The Current State of Pro Sports

American society has been fixated on sports for the entirety of my short time on this planet, as well as the lifetimes of my parents. In the USA, 19 of the 20 most watched television broadcasts are sporting events, and 10 of the last 11 Super Bowls reached over 100 million average viewers (The anticlimactic Super Bowl LIII is the only one that failed to).

Even the planet as a whole is enamored of displays of athletic prowess, as the 27 most watched television broadcasts were all related to sports. No matter where you are, nothing captivates the minds of humans like good competition.

As for the American/Canadian sports market, 5 pro sports leagues dominate in terms viewership numbers and revenue generated. They are, from most to least revenue, the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS. The NFL, a “nonprofit” organization up until 2015, generates more capital than any other sports organization in the world. It appears as if the NFL will continue its reign of dominance for years to come, but interest in the MLS is quietly spreading across the country. Let’s get started, first with the state of the NFL.

NFL

Business is booming for Roger Goodell and America’s adopted child, the NFL. All but 2 franchises have valuations of at least $2 billion and average game attendance was over 66,000 people in 2019. Simply put, the NFL is at the top of all sports leagues. Most major media outlets like ESPN, Fox Sports, and (best of all,) The Sports Wave, cover football significantly more than other sports. Basketball is the only other sport that receives comparable attention across the sports media world. 

However, football captivates more viewers than any other sport, and it’s not even close. The average NFL game in 2019 had 16.5 million viewers on television alone. In 2019, 47 of the top 50 programs watched were NFL games. I don’t need to bore you with numbers to show America’s obsession with football. 

The fact that fans will watch and care about the XFL, a football league with sub-par talent, shows that America has a strong craving for football. In week 1, the 4 XFL games had more average views per game than any other pro sports league in 2019, with the exception of the NFL. No metaphor could do its due diligence to explain the NFL’s grip on the sports world. Love or hate him, and most people do indeed hate him, Roger Goodell has built the NFL into a juggernaut. 

MLS

Soccer as a whole might not be sweeping the nation, but the MLS is certainly growing faster than any of the other 4 leagues. One key difference between the MLS and the other 4 leagues is that the MLS isn’t the highest level of play for its sport.

European leagues such as the English Premier League and La Liga attract the best players in the world, leaving the MLS with less talent and star players out of their primes. Despite the lesser quality, the MLS is still top-tier professional soccer and has been growing throughout the United States. It is more convenient for sports fans to watch a game at 2 p.m. on ESPN for a team located 2 hours away by car than it is to watch a game at 7 a.m. on NBC Sports for a team located 10 hours away by plane.

It is clear though that the MLS is growing faster than any other league. In 2008, the MLS had just 14 teams, with the LA Galaxy being valued the highest at $100 million. Currently, the MLS has 26 teams and 23 of the 24 that played in 2019 have valuations of at least $200 million. Atlanta United, entering just their 4th season, are valued at $500 million, higher than any club.

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s investment on the club known as the Five Stripes brings promise to other investors looking to purchase MLS expansion teams. Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper paid $325 million for the rights to an MLS team based in Charlotte.

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Atlanta United has made the playoffs in all 3 years of existence, including an MLS Cup win in 2018

The MLS is growing very quickly due to many reasons. The most obvious is due to the ever-increasing revenue and profitability of teams and the league itself. Teams were losing money in 2015, but a 7-year TV contract with ESPN/ABC and Fox has helped in turning that trend around.

The market for soccer is expanding, and the 5 most-watched MLS games came in the past two years. But one thing numbers can’t show is how cities will back their MLS teams. Cities like Austin and St. Louis were ecstatic over earning expansion franchises. For cities like Portland, Atlanta, and Orlando, MLS teams have been immersed into their city’s culture.

MLB

There have been many concerns in recent years for the future of America’s pastime. Games drag on often with little excitement, and scoring is minimal. With the current era of obsession for explosive, highlight reel plays, the MLB is outmatched by other leagues. The MLB strictly limits the spread of highlights and game clips by social media accounts not affiliated with the MLB, a particularly puzzling policy. The average, casual sports fan is watching less baseball, but ratings for local teams remain strong.

The narrative that baseball is on the decline certainly has some truth to it, but the MLB is still thriving. The average MLB team generated over $300 million in revenue and the MLB ranked second in the world in total revenue amongst all sports leagues.

While youth soccer and football participation dropped from 2013 to 2018, youth baseball and softball participation increased by nearly 3 million kids over the same stretch. While it is less mainstream than the other sports, baseball has a very tight-knit community of millions of people. Yes, attendance is down and TV ratings don’t compare to that of other leagues, but the MLB is still here and making money.

NBA

The NBA is in a solid place right now financially. Revenue and player salaries have been ever increasing since 2000. David Stern deserves a lot of credit for transforming the NBA into what it is now.

When Stern took over in 1984, the NBA was a struggling organization with just 23 teams and little national interest. After Stern stepped down in 2014 and Adam Silver took over, the NBA was generating $5 billion annually with 30 teams and more international interest than any other American sports league.

A few concerns arise, however. NBA Finals ratings were down in 2019, and no Finals series in the 21st century has reached the level of viewership drawn by Jordan and the Bulls in the 1990s. Scheduling issues have also created the issue of load management for star players.

The NBA is the only league where star players will sit out primetime games to manage their bodies. Fans come to see their favorite players play, and nobody wants to spend hundreds of dollars to watch a Bucks-Clippers game without Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kawhi Leonard.

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Kawhi Leonard has become the face of the term “load management”

One thing the NBA does excel in is intangibles. It is unique in its buzzer beaters, circus shots, and ruthless posterizations, to name a few. All-Star Weekend was a huge success and somewhat revived the Dunk Contest. The structure of the salary cap and player deals has had more success than any other league, and the offseason is short and drama-filled. It’s hard not to be a well-liked league when you have Kevin Harlan calling games for 7+ months.

NHL

For the casual sports fan, the NHL is like a cousin who you only see once or twice a year and aren’t too close with. Most casual fans can’t name more than 2 NHL players or 10 teams.

The NHL definitely has strong roots in Canada and hardcore fans in the USA, but hockey has never been that mainstream in America. I can personally admit that I only watch Blackhawks playoff hockey and that I could not name any of the last 5 MVPs.

A huge part of the reason fans attend hockey games and watch on TV is the on-ice fights. NHL attendance hasn’t been declining too sharply, but fights have. Of the ten seasons from 2000-2010, seven averaged at least 0.50 fights per game. In the 2018-19 season, that number dropped to 0.18 per game.

A decline in regular season game viewership can possibly be attributed to the lack of fights. 2020’s Winter Classic game was the first of such games to attract less than 2 million viewers since the annual event started in 2008, but the 2019 Stanley Cup had solid viewing numbers. You might not be hearing much about the NHL, but there is little worry in the hockey community. As long as Canada is here, the NHL will be just fine.

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