Though hockey, baseball, football and basketball have long dominated the American professional sports landscape, there’s a new act in town.
On Saturday ESPN.com reported that the average attendance at Major League Soccer games so far this season has surpassed both the NBA and the NHL for the first time. MLS is averaging 18,453 fans per match through week four, while the NBA and NHL are at an average of 17,111 and 17,005 respectively.
The news serves as just another example of the continuing growth and success of soccer in America.
“I think it’s great,” Chivas USA captain Sacha Kljestan said of the article. “The league is progressing a lot. There’s a lot more coverage on TV, the fans are liking it more and it’s becoming more mainstream.”
The statistic itself was certainly bolstered by Toronto, Seattle, and Philadelphia, who have enjoyed strong crowds so far this season. The Philadelphia Union, for example, opened their inaugural season in front of around 35,000 fans at Lincoln Financial Field.
“Obviously the big crowds up in Toronto, Philadelphia and Seattle help,” said Kljestan. “Those are definitely fun places to play. But I think we’ve actually had pretty good outings so far in terms of our own fans at The Home Depot Center. It’s been good.”
Chivas USA has averaged 15,627 fans in Los Angeles for its two home games so far this season, which is slightly more than their 2009 season average of 15,091.
“We have a lot of support,” Kljestan said. “We even have fans who wait for us outside of our practices to support us, and that’s great.”
Part of the reason for the success of MLS and soccer in American in general may be the popularity of video games like EA sports’ FIFA series. The game has been a best-seller for a number of years, and the 2009 edition—which features Kljestan on the cover—sold 550,000 copies in the United States. Its popularity helps to keep interest in soccer high.
“I think a lot of people play FIFA, even if they don’t play soccer,” Kljestan said. “I always talk to other athletes about how they play FIFA and like MLS.”
At the very least, the video game, which features accurate MLS teams and rosters, has certainly helped with Kljestan’s popularity.
“The FIFA thing has helped a lot,” he said. “A reporter was once asking me if anybody ever recognizes me around and I said, ‘seriously never.’ And then we went to a Clippers game and there were five people yelling out for me. It made my girlfriend and I feel like we were celebrities.”
While MLS may still trail behind the more established American pro sports leagues in certain aspects, it might not be too long before the tables are turned. Soccer is the number one participation sport for youth in America, and it continues to grow in popularity among older fans.
“I’ve never really thought about whether MLS would be bigger than the NFL or the NBA, but you would think so,” Kljestan said. “Especially if the MLS continues to grow and get bigger players. Soccer definitely has the potential to be one of the biggest sports in the country, for sure.”