Oh, Soccer’s Growing: Average MLS Club Worth $100m

Montreal Impact's Felipe Martins, right, battles for the ball against New England Revolution's Andrew Farrell during second half MLS soccer action in Montreal, Saturday, May 31, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes)
Montreal Impact's Felipe Martins, right, battles for the ball against New England Revolution's Andrew Farrell.
Graham Hughes, The Canadian Press/AP

There’s a pretty decent chance the United States will lose today in the World Cup against Belgium, ending its tournament. Oh, an upset is certainly a possibility, and the US has given a pretty impressive performance overall in Brazil. But let’s be real: Belgium’s the favorite this afternoon. And if the US does go out, it’s probably fair to expect a bunch of newly-ordained soccer fans who have helped power record ratings for the US’s games, to voluntarily defrock themselves.

It’s a common refrain from the soccer skeptics out there: Every four years, SoccerMania takes hold in the US and then, poof, nobody cares about it any more. They point to massive World Cup ratings and say they hardly topple midseason NFL games. Interest in soccer, they say, merely balloons every few years before whimpering away. That take has been put forth recently and locally by older gentlemen on TV and in the newspaper.

They’re right, of course, that soccer will sink in prominence if not as soon as the US is eliminated, then at least once the tournament is over. Come mid-July, you probably won’t see more than 20 million stateside tune into a soccer game again until the next World Cup—and given that the 2018 tournament is scheduled for Russia, the time zone difference could even make that a tough bargain.

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Still, to acknowledge that fact shouldn’t mean to ignore the enormous growth of the game in the past several years. The standard isn’t whether soccer is as big as the NFL, or Major League Baseball, or the NBA. It isn’t. The standard is whether or not it’s growing here, and that it clearly is. The aforementioned ratings for this year’s tournament are one indicator. The 440,000 weekly viewers of English Premiere League soccer on NBC this past year is another—or that NBC paid $250 million over three years for the rights to show that foreign league’s games.

But considering money talks, perhaps nothing is more striking than Forbes’ valuations for the 19 Major League Soccer clubs.

Forbes ran the valuation numbers last fall, for the first time since 2008. Way back then, the average team was worth just $37 million. By last November, that number had jumped all the way to $103 million. Since the valuations were published, MLS has signed an eight-year, $720 million deal with FOX, ESPN, and Univision, set to triple TV revenues, so that number has likely grown since then.

The Seattle Sounders, considered by many to be the class of the league, top the list, with a valuation of $175 million. The LA Galaxy ($170 million), Portland Timbers ($141 million), Houston Dynamo ($125 million), and Toronto FC ($121 million) round out the top-five.

(Worthy of note, if only for housekeeping purposes: MLS’s “single-entity structure” means the league is run as a centralized company that shares some revenue among clubs, allows some clubs to keep certain revenues, covers some club expenses, and leaves other expenses to the club’s operators. The concept of ownership effectively refers to league investors who buy into the league to operate a club. For this reason, it is inaccurate to call MLS teams “franchises.”)

Our hometown New England Revolution come in a bit under the average valuation, at $89 million. The Revs had a good run in the league in the 2000s but have been marred in recent years by a lack of big-name players, and the fact that they still play in a football stadium in the suburbs. Most MLS teams have moved on to soccer-specific stadiums.

Chivas USA, MLS’s second Los Angeles team, has the lowest valuation in the league, at just $65 million. The club has fallen on hard times from an attendance perspective in recent years, and was bought by MLS ahead of the 2014 season. MLS plans to sell the club before next season, which should make for a good measure for the valuations.

Last year, the Columbus Crew sold for $68 million a few months before Forbes valued the team at $73 million. English club Manchester City and the New York Yankees partnered to pay $100 million for the expansion rights for the forthcoming New York City FC, which will play its first season next year.

The numbers pale in comparison to the valuations of NFL, MLB, NBA, and even NHL teams. That’s ammunition for anybody who wants to say the league, and by extension the sport, just aren’t as popular in the US as World Cup hoopla would have you believe. But few would argue that. The World Cup is the world’s biggest sporting event, and those other leagues represent a long-standing pantheon of team sports that soccer is trying to break in to. The argument today isn’t so much about how it stacks up to those leagues as it is about how soccer has grown upon itself. And the metrics showing that abound, not least of which is today’s cost to buy in to MLS.