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In this fourth and final comparison of the National Football League to the other major American professional sports leagues*, we examine how Major League Soccer, MLS, measures up to the other U.S. football league, the NFL.
(*click here to see the NFL vs. NBA, MLB and NHL)
At first glance, it’s obvious that MLS’s overall numbers pale in comparison to the NFL’s. To be fair, though, we have to keep in mind that the sport of professional football has been fully American since its first game in 1920. Soccer, on the other hand, didn’t really make its full entrance into American culture until the mid-1970’s when the New York Cosmos signed Pele to play for three seasons from 1975-77.
The NFL began in Canton on September 17, 1920, but it wasn’t until December 17th, 1993 that the MLS was founded, giving football a 73-year head start over soccer in the U.S.
The growth of football’s popularity and moneymaking potential has been constant in America, while soccer’s attractiveness seems to ebb and flow with the sports’ big events. For instance, soccer made some resurgence in America in 1994 after FIFA held its World Cup in the United States for the first time. Soccer resurged once again during 2002 when the United States reached the quarterfinals, its best result in the modern era.
Football is full of fast and brutal action and lots of scoring whereas the excitement in soccer develops slowly and goals happen so infrequently that competing teams often decide games by a final shoot-out.
Here’s a few other side-by-side comparisons:
And the list goes on and on.
And in most cases, the NFL dwarfs MLS, especially when it comes to comparing the business aspects of the two.
How much more revenue does the NFL make than MLS?
How many Americans watch NFL games compared to MLS matches in 2018?
Which league is better preparing themselves for worldwide domination?
In this article, we’re going to answer those questions and a whole lot more as we examine and compare the NFL and the MLS – their revenue, salaries, viewership, attendance and ratings – and try to figure out which sports league is better positioning itself to be number one in America and in the world.
Let’s start by comparing each league’s revenue.
There are 256 total regular-season NFL games each year while in 2018 there will be 311 MLS regular-season matches played.
Last season, the NFL made $14 billion in total revenue, which was over $900 million more than they made the season before and a $6 billion increase from 2010.
On the other hand, MLS is not obliged to make any financial data public and has never done so. However, according to Forbes, MLS’s gross central revenue for 2017 – the last completed season – was around $644 million. Each club now earns shares of annual profits, as well as shares of growing ‘expansion fees’.
The NFL averages more sponsorship revenue, as well.
NFL sponsorship revenue reached $1.32 billion in the 2017-18 season, with beer, trucks and fast food being among the largest spenders.
MLS sponsorship revenue totaled about $75 million for the 2017 season, with Adidas and Heineken Beer being the major spenders.
The main purpose of revenue sharing is to set up measures that allow richer and poorer teams to compete with each other on semi-equal footing.
Of the $14 billion that the NFL made last season, mostly from national media deals, they distributed more than half of it to its individual franchises.
Last season, every NFL team received $226.4 million in national revenue sharing, which comes out to more than $7.2 billion across the league.
MLS shares its revenue in a rather unique and complicated way.
Major League Soccer uses something called ‘single entity,’ which means that all club owners are really partners in the league, not competitors. The MLS owns each team, and therefore all revenue belongs to the league, not the individual clubs.
So how does this work?
Whenever a team makes money (through local TV and radio rights, kit and stadium sponsorships, ticket sales, or player sales), the club gets a cut of it and the remaining money goes into the league’s bank account.
That money ends up being redistributed out to all the clubs in the league, covering the players’ salaries (minus the above-cap amount of Designated Player Salaries), cost of travel, referee fees, administrative costs, and all other expenses. Profits for the league are also redistributed, but to the owners.
What’s also split among owners is the $150 million expansion fee that new teams have to pay. That number could reach as high as $200 million in the future according to league president Mark Abbott.
Specific MLS revenue sharing numbers are not available.
This one wouldn’t even be close, that is if you could actually find a revenue total for the MLS Cup.
The Super Bowl revenue numbers are easily found.
Last season, the revenue from Super Bowl LII surpassed $500 million. Ad spending alone for in-game spots exceeded $400 million, as it did the previous season. Anheuser-Busch InBev and Fiat Chrysler Automotive were the top-spending parent companies in that game.
It’s virtually impossible to track the total revenue of the MLS Cup since the league isn’t required to offer up that financial information and nobody else seems to want to even venture a guess.
Normally, the another easy way to compare the revenue potential of the two championships is by looking at how much each charges for an advertisement.
The cost of a 30-second commercial during the 2017 Super Bowl was $5.02 million.
But here’s the problem when it comes to comparing that to the MLS Cup – unlike with professional football, baseball and basketball, soccer matches have very few media time-outs. This makes running commercial breaks a difficult proposition, something that MLS recognizes as an area it must address if it hopes to be as profitable as the other professional leagues.
Regardless, the NFL’s Super Bowl is the clear winner over every other championship game being played.
When it comes to team worth, the NFL has a huge advantage over the MLS.
The average NFL team is worth $2.5 billion and according to Forbes Magazine that’s up 8% over last year. All but five of the NFL teams are worth at least $2 billion.
For the eleventh year in a row, the Dallas Cowboys are the NFL’s most valuable team and the world’s most valuable franchise. They’re worth $4.8 billion, and that’s up 14%. The Buffalo Bills are last on the list with a value of $1.6 billion.
The average MLS team is now worth $223 million, up 20% from last year.
The LA Galaxy is now the league’s most valuable team with a value of $315 million, a 19% increase from last year. Bringing up the MLS rear are the Columbus Crew, worth $130 million.
Not at all.
The NFL hasn’t done much to reach international audiences, and that’s one of the factors that’s hurting its overall numbers. The one region they’re focusing on?
The United Kingdom.
According to the Econ Review, NFL viewers in the United Kingdom increased by 60% in 2017, not an easy feat given that rugby is the primary sport known to those English sports fans.
In 2018, there are three NFL games scheduled to be played in the U.K.:
Soccer, on the other hand, is an international sport that is actually more popular outside of the U.S. than within it. In fact, Nielsen survey data show that more than four out of 10 people in the world consider themselves soccer fans, making the game the world’s most popular sport.
Now that said, MLS isn’t completely respected around the world just yet. One Romanian sums it up nicely (if not coldly) when he says, “Europeans think that the MLS is a place where good soccer players go after they are old and washed up.”
Three international soccer leagues — the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, and the German Bundesliga — have a legitimate claim to the world’s top spot. Though MLS attendances is top 10 in the world, the on-field talent is said to be “not quite there yet.”
Experts say the MLS is probably on par with some of Europe’s smaller leagues, such as Norway or Scotland.
Still, because the actual sport of soccer is so popular worldwide, MLS has a much broader international appeal than the NFL.
First year players in the NFL can expect to make an average of $365,000 per year, and that constantly rises anywhere from $5 to $10 thousand per year. Rookies make their big money through bonuses, including a roster bonus, a signing bonus, contact incentives and a few other formats.
Rookies typically start off at the NFL minimum, but exceptions are made for exceptional players. For example, this year Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield signed a four-year deal worth $32.68 million (with a $21.85 million signing bonus) and running back Saquon Barkley and the New York Giants agreed to a contract worth $31.2 million (with a $20.77 million signing bonus).
The average salary of a typical NFL player is $1.9 million per year while the average salary for an NFL quarterback is about $4 million per year. The top ten highest paid NFL athletes are all quarterbacks – the biggest salaries going to Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons who makes an average of $30 million per season plus $5 million in endorsements and Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings who makes $28 million per season plus about $1 to $1.5 million in endorsements.
(For a complete list of the NFL’s top ten highest players, check out our in-depth article on all ten of those athletic millionaires.)
The average salary of a typical MLS player is $117 thousand, while the bare minimum paid is $51,500.
There are 15 players in MLS making over $2 million a year and 46 players in the league making over $1 million a year. In total, Major League Soccer has 46 millionaires, 47 counting DC United’s Zoltan Stieber, who comes in at $999,999.96 in total compensation.
Before he retired, former Real Madrid legend and Orlando City SC midfielder Kaka (actual name: Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite) topped the list for highest-paid players in 2017 with $7.17 million in yearly guaranteed compensation, $6.6 million of that in base salary.
Now Toronto FC’s Italian star Sebastian Giovinco heads the list, making $7.12 million, $6.6 million of that in salary and the rest in sponsorship money.
Second to him is midfielder teammate Michael Bradley, whose total compensation is estimated at $6.5 million.
The Philadelphia Eagles, winners of Super Bowl LII, received $112,000 each for winning the big game. Players from the losing New England Patriots got $56,000.
Under Major League Soccer’s collective bargaining agreement, the MLS Cup winners share $275,000 (all dollar figures U.S.) while the losers divide $80,000.
There’s no doubt NFL viewership is going down according to Austin Karp of the Sports Business Daily.
NBC’s Sunday Night Football, ESPN’s Monday Night Football and the shared Thursday Night Football package (between NBC, CBS, NFL Network and Amazon) all declined in viewership for the second straight season.
The raw numbers (avg. viewership):
|NBC’s Sunday Night Football|
|ESPN’s Monday Night Football|
|Thursday Night Football (NBC/CBS/NFL Network)|
So how do those declining NFL viewership numbers compare to the MLS?
It’s not even close.
For the 2017 season, MLS averaged 258,000 viewers per match, which was up 4% from the season before, when soccer matches averaged 248,000 viewers per.
In July, though, just after the FIFA World Cup coverage, a match between the Seattle Sounders FC and the Portland Timbers had 1.16 million viewers on FOX. That was the third-largest MLS regular season audience since 2008, when the LA Galaxy took on D.C. United and 1.22 million fans tuned in.
It’s estimated that 103.4 million people worldwide watched the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots, 41-33, in Super Bowl LII last season. The season before that saw slightly higher numbers when 111.3 viewers tuned in to Super Bowl LI.
In the 2017 MLS Cup, the Toronto FC took on the Seattle Sounders and 803,000 people watched the Toronto club win 2-0. That’s up 20% from the 2015 season, when 668,000 fans watched the Portland Timbers defeat the Columbus Crew SC 2-1.
But there’s really no comparison between the two – essentially, it’s multi-millions of viewers for the NFL vs. hundreds of thousands MLS viewers, and it’s not difficult to see how that translates into dollars, as well.
This one also goes to the NFL, and again, it’s not even close.
Last season, 17,253,425 people attended NFL games, while 8,267,534 MLS fans went to soccer matches. Over twice as many people went to football games over soccer matches in America, but again, that’s mostly because soccer is the relatively new kid in town.
Here’s the mathematical breakdown:
The NFL has 32 teams, each plays 16 games, so that’s 256 games per season.
The MLS has 23 teams, each plays 34 matches, and in 2018 that’s 311 total matches played.
So 17,253,425 NFL fans attended 256 games, so that’s an average of 67,396 people per game.
8,267,534 MLS fans attended 311 games, so that’s an average of 26,584 people per match.
And that’s the reason MLS games are played in smaller arenas and NFL games are played in large stadiums.
Obviously, adding more games to the NFL schedule would be financially beneficial to the league, but the violent nature of the sport of professional football prevents them from doing that.
Last season the average cost of an NFL ticket was $92.98 according to data from Team Marketing Report. That was up 8.3 percent from the previous season.
For MLS clubs, average ticket price is $46.22, making it a far more affordable outing. Minimum ticket prices currently range from as low as $10 to $47.20, but most clubs start out around $20-25.
The average cost of a Super Bowl LII ticket on secondary ticket providers like StubHub, Ticketmaster, TickPick and Vivid Seats was well over $5,000.
Last season, MLS Playoffs tickets resold for as low as under $50 on average for early rounds of the playoffs, and about $300 on average for the MLS Cup Final.
On September 24, 2017, Donald Trump tweeted:
…NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 24. september 2017
Some numbers back him up on that, showing an 8% decline in attendance since the 2016 season. This is said to be due to both the sudden attention to concussions and the resulting CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) as well as from a negative response to NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequality.
(For more details on the players’ respectful protest, please read our extensive article explaining the NFL kneeling controversy.)
Last season the MLS attendance totaled 8.27 million people over 374 total matches (including playoffs). That was a +1.9% increase from the previous season, when 7.35 million fans went to MLS matches.
So NFL attendance numbers are on a slight decline and MLS attendance is slightly increasing.
According to the Nielsen Ratings, NFL television ratings fell 9.7 percent during the 2017-18 season. And that follows the 8 percent drop in ratings from the season prior.
The three largest MLS audiences in the past decade have come in June, each airing on FOX after FIFA World Cup coverage. The Toronto F.C.-Red Bulls match ranked second (0.7, 1.11M) and Atlanta-Portland the previous weekend third (0.7, 1.07M).
The NFL overall ratings overshadow even the best matches of the MLS, but MLS saw its overall TV ratings increase, if only modestly, in the 2017 season.
Not by a long shot.
The 2017 MLS regular season matches averaged 258,000 viewers, up 4% from 2016 (248K).
Now look at the NFL numbers and you’ll see they’re still the clear winner.
For example, a Week 17 regular-season game on FOX attracted 5.5 million viewers, while the least-watched game on CBS attracted 2.9 million viewers.
FOX’s MLS broadcast directly following Poland’s World Cup match against Colombia was easily the highest-rated match so far in the 2017 season with 1.074 million viewers tuning in. It was also FOX’s highest-rated MLS broadcast ever for a game not attached to an NFL broadcast.
The highest watched regular-season NFL game last season was when the New England Patriots played the Pittsburg Steelers in December and attracted 26.88 million viewers.
If you go by the numbers, it’s not hard to see that the NFL is preferred by a lot more people than MLS and the revenue generated seems to back that up.
Take a look.
|$14 billion||$644 million|
|$1.32 billion||$75 million|
|Average Team Worth|
|$2.5 billion||$223 million|
|Average Salaries (Rookies)|
|$365,000 per year||$54,500 per year|
|Average Salaries (Player)|
|$1.9 million per year||$117,000 per year|
|Average Salaries (Top Salary)|
|$30 million per season + $5 million in endorsements = $35 million||$6.6 million + $520,000 in endorsement deals = $7.12 million|
|NBC’s Sunday Night Football 18.175 million||258,000 viewers|
|ESPN’s Monday Night Football 10.757 million|
|Thursday Night Football (NBC/CBS/NFL Network) 10.937 million|
|17,253,425 total||8.267.534 total|
|67,396 people per game||26,584 people per game|
|fell 9% in 2017||MLS saw its overall TV ratings increase, if only modestly, in the 2017 season|
|Highest viewed game drew 26.88 million viewers||Highest viewed game drew 1.074 million viewers|
As with the other sports leagues we’ve compared to the NFL (NBA, MLB, and NHL), MLS just can’t measure up to its powerful football counterpoint.
In the case of soccer, it’s a matter of historical dominance.
And even though it’s still just the fourth most popular American sport behind football, baseball, and basketball, soccer is still the fastest growing sport in America next to lacrosse. It also attracts the youngest audience (average MLS fan age: 40) of all professional sports.
Soccer, like football, is a sport that can be played in the backyard between two people or on a regulation field with fully stocked teams. Its popularity will continue to increase as newer generations of American fans emerge and MLS continues to grow.
But as far as profits to be made and fortunes to be granted, the NFL offers more opportunities than MLS for making it big.
But given the growing numbers – television viewership, attendance and overall revenue – MLS owners are slowly grabbing a bigger part of the American professional sports league pie.
Careful, soccer, we’re talking American sports here, and the games that were here before you – football, basketball, and baseball – won’t like you overcrowding them at all.
Only time will tell if the other football will find a prominent (and profitable) place in American hearts and wallets.
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After graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a BA in Journalism, Richard Janvrin has been covering iGaming and sports betting since December 2018. Richard has covered betting at Bleacher Report, Gambling.com, The Game Day, Forbes, and more.More info on Richard Janvrin
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