA Galaxy soon. If Beckham is any example, those debut games could be the highest watched MLS games all year.

So while MLS isn't threatening to overtake the NFL anytime soon for the most popular form of footie played in the U.S., it does have a foundation to stick around for many years to come.