Low Hanging Fruit of the Day: Sepp Blatter

Blatter is critical of the MLS.  To wit:

But don’t forget that soccer — as they call football there — is the most popular game in the youth. It’s not American football or baseball; it is soccer. But there is no very strong professional league. There have just the M.L.S. But they have not these professional leagues that are recognized by the American society.

It is a question of time. I thought, when we had the World Cup in 1994. … But we are now in 2012 — it’s been 18 years — it should have been done now. But they are still struggling.

Consistent with previous form, Blatter is wrong. The MLS ranked eighth in Association Football leagues in average attendance according to most recent data. In a broader table of association football attendances, the MLS doesn’t look too bad:

1

Germany

45,179

2

England

34,601

3

Spain

30,275

4

Mexico

25,434

5

Italy

23,459

6

Netherlands

19,538

7

France

18,869

8

USA

18,807

9

China

18,740

10

Argentina

18,165

11

England II

17,738

12

Japan

17,566

13

Germany II

17,266

14

Brazil

14,976

15

Turkey

14,058

16

Scotland

13,861

 

For a league that has only completed 17 seasons, ranking eighth globally is not bad progress, certainly not “still struggling”.  By this measure, the Scottish league has been struggling since the formation of the SFL in 1890 (oh, hang on . . . ).  Some observations on these data include that the MLS ranks higher in average attendance to both the NHL (17,455 0) and NBA (17,274).  This places the MLS third among professional leagues in the USA (NFL: 67,538; MLB: 30,884), fourth among professional leagues in the US and Canada (Canadian Football League: 28,103), and fourth among all leagues in the US when the “amateur” NCAA Division 1 BCS is included (46,074).

This success has been achieved with a tedious “foreign” sport in a context with the established MLB (74,859,268 total attendance in 2011), NFL (17,124,389 / 67,538), and NCAA BCS (37,411,795 / 46,074), as well as the NHL (21,470,155 / 17,274), and NBA (17,100,861 / 17,274).

There are many ways to spin these numbers to make the MLS appear better or worse than it actually is, including pointing out that the average attendance of 18,807 is skewed by Seattle’s average 43,144 (the next four clubs are LA Galaxy and Montreal at 23K, Houston at 21K, Portland at 20K), but then Seattle’s attendance would rank sixth in the English Premier League’s current season, behind only Man U, Arsenal, Newcastle United, Man City, and Liverpool.  Notably, the entire MLS averages similar to the average for QPR in the current season.  While QPR will likely be relegated, their fans do get to see 19 better clubs come through.

One way we can’t spin these figures, however, is the way the perennially clueless Blatter did.  If the MLS is not a “very strong professional league”, then only the seven above it might qualify for “very strong”.  It’s certainly not “still struggling”.

73 comments on this post.
  1. Total:

    Blatter wasn’t comparing MLS to other soccer leagues. He was comparing them to the other American sports leagues (“But they have not these professional leagues that are recognized by the American society.”). That statement is correct.

  2. someBrad:

    Is attendance the best way to measure success? TV audiences are pathetic. I think “still struggling” is too harsh from Blatter, but I don’t think MLS is the 8th best league in the world. It doesn’t help MLS that it has to compete with better leagues for the eyes of television viewers.

    One other quibble — attendance figures are also skewed by double-headers that include friendly matches involving the biggest clubs in the world.

  3. JKTHs:

    Attendance is also skewed by the size of the arena. I’m sure it has better attendance than the NBA because basketball arenas can’t hold nearly as many people as a soccer stadium. A better measure would be percent of capacity or something like that or just looking at TV ratings.

  4. McKingford:

    All very convincing, but, really, only one word is ever needed to discredit Sepp Blatter:

    Qatar

  5. Stan Jones:

    3 of the 19 MLS teams don’t play home matches in the United States so why do you call it the USA? It is properly the USA-Canada. And you even mention one of them (Montreal)! All 3 are in the top 10 in attendance, by the way, and if Toronto FC hadn’t sucked so bad (as it always has) they would be 3 of the top 7.

  6. Colin:

    Huh – I would’ve thought that word would be “sexism.”

  7. Fighting Words:

    Slightly off topic, but speaking of relegation, what the heck is wrong with Aston Villa in the English Premier League? I am only asking because someone mentioned Aston Villa in an earlier thread. I don’t think this team has ever been relegated in it’s history. The Villa used to be a fairly consistent in being near the top of the English Premier League (well, always on the outside looking in on the top four). But during the last two seasons, they have been close to relegation. What gives?

    I’m just asking because I have not been paying as much attention as I would like to EPL (BPL?) football.

    As an additional side note, I really should go try to watch more San Jose Earthquakes matches.

  8. AR:

    So the NBA is not recognized by American society?

  9. John:

    Average attendance pretty clearly is not the best way to measure this. Surely one should, at the very least, also factor in TV ratings, unless one is simply cherry-picking statistics in order to attack Sepp Blatter.

  10. dave brockington:

    Wrong: even if we limit the frame of the question to what constitutes “struggling” to domestic relevance, then both the NHL and the NBA are “struggling”. While the NHL are struggling, it’s a self inflicted wound. Given the massive size of the North American market, expecting that soccer would dominate after 17 seasons is ludicrous.

  11. dave brockington:

    One is using the most readily available data to hand. While no single measure is the most reliable / valid to measure the concept of “not struggling”, paid attendance does not support the hypothesis that the MLS is “still struggling”.

  12. wjts:

    I don’t think this team has ever been relegated in it’s history.

    Villa have been relegated several times: to the Second Division in the late 30s, to the Second and then the Third in the 60s/70s, and again to the Second in the late 80s.

  13. Total:

    The NBA is well-recognized by American society and it kicks the living crap out of the MLS in attendance. The MLS plays one-third as many games as the NBA and yet can only match its average. Total attendance for the NBA is three times that for the MLS. Total attendance for the NHL is 3.5 times that of the MLS because the matching average comes over nearly four times as many games.

    The MLS is beaten or matched in total attendance by a number of minor league baseball leagues (the PCL and the International League, that I can could find) and beaten or matched by a minor league hockey league (the AHL). Those aren’t really fair because, again, different number of games. Nonetheless.

    As others have pointed out, TV ratings just emphasize the minnow status of the MLS.

    So, Blatter is absolutely correct in his assertion that it’s not a strong professional league.

  14. Total:

    See my reply above for attendance discussion, but you’re now throwing out a third argument. First was “MLS rivals other global soccer leagues” (not Blatter’s point), “MLS is comparable to NBA and NHL” (No, it isn’t), to “Well, 17 years is too short for MLS to become a success” (thus implicitly conceding that your #2 is wrong and implying that your number #1 is as well).

  15. Leeds man:

    Blatterskite has considered enlarging the goal, and getting rid of offside. He shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the game, in any capacity.

  16. John:

    Lower attendance per game but more games.
    You are cherry-picking the only statistic that makes MLS look at all competitive, and ignoring every other possible way of looking at it.

  17. John:

    Seriously, that’s all you have?

  18. Boots Day:

    There’s also the fact that NBA ticket prices are about twice as high as MLS prices. So add that fact, plus the increased number of games, and NBA ticket revenue is more than ten times the amount of MLS ticket revenue.

    In other words, Americans spend more than ten times as much money going to see NBA games than they do going to MLS games.

  19. spencer:

    Those aren’t really fair because, again, different number of games.

    Different number of teams too, but then you wouldn’t mention that because it tends to support Dave’s point rather than yours.

  20. Paula:

    And yet he was so skeptical about goal line technology.

  21. Jon H:

    Sepp Blatter, a Douglas Adams character made flesh.

  22. Scott Lemieux:

    Yeah, the NHL — the weakest of the big four — made $3 billion more in revenues than MLS last year. “Strong” isn’t really a tightly defined term so it depends what you mean — you can say it’s doing fine for a league that’s less than 20 years old and has some strong markets — but it’s really not comparable at all to the NHL and NBA, let alone the NFL or MLB.

  23. Total:

    Okay, different number of teams, too, which supports Dave’s point.

    Look at how cunning I was: I mentioned the different number of games (which supported Dave’s point), but hid the different number of teams (which also supported Dave’s point) because I knew that mentioning only one would gain me credibility but two would destroy my…nope, sorry, I can’t figure out the ninth dimensional chess move you seem to think I was making.

  24. Total:

    Just to amend my point as well: Blatter’s not saying they should “dominate” (your word); he’s saying they’re not a strong professional league, a much more moderate point.

  25. blowback:

    The figures don’t seem to be weighted for population.

    Teams/population/average pop. per team/attendance per million

    Bundesliga: 18 /81,000,000/4,500,000/10,000
    Premier League: 20/60,000,000/3,000,000/~11,000
    Scottish Premier League: 12/5,200,000/440,000/~31,000
    MLS: 19/330,000,000/17,300,000/~1000

    Never ever suggest that the Scottish don’t like their fitba!

    ps I know this analysis is very crude but if anyone wants to come up with a better one they are welcome.

  26. Dallan:

    It’s worth noting that except for CenturyLink/Gillette/RFK (only one of which ever gets actually close to full), MLS teams mostly play in stadiums that seat around the same amount as an NBA/NHL arena, because that’s around the level they draw.

  27. wengler:

    Sepp Blatter is only right about going to the international schedule. Everything else he is wrong about.

    MLS has established a league that won’t fold like NASL, has the vast majority of teams in their own venues, and has markets(the Pacific NW) where MLS is a major sport. You’d think Blatter would especially like the amount of stadium-building that has gone on, many of which are massively in debt. But Blatter is miffed that he hasn’t gotten the big, illusory money that the world’s biggest sports market can produce.

    Maybe he should take a step back and look at the deal NBC signed with the EPL, dwarfing the previous deal with FOX.

  28. wengler:

    And MLS is very affordable compared to other US major sports. But unlike other US sports it isn’t the best of its kind in the world, or even top 10.

  29. wengler:

    The league isn’t struggling. Some teams are. Chivas USA needs to be moved. Also every regular season game before September is pretty worthless and treated like so, with exhibitions periodically postponing them during the summer. Up until the last CBA, a lot of players were getting paid around 18k a year. MLS has some problems that could be fixed.

    But Sepp Blatter doesn’t watch or care about MLS. He is just angry that whatever pie-in-the-sky projections he had for the league didn’t come true.

  30. Steve S.:

    Something you might want to consider is that, looking at countries surrounding the US on the list, the Netherlands has fewer people than the New York metro area and divides their loyalties amongst 18 teams. To demonstrate an equivalent interest in soccer you’d have to have 20-25 teams in NYC and environs alone, much less the rest of the country. France has 20 teams in a population about 1/5 that of the US, Argentina 20 teams in a population about 1/8 of the US, and so on.

  31. BJN:

    As others have pointed out, MLS is not the best soccer in the world, so of course it will not have the same intensity of fandom that the NFL or MLB would. MLS is not going to replace EPL in any of our lifetimes, but it is doing fine, not struggling. A lot of the time, people having this conversation seem to be thinking “I don’t really know anyone into my local MLS team, or see people wearing jerseys around, it must be barely floating by.” That line of reasoning says more about the continued invisibility of Latinos in the US than anything else.

  32. JadeGold:

    Put in context, MLS is like Independent League Baseball. Full of has-beens and never-weres. I think this is what Blatter means–you’d think a country as large as ours would start producing some real world-class talent.

    I know, I know–some US players have gone on and had decent careers in elite leagues but it’s pretty few and far between.

  33. Total:

    “Not struggling” is not the same as “strong.”

  34. Jesse Ewiak:

    We are producing elite-level soccer talents. They’re just all playing professional basketball, football, or hockey.

  35. LosGatosCA:

    Professional soccer has been established in America for over 40 years.

    The NBA about 20 years longer than that, the NFL about 20 years longer than that.

    Soccer as a professional sport (currently the MLS) in America is not establishing itself by fan base/attendance, by media contracts/ratings, or licensing revenue as a major mainstream popular sport at nearly the rate the existing major league sports have.

    All the rest is noise.

    Hopefully, for the fans that may change in the future, but that’s just a hope.

  36. Thlayli:

    They have not been relegated since Sky invented the game in 1992; one of seven teams to have played every Premier League season (the others are Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, ManU, and Tottenham).

  37. LosGatosCA:

    Not elite trained, skilled soccer talent.

    Elite athletes that could be trained as soccer talent if they started at an early age and received world class coaching, yes. Almost every professional sports star is a multi-sport phenom at lower levels.

    But the US is not producing or capable of producing a world class talent pool on a consistent basis due to the shortcomings of the current ecosystem supporting soccer relative to the countries that are producing a world class talent pool.

  38. Jonas:

    Simple answer: They are owned by the same people that own the Cleveland Browns, bringing the management expertise that has made the Browns so successful to the Premier League.

  39. Bill Murray:

    cheap ownership from both “Deadly” Doug Ellis and “I took the Browns for a ride” Randy Lerner has been a problem.

    this season almost all of the players with much experience have been hurt, so they have been quite inconsistent. They went 6 games undefeated including drubbing Liverpool at Anfield just before there last 3 games in which they were beaten badly. They are in the League Cup semifinals with an excellent chance to make the finals

  40. jdkbrown:

    Actually, I’d say two words: “Sepp Blatter”.

  41. Charrua:

    You got to weight attendance by population size in the team area and number of teams in the area before doing these comparisons.
    Most Spanish cities are smaller than American ones, I bet, and several of them have two teams or more in the same city.
    Argentina is 10 despite the fact that many teams in the top division play in the same city, an area with just 10 million habitants.
    OUR attendance sucks by that metric, but what can you do when your whole league plays in just one midsize city?

  42. wengler:

    Your analogy is incorrect. MLS is full of players that went through the college and draft system, unique in the US as compared to the rest of the world. This has given the US a pool of players that are less tested and matured as compared to their age group in other countries.

    There are many good players in this talent pool and several great ones. They are not as heavily scouted as other leagues and transferring out of MLS can be very difficult due to the calendar differences. The amount of MLS-players going over to the elite leagues in Europe just in the past three years has been astounding.

    The league has steadily added more designated player slots and the level of play is nowhere close to where it was in the late ’90s. This is a growing, maturing league.

  43. AAB:

    Villa’s net transfer spend since Lerner took over is something like 70 million. Tottenham, which is on pace to make the Champions league, has spent like 3 million. Everton, also in contention, has turned a net profit.

    Lerner certainly has his faults, but I don’t buy that an unwillingness to invest in the club has been one of them. He definitely seems disinterested now though.

  44. wengler:

    The major difference is that other countries have soccer organizations that pour money into youth development. The US has soccer organizations that exist to extract money from youth soccer.

    Therefore your primary pool of players end up being from rich, suburban backgrounds, the exact opposite of the rest of the world and other major US sports.

  45. Charrua:

    Exactly.

  46. wengler:

    You can’t say ‘established’ for something that didn’t exist for a dozen years between the end of NASL and the beginning of MLS. I could care less how well the MLS does compared to other major US sports, but to characterize it as ‘struggling’ as Blatter does is simply untrue.

    If you want to beat that dead horse, go look at the failure of 2 women’s soccer leagues in the past 10 years.

  47. John:

    My sense is that Mexican-Americans follow the Mexican league at least as much, if not more, than they follow MLS. Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican Americans mostly follow baseball, not soccer. Don’t know about other Latinos, but the idea that Latinos are huge MLS fans seems like one you’d have to provide some evidence for.

  48. John:

    It depends what “struggling” means in this context. If it means “struggling financially,” maybe not. But I don’t think that’s what he is saying. What he seems to be saying is that MLS is struggling to compete on an even playing field with the major American sports, or the major European soccer leagues. I don’t see how that’s not true.

    Probably he’s wrong to think that this was an achievable goal. But all this special pleading from America’s tiny community of soccer enthusiasts is exhausting. Soccer is not as popular or successful in the United States as the 4 major sports (even hockey); nor is it as popular and successful as it is in other countries. Cherry-picking the one statistic by which MLS looks competitive is just a terrible way to prove anything.

  49. John:

    How does having fewer teams support Dave’s point?

  50. joejoejoe:

    Blatter is a greedy pig with huge appetites. When he talks about the MLS “struggling” he means the league is not filling his pockets, via the USSF and CONCACAF, with money. MLS television revenue is anemic and TV is what makes the world go ’round in sports business. Blatter wants more financial corruption in US soccer, corruption that will benefit him, and he is not getting it.

  51. Cheap Wino:

    Exactly. Why isn’t this said more often?

  52. Colin Day:

    How would a soccer team in Sacramento do in terms of attendance?

  53. Colin Day:

    According to this, Gillette and RFK only seat about 20,000 for soccer.

    Major League Soccer stadiums

  54. wengler:

    Point taken. It is, however, better for everyone not to listen to Blatter. Ever.

  55. JazzBumpa:

    I was astounded to learn that there is an actual living human named Sepp Blatter. His only real competition is Slartybartfast.

  56. LosGatosCA:

    I absolutely can. It seems there are two meanings of the word ‘established’ being confused here:

    My meaning – professional soccer was first ‘established’ in the late 60′s/ early 70′s in the US with the NASL. Much the same way the NFL was established in 1922 by George Halas and others. The NASL went with a star, Pele, to hype the league, the NFL went with Red Grange, to hype theirs.

    The difference is that by the 43rd year after the NFL was founded it was the dominant professional sport with the first Super Bowl while in the 46th year since the founding of the (now defunct) NASL folks are discussing whether the MLS is a major sport or not.

    Your meaning (I think) – since there was no professional league between the NASL and the MLS it wasn’t ‘established’ the whole 46 years.

    So, I’ll accept your meaning and simply say the fact that the other major sports did not suffer any similar hiatus sort of proves the point about it’s lack of popular appeal.

  57. Jmauro:

    DCU closes the upper deck at RFK for most games limiting attendance to 20,000. When they open it up it seats 50k.

    Most games barely pull 10k though, especially the mid week games. And the only games they opened the upper deck for was the friendly against Paris-St Germain (though they were going to open it for the MLS cup if DCU made it through)

  58. Decrease Mather:

    International schedule? Meaning playing August through May? How would that work in Colorado and New England?

  59. Ignorant Texan:

    Agreed. All you need is an English accent, and the parents throw money at you. I’ll know soccer has arrived in these United States when the inner-city high schools start fielding teams, local papers have a dedicated high school beat reporter, and local newscasts send reporters to cover matches and pro signing days.

  60. LosGatosCA:

    I’ll settle for ESPN tracking the Soccer Top 100 until the college scholarship signing deadline.

  61. speculation:

    Brad Friedel was their talisman.
    Manager turnover since O’Neil left.
    Too many players who peaked at City
    in 2008-09.

  62. Ignorant Texan:

    You speak of the achievable, while I’m speaking of dreams.

  63. swearyanthony:

    In Australia there’s been a number of cases of players transferring between eg League and AFL. Clearly Tebow to MLS is the solution.

  64. socraticsilence:

    In fairness, how many other leagues get their countries 5th tier (at best) athletes before even considering foreign players- its not a fair metric despite Blatter’s “most popular with youth” comment (it is but I’d guess, admittedly with no evidence, only up until say age 7 or so– when football and baseball come become possibilities for boys and basketball becomes a sport that isn’t unfeasible for the majority of children of both genders) Soccer simply doesn’t get top quality American athletes with a few notable exceptions– they go into football and basketball, then baseball, then soccer (or hockey if they’re raised above the Mason-Dixon), with Women this is less true but is still a factor.

  65. socraticsilence:

    In fairness the same is true of every other country on Earth in the number 2 international sport- basketball- this is not to say that Europe doesn’t provide the NBA with decent to great players, they do, but by no means at the rate they should given the popularity of the sport and their population.

  66. swoof:

    The Russian Premier League is playing a Fall-Spring schedule for the first time this year. I don’t pay enough attention to that league to know how it’s working out but I can’t imagine it’s pleasant for players or supporters.

  67. AgentS:

    MLS is still interesting to watch. Its players, specifically Kei Kamara, have produced football’s “worst missed goal ever”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch54NRRd-aE

  68. Matt_L:

    Yes, exactly. The money and kickbacks are not trickling up to FIFA HQ, so Blatter is disappointed. TS.

    While dickering over the meanings of “strong” or “struggling” I think a lot of people have missed the point. The goal for the MLS was to establish a league that would not fold like the NASL. They seem to have accomplished that. The MLS is financially sound, but it will probably take another twenty years before it can match or beat the NHL and Baseball in terms of revenue and attendance.

    For the owners, the MLS is still a decent, if somewhat under-performing asset.

  69. wengler:

    About as well as playing games in July in Dallas.

    You could certainly stack games in the south during the late fall and winter and take a month break in January. Of course people seem willing to sit their asses outside for far longer American football games during the same times of year.

  70. wengler:

    My point was that NASL was a fad league that went boom and bust. MLS is a serious effort to create a continuing concern through cost control and a unitary league structure.

    You can also actually now watch the top leagues in the world on TV, something you couldn’t do even 15 years ago.

  71. Bill Murray:

    Net transfer spending is not really a good method of evaluating cheapness. Because Spurs bought players that other teams wanted (even the players that didn’t work out like Bentley)their net transfer spending is close to zero. This would indicate some issue with external talent evaluation.

    70 million (pounds? dollars?) is about 10 million per year which is more than Ellis, but not particularly high.

  72. LosGatosCA:

    Well, anything that doesn’t work is by definition a fad.

    I can point to literally hundreds of things that cheap cable and simply a larger population have made possible. Travel, food, religious, language channels. There’s a golf channel and a business channel, CNBC, that has about 500,000 viewers at peak daily. It is has two rivals Fox and Bloomberg for an incredibly small audience.

    Niche markets being better served is not growing mainstream acceptance.

    I have nothing against soccer or folks believing it will become a major US sport sometime in the distant future. But right now it’s not, and it’s no more mainstream in the US than the NFL is in Europe.

    When the term ‘soccer mom’ is replaced by ‘rabid, traveling-well fan base’ applied to a soccer team at any level then you’ll know something is happening.

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