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Soccer booming in the US - record crowd watches Man United beat Real Madrid

By Tom Walker    05 Aug 2014
A number of stars – such as David Beckham (left) and Thierry Henry – have chosen to play in the MLS in recent years

A pre-season game between English Premier League team Manchester United and Spanish giants Real Madrid attracted a crowd of 109,318 to Michigan Stadium last week, leading to calls that soccer had finally “arrived” in the United States.

The game in Michigan – for which tickets cost between US$45 and US$189 – came just three weeks after the FIFA World Cup final set a US television record with 26.5 million viewers and is the latest sign that there is increasing interest in soccer in a country that is dominated by the Americans’ own version of football.

Each of Team US’ games in the World Cup attracted larger than usual TV audiences, with the team’s game against Portugal being viewed by 24.7 million people.

Meanwhile, the average attendance figure for Major League Soccer (MLS) games has increased in recent years and reached 18,807 for the 2013 season – surpassing two of the country’s other major sports, basketball (NBA) and ice hockey (NHL).

The growth in ticket and TV revenues is reflected in the increasing value of MLS franchises. According to Forbes, the average MLS team was worth $US37m (€28m, £22m) in 2008 – and losing money.

Forbes’ most latest valuation, however, completed before the 2014 World Cup, showed that the average worth of soccer franchise had nearly tripled to US$107m (€80m, £63m).

The MLS is keen to capitalise on the soccer boom and has already confirmed that it plans to expand the number of teams from the current 19 to 24 by 2020 – with the first two teams (New York City FC and Orlando City SC) entering the league next year (2015).

MLS facts

• Founded in 1993 prior to the FIFA World Cup 1994 held in the US

• First season in 1996 included 10 teams. The latest 2013 season included 19 teams

• During the first three seasons, rule changes were introduced to “Americanise” soccer – such as a clock counting backwards and shoot outs to decide a winner in each game. These were dropped after it alienated traditional soccer fans and failed to attract people new to the game

• After a difficult first few season – the league lost an estimated US$300m during 1996-2004 – a financial stabilization plan was introduced, which saw teams moving out of large American football stadiums and into soccer-specific stadiums.

• The profile of MLS has grown in Europe over the past decade too, due to a stream of established stars opting to play out the final years of their careers in the US. Many European countries now broadcast MLS games on subscription channels.

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