Nielsen's data* makes a few things clear. Major League Soccer is not a big sport in the United States. Soccer as a whole continues to be broken into diverse fanbases particularly separated into MLS, Liga MX, USMNT, Mexico, the EPL and a few other leagues. MLS is growing. But it's growth on TV is quite slow.
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The data collected by Nielsen is immense. It is also a bit tilted towards older, richer, whiter subjects due to how that population being more likely to have a TV. The Atlantic points this out in their summation of the data. It then fails to point out that only one league presented includes Spanish language television - MLS. There's a reason for that. That huge part of the American populace is a key to the future of MLS and its TV contracts.
In what should come as little surprise the other key to the growth of MLS is its tech-savvy audience.
Over the past year, a young, mobile, and tech savvy audience has embraced MLS in the U.S. Consider this: 52 percent of MLS fans who have expressed strong interest in attending live events and viewing games on TV are ages 18-34, the highest percentage of any pro league. Additionally, MLS fans are far more likely to be smartphone owners, with 76 percent of MLS fans owning a smartphone (Android & iOS) compared to 66 percent of the general U.S. population. And 42 percent of MLS fans have viewed mobile video in the past 30 days, compared to 21 percent nationally.
This is a large part of the reason why the new TV deal, rumored to be 70M$ per year for English language rights, is in dispute over the length of time. ESPN/Fox want an eight-year deal according to the rumors. MLS wants a shorter deal. That youth and tech edge almost demands a shorter deal.
And that data shows that Seattle Sounders FC are nailing their marketing efforts. Coupled with the Forbes data, it shows a depth and breadth to the fanbase in the Greater Puget Sound that is unrivaled in American soccer. Seattle has some distance to catch the NHL top five numbers (the St. Louis Blues are 5th at 33%). The area may have different sports viewing habits, but having at about 700,000 experiencing (roughly 21 percent of the Seattle metropolitan area) at least one match live in the stadium, over TV or on radio is a big deal. Seattle has activated those numbers, as has Portland.
The Seattle metro area though still has untapped resources, though. The area is tech savvy, educated, wealthier than the MLS average and the stadium has extra capacity. The new broadcast deal has more matches on a primary over-the-air station than previous seasons. The club continues to expand penetration. It has Spanish language TV and radio deals. There is a team specific app and the club went paperless for tickets. It pushes technology and uses social media aggressively to grow its reach. Remember, MLS fans are 26% more likely than average Americans to use social media more than three hours a day.
But to expand the audience there may need to reach out to more outlying communities. Kitsap, Thurston and Skagit counties pull in plenty of fans for the Mariners (and were cited as the reason for the retractable roof) and the Seahawks. Those communities (Island and Mason county as well) are part of the Puget Sound Combined Statistical Area.
They too are Sounders. These nearly million people -- and more than a million if you include some of the easily drive-able communities over the pass -- are relatively untapped.
These early days of Sounders growth are impressive, but they also are clearly not complete. The club is up to five regular-season, full-stadium matches. It continues to challenge itself to do things that go beyond previous dreams of soccer success in the United States. The numbers show success, they also show opportunity.