Can football in the USA compete with the big four traditional sports? You’ve probably read, heard or even asked this question at some point in your life, it’s a popular topic with football fans. The popularity of the Liga MX proves it can, says Tom Harrison.
Can football, or soccer, compete in the USA with the big four traditional sports? You’ve probably read, heard or even asked this question at some point in your life, it’s a popular topic with football fans.
The truth is that judging from TV audiences, it already is. No, the US’ own division, MLS, isn’t and neither is the world’s most popular football league, the Barclays Premier League. However, the division from across the southern border, Liga MX, is.
Back in 2014, the president of Univision Deportes, who broadcast five Liga MX matches per week in the US, revealed that not only does Liga MX receive more viewers than any other soccer league in the USA, it’s also competing with traditional American sports as Univision had averaged more viewers for Liga MX than ESPN had for MLB and NBA TV had for NBA in 2014. The second leg of the Liga MX Clausura final in 2014 also attracted more viewers than any NHL play-off game that year.
Last season the Univision Network averaged a total audience of 982,000 per game, some 128% more viewers than the Premier League on NBC Sports Network, with El Súper Clásico, Chivas vs América, delivering an average of 3 million spectators.
Success hasn’t just been found only on Univision though. For example, NBC’s sister channel Telemundo’s most watched game in 2014 received more than double the viewership of NBC’s largest viewed Premier League match, despite Telemundo being available to less than half the households that NBC is and the Premier League match benefitting from Winter Olympic coverage taking place before and after.
Liga MX viewership is growing as well, Univision Deportes saw a 12% increase in the amount of people tuning into Liga MX as the league broke the record for the most watched football season in the USA. In August, Tigres vs Chivas became the most viewed game on UDN as the network beat the likes of ESPN2, Fox Sports Network and NBC Sports Network to be ranked second for views of a sports network during primetime.
Meanwhile, Azteca America, broadcaster of three Liga MX games per week, has seen a huge growth in audience so far this season, with total viewers up by 61% compared to last season.
Some may dismiss these figures as not being truly representative of the USA as it’s vastly a result of Hispanic viewership, although non-Hispanic’s are increasingly tuning into Liga MX, but that would be ignoring the important role of Hispanic-Americans in the USA. Liga MX has captured the largely football loving Hispanic community in the US, 36% of which aren’t Mexican, in a way that the MLS and Premier League hasn’t. Both of these leagues, amongst others, face a huge challenge to catch up with the popularity of Mexico’s top league.
With growing support in the USA, alongside strong attendances in Mexico, ranked 5th for average attendance out of all football leagues last year, and the increasing ability to attract talent from Europe and South America, the future for Liga MX appears bright. Whilst many talk about MLS being the league capable of challenging the supremacy of Europe’s leagues, Liga MX is currently better placed to do this, despite issues in how it’s run.
The Mexican national team are also hugely popular in the US, with the majority of their friendlies now being played across parts of their northern neighbours. Huge attendances are attracted to Mexico friendlies in the USA, for example 82,559 watched the 2-2 draw against Argentina in Arlington, Texas back in September, whilst over 70,000 turned up to see the less glamorous encounter with Honduras before this summer’s Gold Cup, a game that took place in Houston.
Compare this to some of the USA’s recent friendly attendances; less than 30,000 for games against Brazil and Peru, 44,835 versus Guatemala, and there’s even an argument that Mexico are more popular than the USMNT in their own country.
Further evidence for this could come in the upcoming Confederations Cup play-off between the two CONCACAF powerhouses, which is taking place at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, in California. Despite attempts from North America’s governing body to create a 50-50 split in fans, CONCACAF deputy general secretary Ted Howard admitted “it’s probably going to lean more toward Mexico”.
There are obviously other ways of measuring the size of different sports, from participation figures to the amount of money in the game, but attendances and TV viewing figures have to be considered key methods of determining the popularity of a certain sport.
Analyse these statistics for football against the traditional major sports in the USA and it’s clear that, largely thanks to the Hispanic community, football is a major sport in the US and can compete with Basketball, Baseball and Ice Hockey. However, it’s still way behind America’s number one sport, American Football.
The strong audience for Liga MX has helped the division develop into one of the largest football leagues outside of Europe and with TV figures rising in the US, the league could continue to grow. Meanwhile, MLS has plenty of catching up to do if it is to challenge the major European leagues in future years. Before conquering the world, it must first conquer its own country.
Written by Thomas Harrison
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