MLS Scores Record-Breaking Season

While Major League Soccer will celebrate its new champion on November 5 following the culmination of the MLS Cup Playoffs, America’s top domestic soccer league is already popping the champagne.

The league’s 2022 regular-season campaign welcomed the most fans in league history as clubs generated more ticket revenue this season than ever before. MLS posted a record attendance of more than 10 million, breaking its previous high of 8.6 million set in 2019, while 10 clubs had attendance growth compared to 2019. A league-best three clubs—Atlanta United FC, Charlotte FC and Seattle Sounders—averaged more than 30,000 fans per match.

Not only were attendance figures up, but the league, which wrapped up its 27th regular season on Oct. 9, also recorded increases in viewership, social and digital media engagement, and merchandise sales.

“I think it’s a few things,” says David Bruce, MLS senior vice-president of brand and integrated marketing. “Momentum is really behind us at the moment.”

An abundance of factors including but not limited to the league’s relationship, rivalry and success against Liga MX, increased investment in soccer-specific stadiums, both the U.S. and Canada men’s national teams qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the arrival of high-profile players including Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Gareth Bale, Hector Herrera and Lorenzo Insigne, the introduction of expansion franchises, and homegrown talent finding success domestically and abroad have converged to create a groundswell of support and interest in the league.

“I think the world is looking at MLS and is really intrigued by some of the things we’re doing here,” Bruce says. “It’s this creation of our culture, of our version of the global game that proudly exists here in North America and in MLS.”

Not only are more people attending MLS matches than ever before, but they’re also tuning in at an increased rate.

In the final year of its current broadcast deal before moving matches to Apple in 2023, MLS recorded its highest average viewership (356K P2+) for matches on Disney networks during the relationship. The league had a 13% increase in viewership per game on FOX Deportes and ESPN Deportes compared to last season. In Canada, matches that aired on TSN featuring a Canadian club were up 8% compared to the 2021 regular season.

MLS—and soccer in general—is benefitting from an increasingly younger, multi-cultural demographic in the United States. The country, home to the second-largest Spanish-speaking population on the planet behind Mexico, is expected to see one in three people speak Spanish (including bilingual speakers who also speak English) by 2050, according to recent data and projections.

“It’s a very important audience for us for a number of reasons,” Bruce says. “A lot of the tournaments and properties that we’ve created with Liga MX (including Concacaf Champions League, Leagues Cup and Campeones Cup) are really kind of set up to capture that audience and take advantage of that momentum.”

With the youngest professional sports fan base in North America at an average of 39.6 years, MLS is leveraging social media and digital content to engage with millennials, Gen Z and Generation Alpha. The league named former Real Salt Lake academy player and social media personality Noah Beck as its first-ever Social Playmaker in February. 

The league added 600K net followers across social media—65% more net than in 2021—driven by TikTok, where the league added 455K followers and is on pace to hit 1 million by the end of the year.

“MLS and soccer in the U.S. is on the come-up and it has been, and it’s going to make its mark,” Beck told Boardroom. “I’m just trying to build as much awareness around the league as I can. It’s easy for me because I love the league and I love the job.”

The increased attendance, viewership and engagement unsurprisingly resulted in increased merchandise sales with jerseys launched in 2022 up 10% in sales year over year on MLSstore.com with 17 clubs selling more jerseys year over year.

With expansion side Austin FC selling out all 34 regular-season games of its two-season MLS career, Charlotte FC kicking off its inaugural campaign in 2022 by setting the league’s single-game attendance mark of 74,479 on March 5, and the league adding St. Louis City SC next year (and potentially a Las Vegas franchise down the line), MLS, which was born out of the the 1994 FIFA World Cup, hopes to continue to build momentum toward soccer’s marquee event returning to the continent in 2026.

“It’s all with a view to the 2026 World Cup being here, Canada and Mexico,” Bruce says, “and the ability to really draft off that incredible moment which will be the biggest sporting event the world’s ever seen at that point.”

NOTE: First appeared on Forbes SportsMoney

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