On Wednesday, Major League Soccer revealed which players have the most popular selling jerseys in 2021, with many of the usual suspects among the leaders.
Atlanta United all-time leading scorer Josef Martinez led the way, followed by current Seattle Sounders leading scorer Raul Ruidiaz. Following them, a pair of Mexican superstars who play in Southern California: LAFC’s Carlos Vela and the LA Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.
Although there weren’t many surprises, the full list was compelling in what it shows about the overall profile of a league that occupies almost its own unique rung in North American pro sports in terms of popularity. (No, MLS isn’t on par yet with the Big Four of the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL. But it’s ahead of most everything else.)
While MLS may be growing overall, it continues to struggle in the biggest American metro areas, and this list is the latest data point.
Of the United States’ six biggest metropolitan areas according to the 2020 Census — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and Washington — only Los Angeles is represented in the top 25. And while jersey sales are only one piece of a team’s pull in a particular market, that deficiency gets at an annoying truth for the league’s accolyte. Major League Soccer teams are likely to develop larger followings in smaller cities without representation in at least one of the Big Four leagues.
The performances of big market clubs in recent years haven’t helped, and are exceptionally poor presently. Were the 14-team playoffs to start today, only D.C. United, the LA Galaxy and New York City FC would make it. Only NYCFC would be guaranteed the right to host a home game.
Three of the eight clubs in such markets — Chicago Fire FC, Houston Dynamo FC and FC Dallas — have already been eliminated with two weekends remaining.
Of those same eight, only — LAFC — is in the top 10 of average home attendance as of Oct. 18, according to Soccer Stadium Digest, while four while four are in the bottom third of those rankings.
Chicago Fire FC were 24th despite their overdue move from suburban Bridgeview, Ill. back to downtown Soldier Field. New York City FC was second-to-last, albeit due in part to pandemic-related schedule conflicts that forced the Cityzens out of The Bronx and across the Hudson River for nearly half their home games.
There is much better news in second-tier markets like Atlanta, Seattle, Miami, and the Twin Cities. And having a presence in big markets isn’t everything. The NFL, for example, has thrived despite some of its most popular franchises being located in Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Buffalo.
But one reason the pandemic impacted MLS clubs so acutely is that the majority of their revenues come from in-person gameday experience. In other words, things like ticket and jersey sales.
That makes gaining a larger presence in larger markets more important for two reasons.
The first is there’s simply more growth potential for gameday commerce in larger cities. You can have a broadcast following anywhere in the country, but even if you’re really popular in Iowa, those fans probably aren’t traveling to many home games in Texas.
A look at attendance relative to market size really drives this home. The average combined attendance for the two New York teams this season is less than 60% of the average home attendance in Atlanta, a market with 30% of the population. So it’s obvious where the untapped commercial potential is.
The second is that organizations with a national media reach remain concentrated in these cities — particularly New York, Los Angeles and to a lesser extent Washington. Becoming more relevant where people control the microphones is a way to become more relevant everywhere. Then it actually possible over years and decades for the FC Cincinnati’s and Nashville SC’s of the world to achieve national followings in the manner of the NFL’s Steelers, Bills and Packers, among others.
The teams in Los Angeles have had some success, especially with the Galaxy’s signing of of Zlatan Ibrahimovic for two seasons. Ibrahimovic — larger than life in stature and personality — was a natural on the Hollywood talk-show circuit. His signing helped the league achieve some of its yearly social media targets within days of the transaction becoming official. Vela and Chicharito are also enormous names in the large Spanish Language media.
There’s one final consideration for MLS that other North American needn’t make, which involves building brands to rival famous clubs elsewhere around the world.
Any club can desire a global presence. But it’s far easier to attain one in a globally known city.
Think of those clubs that have achieved that status. The overwhelming majority reside in the two or three largest cities in their respective nations. Liverpool FC is probably the most notable exception. But their home city was ingrained in global pop culture because of the Beatles, well before soccer became a truly global business.
Big markets aren’t everything. And MLS has been smart to target cities that are underrepresented by the Big Four. Soccer might not be the most popular American sport, but it’s popular enough that communities in need of major league representation can get behind it.
There’s also more reason for hope in some big markets than others. The two Los Angeles teams are on stable footing with a solid local presence. The two New York clubs suffer from solvable logisitical issues.
But for MLS to truly achieve its Major League aspirations, it’s brand needs to mean the same thing in the Big Apple, the Second City and the nation’s capital as it does in Seattle or Atlanta. That’s not happening yet. The proof is on the back of the jerseys.