MLS vs Premier League: Revenue, Salaries, Transfers and Attendance

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FIFA regulations dictate that the Premier League and Major League Soccer (MLS) follow the same on-field laws, but there are nevertheless plenty of differences between the two competitions.

England’s First Division was rebranded in 1992, as the country’s 22 leading clubs broke away from the Football League to found the Premier League.

Two years later the World Cup was staged in the United States (US) for the first time. A condition of its hosting was that the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) would be obliged to set up a new professional soccer league. MLS was officially formed in 1993 and staged its debut campaign three years later.

So, how do the two leagues differ? We’ve divided that question into six categories, each of which we will explore below.

MLS vs Premier League: Revenue

Which League Makes More Money?

The Premier League is the most lucrative soccer league in the world. The most recent figures cover the 2017/18 season, in which its 20 clubs generated revenues of $6.04 billion. Over the same period, MLS’s revenue stood at $1.02 billion.

Clubs from both leagues earn money predominantly from sponsorship, prize funds, ticket sales, broadcast deals, and player sales.

How Is the Revenue Shared Between Clubs?

The Premier League takes a more individualist approach, although broadcast contracts are negotiated collectively and the proceeds split between clubs.

International broadcasting revenue is equally shared, as is 50 percent of domestic broadcasting revenue.

The rest is divvied up depending on where a team finishes in the league table and how often their games are shown live on television.

Apart from that, the Premier League’s privately-owned clubs tend to generate money by themselves. All 20 sell shirt sponsorships and some sell the naming rights to their stadium.

The degree of matchday revenue depends on both stadium capacity and ticket prices. The transfer policy is determined on a club-by-club basis, with income and outlay decided accordingly.

MLS is more collectivist. It shares revenue and holds players’ contracts centrally. It doesn’t have owners but investor-operators, each of whom is a shareholder in the league – which means they are in effect partners rather than competitors.

Because of a structure in which the clubs are owned by the league, revenue belongs to MLS, which then redistributes it to the teams. If the league makes a profit, it divides it between the clubs’ investor-operators.

MLS teams do have a certain degree of autonomy. Earnings from the stadium, local broadcast rights, and merchandise are examples of revenue streams that belong to them rather than the league. However, 30 percent of the income from ticket sales must be sent to MLS.

MLS vs Premier League: Salaries and Transfers

What’s the Average Salary in the Premier League and MLS?

RankPL TeamAVG Annual/Player, $MLS TeamAVG Annual/Player, $
1Manchester City$8,734,375Toronto FC$758,346
2Man United$7,657,000LA Galaxy$654,129
3Liverpool$6,922,000Chicago Fire$611,249
4Arsenal$5,987,800LAFC$509,998
5Chelsea$5,967,500Seattle Sounders FC$488,515
6Everton$5,127,200Portland Timbers$464,960
7Tottenham$4,951,304Montreal Impact$438,409
8Leicester$4,191,200Orlando City SC$418,858
9West Ham$3,777,800Sporting Kansas City$416,230
10Crystal Palace$3,609,375New England Revolution$409,932
11Southampton$2,874,300Atlanta United$404,910
12Wolves$2,746,957Minnesota United$379,732
13Newcastle$2,607,800DC United$377,603
14Watford$2,531,389New York City FC$371,985
15Aston Vila$2,457,000Columbus Crew$366,021
16Bournemouth$2,397,200Real Salt Lake$358,638
17Burnley$2,394,167San Jose Earthquakes$342,419
18Brighton$2,256,630Philadelphia Union$338,887
19Norwich$1,238,750Colorado Rapids$307,143
20Sheff Utd$910,000Houston Dynamo$301,547
21New York Red Bulls$298,929
22FC Cincinnati$289,846
23FC Dallas$282,925
24Vancouver Whitecaps$271,738

Data taken from the “Global Sports Salaries Survey 2019”

In the 2019/20 season, Premier League clubs paid a total of $1.97 billion in player salaries. According to the 2019 edition of the Global Sports Salaries Survey, England’s top soccer competition ranks fourth of all global sports leagues for the amount it pays on wages, behind the National Basketball Association (NBA), cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) and Major League Baseball (MLB).

The average salary at Manchester City, the biggest spenders, was $8.73m, while last-placed Sheffield United paid an average of $910,000 per player.

The average salary per player across the league as a whole was $3.97m, a 6.1 percent increase on the previous year. The median salary for the season was $2.93m.

MLS ranks 13th on salaries paid to players, and seventh when only soccer leagues are considered (behind England, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and China). In the 2019 season, it paid a total of $288m on player wages, with an average of $410,730 per player and a median of $179,998.

Toronto FC were the biggest spenders on $758,346 per player, and Vancouver Whitecaps the most frugal on $271,738.

It’s worth bearing in mind that MLS has a single-entity structure. As mentioned earlier, player contracts are centrally owned by the league, and each club’s investor-operator is a shareholder in MLS.

As such, MLS has more complicated rules than the more laissez-faire Premier League; namely, there has been a salary cap in place since its birth in 1996. Clubs are permitted rosters of up to 30 players, and the first 20 slots must be filled by players whose combined earnings total no more than $4.9m.

Under the Designated Player Rule, clubs are permitted to employ three players who are exempt from the salary cap. This rule was introduced to facilitate David Beckham’s move to LA Galaxy in 2007 and is designed to help MLS attract international stars to the US.

The remaining seven roster spots are filled by under-24-year-olds earning the Reserve Minimum Salary of $63,547, two of whom must be homegrown players – that is, players who became a member of an MLS club’s academy no later than the year in which they turned 15. The league as a whole has 208 international roster slots that are divided between its 26 teams.

How Do Transfers Work in Both Leagues?

Transfers follow a similar pattern. The Premier League’s approach to finances is neatly summarized in a brief article on its own official website, which includes the line:

“outside of these obligations [paying transfer fees, salaries, and tax bills on time; disclosing payments made to agents; and submitting accounts annually] it is up to individual clubs, who all have their own directors and senior executives, to make decisions over how they spend their income.”

Clubs are therefore largely free to spend what they like on transfers, although those seeking to participate in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League must meet more stringent Financial Fair Play rules set by European soccer’s governing body.

It’s not the same in MLS, where regulations governing the acquisition of players are complex. Each club is assigned allocation money, which can be used to sign players or pay salary costs that have gone over the cap.

The league has an Allocation Ranking List, which consists of select US internationals, elite youth US internationals and former MLS players returning to MLS after joining a non-MLS club for a transfer fee greater than $500,000.

The Allocation Ranking Order determines which club gets first pick of those on the list. Any new clubs that are poised to compete in their first season in the league go first, followed by those that finished outside the play-offs the previous year.

The next selections belong to:

  1.  those teams eliminated in the first round of the play-offs
  2.  those teams eliminated in the play-off semi-finals
  3.  those teams eliminated in the conference finals
  4. the MLS Cup runner-up
  5. the MLS Cup winner

Once a club makes a signing from the list, they drop to the bottom of the order.

On top of that, there is the annual SuperDraft, which is used to allocate players who have graduated from college or otherwise been signed by MLS.

The order of picks is determined by the same rules above. Another method of acquiring players is via the discovery process, which permits clubs to sign players who are not yet contracted to MLS.

Club-to-club transfers are possible too. In fact, players, SuperDraft picks, allocation rankings, allocation money, and international roster slots can all be traded. When an MLS player is transferred overseas, the club and the league share the fee – the percentage that each gets varies from case to case.

MLS vs Premier League: Attendances

Does the Premier League or MLS Attract More Supporters?

LeagueAVG Attendance

Most Recently Completed Season

Best Ever AVG Attendance

Regular Season

Season of Best AVG Attendance% of
Stubhub Tickets Sold in 2019 to this League Who Were Foreign Visitors
EPL38,16838,7761948-4938%
MLS21,31022,10620177%

Data taken from the “Global Sports Salaries Survey 2019”

The average attendance at a Premier League game in the 2018/19 season was 38,168. That’s not too far off the best ever average figure of 38,776, which was set in the old First Division days way back in 1948/49.

Over that period – the most recently completed seasons around the world – the Premier League was the second-best attended soccer league worldwide, with Germany’s Bundesliga claiming the top spot.

In 2019 the average attendance at an MLS match was 21,310 – meaning the US’s leading league again ranks below its counterparts in Germany, England, Spain, Italy, China, and France. MLS’s highest-ever average number, 22,106, came in 2017.

It’s also interesting to look at attendance as a percentage of stadium capacity. In 2018/19, 14,503,954 fans attended Premier League matches. The maximum possible figure based on stadium capacity would have been 14,971,896, which means grounds in England’s top tier were 96.87 percent full that season.

In the regular season in 2019, a total of 8,694,584 supporters watched live MLS matches. The highest possible number based on stadium capacity would have been 10,298,209, which means stadiums in MLS were 84.43 percent full that campaign.

How Does TV Viewership Compare?

LeagueOverseas Rights
$/year
Domestic Rights
$/year
Total Rights
$/year
Overseas % of
Total Rights
EPL$1,750,000,000$2,081,250,000$3,831,250,00045.7%
MLS$15,000,000$90,000,000$105,000,00014.3%

Data taken from the “Global Sports Salaries Survey 2019”

According to the aforementioned 2019 edition of the Global Sports Salaries survey, the Premier League generates $1.75bn per year from overseas television rights and more than $2bn from domestic television rights. The sums for MLS are $15m and $90m respectively.

The earnings are broadly reflective of viewing figures. The Premier League reached a cumulative global audience of 3.2bn in the 2018/19 season, a six percent increase on the previous campaign. It was broadcast in 188 of the world’s 193 UN-recognized nations – North Korea, Cuba, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Moldova were the only exceptions.

International ratings are harder to come by for MLS.

Domestically, the 2019 regular season attracted 16.62m American viewers with an average of 268,081 per match. Unfortunately for MLS, that represents a 19 percent slump compared to 2018.

MLS vs Premier League: Format

How Is the Premier League Set Up?

The Premier League has had 20 clubs since 1995, having initially included two more in its first three seasons in existence. Each team plays every other two times, home and away, across a season that runs from August to May.

Whichever side amasses the most points wins the title. Second, third and fourth places qualify for the UEFA Champions League, while the fifth spot brings with it a place in the Europa League.

The team finishing sixth also qualifies for the UEFA Europa League if the winner of the FA Cup has already booked their spot in continental competition by finishing in the top five of the Premier League. The same is true of seventh place and the League Cup.

The bottom three teams are relegated to the Championship, the second tier.

How Does MLS Compare?

The sheer size of the US makes a single, nationwide division impossible. MLS is therefore split into two halves, the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference, with each containing 13 teams. Of the 26 clubs overall, three are based in Canada.

Two more sides – known as expansion teams – will join MLS in 2021, followed by another couple in 2022. The regular season typically runs from March to October.

Currently, each team plays its conference opponents twice, home and away. A club also plays one game against 10 of the 13 members of the opposite conference, leading to a total of 34 matches per regular season.

The team that finishes top of each conference automatically qualifies for the play-off semi-finals and the CONCACAF Champions League. Second place also reaches the Champions League, while second to seventh spot advance to the first round of their conference’s playoffs.

After each club has played its 34 matches, the two conference tables are combined and the side that has accumulated the most points wins the Supporters’ Shield. There is no relegation.

Seven teams per conference compete in the play-offs. The table-toppers are given a bye to the semi-finals, leaving six sides to battle it out for the remaining three places. The semi-finals are followed by the Conference Finals, the winner of which advances to MLS Cup, the biggest game in the US domestic soccer calendar.

Will MLS Ever Introduce Relegation?

The promotion/relegation system has a growing number of advocates in the US. David Beckham, president of MLS new boys Inter Miami, says its introduction would make things more “exciting”, although he also cautioned that it should only be put in place once there is more stability in the league.

It’s always worth remembering in such discussions that MLS has only been running for 24 years. Back in the mid-1990s, there was no established professional soccer structure in the country. Since then the league has been a huge success, and investors have undoubtedly been attracted by the security provided by a format that doesn’t include relegation.

Don Garber, who has served as MLS Commissioner since 1999, remains opposed to promotion/relegation. It’s also hard to envisage a situation in which MLS club owners suddenly back an overhaul that would put their team at risk of dropping out of the division. That would be like turkeys voting for Thanksgiving.

Some supporters believe that US soccer will only move forward once it follows the global trend and introduces promotion/relegation. Teams competing in the United Soccer League Championship (USLC) – essentially the second division – are hugely frustrated by the closed shop above them. They believe sporting merit should take precedence over economic calculations.

At the time of writing, though, promotion/relegation seems a long way off.

Will Playoffs Ever Be Introduced in the Premier League?

It’s highly unlikely. Playoffs are used lower down the English soccer pyramid to decide which team fills the final promotion spot in a particular league. In the Championship, for example, the top two sides are automatically promoted and the next four enter a play-off tournament, the winner of which also goes up to the Premier League.

However, the idea that the Premier League title could be determined by a play-off is anathema to English soccer tradition. There is occasionally talk of introducing a relegation play-off – pitting the fourth-bottom side against a team from the division below, as is used in France – but that too looks unlikely to be introduced.

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MLS vs Premier League: Competitiveness

Is it Easier to Win the Premier League or MLS?

Proponents of the play-off system in MLS argue that their way of doing things generates more thrill and excitement. Those who prefer the Premier League model claim it’s unjust that a team can lose a one-off play-off game to a side they could feasibly have collected 30 more points than in the regular season.

Overall, though, history shows that it’s much harder to win the Premier League than the MLS Cup.

Since its launch in 1992, only six teams – Manchester United, Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Leicester City – have won the Premier League title.

By contrast, 13 sides – LA Galaxy, DC United, Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City, San Jose Earthquakes, Chicago Fire, Toronto FC, Colorado Rapids, Columbus Crew, Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake, and Atlanta United – have lifted MLS Cup.

Why Is the Premier League Harder to Win?

There are two main reasons. One concerns the format.

As of 2020, just over half of MLS’s 26 clubs qualify for the play-offs. From there, a team is a maximum of four victories away from winning MLS Cup.

By contrast, winning the Premier League requires consistent excellence over 38 matches. That’s why Leicester’s triumph in 2015/16 was so extraordinary. The club was 5000/1 outsiders at the start of the season, yet finished 10 points clear at the top.

The other factor concerns finances.

There is a far greater disparity between the Premier League’s richest and poorest sides (although none, of course, are poor in absolute terms). Clubs are mostly free to spend as much money on transfers and salaries as they like. There is no draft system to promote equality in the acquisition of talented young players.

The financial odds are stacked in the big clubs’ favor. That’s the main reason you tend to see the same names towards the top of the Premier League table every year. In that respect, MLS is more competitive than its English cousin.

MLS vs Premier League: Representation

How Many Different Nationalities Play in Each League?

Soccer is a truly global sport that is played all over the world. It’s no surprise, then, that both the Premier League and MLS have employed soccer players from all four corners of the globe.

Players of 115 different FIFA-affiliated nationalities have played at least one Premier League game since 1992 (as each has a separate soccer association, players from the United Kingdom are broken down into England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland). The most recent country to be represented is Tanzania, through Aston Villa striker Mbwana Samatta.

Since its first season in 1996, MLS has had participants from 127 FIFA-affiliated nations, including Canada and the US. The most recent country to be represented is Tunisia, through Vancouver Whitecaps defender Jasser Khmiri.

Looking only at the most recently completed campaigns (2018/19 for the Premier League, 2019 for MLS), players of 80 nationalities played at least one minute in the US’s top league compared to 67 in England’s foremost competition.

Soccer is a truly global sport that is played all over the world. It’s no surprise, then, that both the Premier League and MLS employ soccer players from all four corners of the globe.

Which League Has More Homegrown Players?

Despite having representatives of more nationalities, MLS also fields more domestic players (defined as American or Canadian, since three Canadian clubs also compete in the league).

In the 2019 season, 335 homegrown players played at least one minute of MLS soccer. In the 2018/19 Premier League campaign, 210 English players featured for at least a minute.

However, there are two things worth bearing in mind here. Firstly, the Premier League’s total climbs to 235 players if you include those from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

More significant is the fact that MLS has six more teams than the Premier League, so it naturally follows that the league has more players. If we take the above figures and compare them to each division’s overall number of players, the picture shifts slightly.

Of the 679 players who played at least one minute in MLS in 2019, 49.34 percent were American or Canadian. Of the 572 who played at least one minute in the Premier League in 2018/19, 36.1 percent were English, and 41.08 percent were from the UK.

The MLS still has more of a domestic bias, but the difference isn’t quite as stark as it might first appear.

Conclusion

It’s clear from the above that the differences between the Premier League and MLS extend far beyond the football versus soccer debate.

The two competitions fundamentally diverge on issues like format and finances, while the Premier League remains ahead when it comes to global outreach, attendance, and revenue.

It’s hard to see the MLS overtaking the Premier League any time soon. English soccer has more history and prestige, while its teams have the chance to compete in the biggest competition in the club game – the UEFA Champions League.

Europe is the place that most top players want to ply their trade in the peak years of their careers.

MLS has made impressive progress in the last two and a half decades, though, and its growth looks set to continue in the coming years. If the league can continue to attract domestic sports fans who have traditionally followed baseball, basketball, ice hockey or American football, it will be in a good place.

What’s more, for all that the structure of the Premier League and MLS are unalike, the game on the pitch is virtually identical. That’s the true beauty of soccer, the most popular sport on the planet.

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