It’s that time of year when I should be grading papers, so instead I decide to write a blog post. Since the MLS season ended yesterday with the penalty shoot-out victory of the Seattle Sounders, I was looking on twitter to see how many people watched the big game (about 1.3 million according to Sports TV Ratings) and then I thought, “what about twitter followers”? It’s still unclear what role social media will play in the economics of professional sports, but it clearly will play a role, and it also gives us a new way to look at popularity.
So I looked up the number of twitter followers for each of the official sites of the MLS teams that played this season and produced the following Table:
|team||Twitter followers (000)||franchise age||Last won MLS Cup|
|Seattle Sounders FC||291||8||2016|
|Orlando City SC||282||2|
|New York City FC||277||2|
|Vancouver Whitecaps FC||271||6|
|Sporting Kansas City||250||21||2013|
|New York Red Bulls||169||21|
|San Jose Earthquakes||154||21||2003|
|Columbus Crew SC||123||21||2008|
|Real Salt Lake||111||12||2009|
|New England Revolution||82||21|
The total number of followers is 3.8 million, the average is 189k and the ratio highest to lowest is 4x.
Several things struck me as potentially interesting. I wouldn’t want to read to much into the number for any one team, since much also depends on how well run the feed is. But it does seems striking that the top four either won the MLS Cup or joined the league recently. It’s also striking that only two of the founding franchises are in the top half of the table. I guess the point is that social media is driven by news, not history.
I thought of two obvious comparisons. First. here’s the equivalent table for the Premier League:
|club||Twitter followers (000)|
The total is 45 million and the average is 2.3 million, while the ratio of highest to lowest is 52x. This repeats a story that I have told many times: English soccer is characterized by huge inequality which doesn’t seem to diminish interest in the product (contrary to a large literature on the economics of sport that says that it will).
The top 5 teams are all globally recognized names, and again it seems clear that history does not count for that much. Everton and Burnley have just as much history as Manchester City and Chelsea, but not the recent record of success. I would also wager that one year ago Leicester’s follower numbers were lower than Burnley’s, but were boosted by their remarkable Premier League success.
For a second comparison I looked at the NFL. Here’s the table:
|Franchise||Twitter followers (000)|
|New England Patriots||2750|
|Green Bay Packers||1450|
|San Francisco 49ers||1410|
|New York Giants||1250|
|New York Jets||1040|
|New Orleans Saints||995|
|Kansas City Chiefs||729|
|San Diego Chargers||606|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||531|
|Los Angeles Rams||442|
The total is 35 million, the average is 1.1 million, and the ratio of the highest to lowest is 5.7x. This illustrates the way in which the more egalitarian NFL dominates the US market while the biggest Premier League clubs reach a much larger international market.
The MLS looks more like a scaled down version of the NFL than the Premier League, which is exactly what the owners intend. To be successful MLS will need to grow its footprint in the US market primarily, since it tends to be the standout teams that generate an international following (Barca and Real Madrid have even bigger twitter followings).
The social media story could be spun positively or negatively for MLS. The positive spin is this: their twitter presence is over 10% of the NFL’s when their TV rights income is around 1% ($7 billion per year for the NFL against a $90 million US soccer contract that includes national team and other games). If the social media buzz could be converted into viewers, then there is potential there.
The negative spin is that these numbers are not large enough to develop into a genuine major league market. MLS is drowning in an overcrowded sports media market which is focused on watching the very best that each sport has to offer.
Note to self: remember to update these figures in one year’s time and see how things are changing.