MLS is getting bigger. Can it outgrow MLB?

Atlanta United fans watch a soccer match against Motagua FC in the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Kennesaw, Ga.
Atlanta United fans watch a soccer match against Motagua FC in the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Kennesaw, Ga.

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

Larry Berg owns LAFC. This week he proclaimed that MLS will, within 10 years, be more popular than big-league baseball. "We definitely have the demographics in our favor, both in terms of youth and diversity," he said. "I think we'll pass baseball and hockey and be the No. 3 sport in the U.S. behind football and basketball."

As someone who recalls when MLB was considered the National Pastime, my kneejerk response was to scoff. As someone who concedes that baseball has gone from Pastime to past-its-time, a more considered reaction was to say, “Not so fast.” As a professional observer of sports, I ask: What constitutes popularity?

Local angles: The average announced attendance for Atlanta United regular-season home matches in 2019 was 52,910; the AAA for Atlanta Braves regular-season games last year was 32,779. (Put another way, the average Atlanta soccer crowd would spill over at Truist Park.) Does that mean Atlanta United, which has existed for three years, is more popular than the Braves, who’ve been here since 1966?

Local TV ratings suggest not. Among the peculiarities of baseball is that, while MLB attendance and World Series ratings continue to dip, local TV audiences remain robust. As the New York Times reported in October: "In 2019, 12 of the 29 United States-based major league teams were the most popular prime-time broadcast in their market. An additional seven teams ranked in the top three in prime time. On cable, 24 major league teams ranked first in their market in prime time."

Also: The Braves play 81 regular-season games to Atlanta United’s 17. They drew an aggregate 2.655 million in 2019; Atlanta United drew one-third of that. And AUFC isn’t the MLS rule; it’s the shining exception.

The average MLS crowd last season was 21,310, slightly down from 2018. Only Atlanta United and Seattle averaged more than 27,000 for home dates last year. Yes, soccer stadiums run smaller, but still: On aggregate, every MLB team save Miami outdrew Atlanta United in 2019.

What Berg said about “youth and diversity” is inarguable: MLS plays to a young audience. Baseball’s primal fear is that the folks who still watch the sport won’t be around in 20 years, and there’ll be nobody coming behind them. Would the average teenager be more apt to would recognize Cristiano Ronaldo than Mike Trout? Yes. Thing is, Cristiano Ronaldo hasn’t yet graced an MLS team. He might do a brief drop-in before he retires, but that remains the knock on MLS: The biggest names only come when they’re in decline, and then not for long. (Zlatan Ibrahimovic came and went in the time it takes to say “Zlatan Ibrahimovic.”)

Say what you will about MLB – over the past month, we've said nothing complimentary – but it's where the best baseball is played. At the same MLS kickoff event where Berg made his pronouncement, Jorge Mas, co-owner of expansion club Inter Miami, made another. "I think (that MLS in 2045) will be on par or exceed the best leagues in the world, the Premier League or Serie A or La Liga worldwide. I think that the MLS 25 years from now will be Premier League-ish if we want to call it that on the metrics that leagues are measured by."

We check metrics from the here and now. The English Premier League's TV deal for this season is worth $2.14 billion; the MLS deal is $90 million. FiveThirtyEight attempts to rank the world's soccer clubs: The first-named MLS team is LAFC at 133rd; the second was Atlanta United at 220th.

MLS has done well. Its footprint keeps growing. It will, however, be difficult to claim superiority over MLB when MLS isn’t the best soccer product available on U.S. TV. No, watching the Premier League on Saturday mornings isn’t the same as standing in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and doing the songs/chants, and the embrace of soccer in this city has been startling. But we are – stop me if you’ve heard this already – a trendy sports city. There once was a time, we note, when the Hawks were a hot ticket.

A major part of the MLS pitch is to millennials – upwardly mobile young adults who (major generalizations coming) work in tech and take Uber everywhere and live downtown. We've yet to see what will happen when those young adults have children. Do they move to the suburbs? Do buy a car? Do they still follow a soccer team?

This isn't to suggest that MLB is unassailable. It keeps trying to appeal to a younger audience, but the game itself has become ponderous. (Everything's a home run, a strikeout or a walk.) Folks have stopped watching the World Series in large measure because MLB can't figure out how to market four hours of tedium. Were this simply a test of executive brainpower, MLS would win by a mile.

Baseball, however, had a century’s head start. For all its warts, it remains a mighty force. It gets going in the spring, and it’s a daily/nightly presence for six months. Maybe it will be different someday, but not anytime soon. And before you say, “Soccer appeals to the young, which means it should own the internet and social media,” we refer again to the Times story. Wrote Juliette Love: “The Rockies aren’t as popular across the country, but they get more (Google) searches in Colorado than the NFL’s Broncos do.”

Growth in sports, or the lack thereof, can be a funny thing. The NBA was circling the drain – NBA finals games were airing on late-night tape delay – until Magic Johnson and Larry Bird showed up. NASCAR sought to get big by going wide and wound up getting smaller. As much as we try to predict the future, we never quite get it right.

If everything broke right for MLS – if somebody threw $2.14 billion in TV money at the league and such money was used to lure Neymar, Eden Hazard and Virgil van Dijk here tomorrow – maybe that dream of being No. 3 to the NFL/NBA in 2030 could become a reality. But who'd pay $2.14 billion for broadcast rights to a league that saw its latest MLS Cup final draw 823,000 viewers on ABC? Game 7 of the World Series, played two weeks earlier, drew 23 million on Fox.

Soccer is my favorite sport to watch. (Seriously.) I wish MLS nothing but the best, and I can imagine better days and decades ahead. Can I envision MLS being, by any rational metric, bigger than baseball 10 years hence? No, I can’t.

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