Add MLS to form ‘Big Five’ major U.S. pro sports leagues

This story was updated on June 20, 2019.

For decades, soccer has remained popular among a growing chorus of fans and participants, but largely ignored by the national media, except in spurts like during the World Cup. When most media outlets refer to the “Big Four” professional sports, they are talking about the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, and leaving out the MLS.

It’s time for that to change. It’s time for a Big Five.

I was long in the camp of keeping Major League Soccer as a second-tier league. But some recent trends have convinced me that the MLS Cup champ — but not the various winners of other less-established U.S. pro soccer leagues − deserves to be recognized on equal footing to the so-called Big Four.


  • The average MLS attendance of 21,873 per game in 2018 exceeded that of the NBA [17,857] and NHL [17,446], though the latter leagues also had about twice as many games. While still well behind the NFL [67,100] and MLB [28,830], soccer is showing that it can build a fan base. The last few MLS Cup champions — Atlanta, Toronto, Seattle and Portland — have hosted title parades attracting tens of thousands of fans. It’s a far cry from the days when the 1971 NASL champion Dallas Tornado was giving away tickets to average 3,000.
  • A Gallup poll conducted on American’s favorite sports to watch in late 2017 ranked soccer as fourth behind only football, basketball and baseball. Seven percent of respondents chose soccer as their favorite, up from only 2 percent a decade earlier. Hockey was chosen by only 4 percent of respondents, the same share as in 2007. Soccer wasn’t far behind basketball [11%] and baseball [9%], though football [37%] remained cemented as Americans’ top sport to view. Moreover, more youth play soccer than any other sport except basketball.
  • New multimillion-dollar soccer stadiums are being constructed in U.S. cities. Former high-profile player David Beckham is spearheading a drive to build a 25,000-seat stadium for a new team in Miami, expected to open in 2021 at a cost of around $200 million. DC United’s 20,000-seat new home opened in 2018 near the Washington Nationals venue. Audi Field cost some $200 million, which is not as much as the baseball park’s $700 million but still a significant chunk of change.
  • The average MLS team was valued at $240 million in 2018, up almost 8% from the previous year, according to Forbes. That is still significantly behind the average franchise worth for the NHL [$630 million], NBA [$1.9 billion], MLB [$1.8 billion] and NFL [$2.6 billion]. Yet, an MLS franchise is worth more than 20 times that of the typical Arena Football League, CFL or WNBA one, which are somewhere around $10 million.

The bottom line is MLS teams are not playing with peanuts anymore.

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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