That ESPN Poll Claiming MLS Is As Popular With Kids As MLB Is Bullshit

The other day, ESPN published a story, citing data from the ESPN Sports Poll Annual Report, claiming that Major League Soccer now "equals MLB in popularity with kids." The story was quickly picked up by MLS, CBS, The Big Lead, the Orlando Sentinel, the Seattle Times, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, brandished as proof of baseball's terminal decline and soccer's rise to glory.

There's only one problem: It's completely unclear what this study is actually measuring.

The substance of the ESPN report was in a chart from Luker on Trends, the firm that runs the ESPN Sports Poll under a licensing arrangement. It shows that 17.98 percent of children from the ages of 12 to 17 are "avid" fans of MLS, as opposed to 18.04 percent who are avid fans of MLB.

According to Childstats.gov, there are around 25 million children aged 12 to 17 in the United States. This would mean that, per the poll's findings, there are about 4.5 million American teenagers who are avid MLS fans.

In 2013, just more than 6 million spectators in total attended MLS games. Average viewership for games on ESPN—presumably the most-watched—was around 220,000, and total viewership for the MLS Cup Final on English- and Spanish-language broadcasts was around 1 million.

In other words, finger math would suggest that a majority of these alleged avid teenage MLS fans aren't actually watching or attending MLS games. And in fact that's true. According to Rich Luker of Luker on Trends, "Avid MLS fans between the ages of 12 and 17 are not watching much MLS on TV."

Luker struggles when attempting to explain the plain inconsistency between his findings and other data relating to the league's popularity. He can't even explain his terminology coherently. In an email, for instance, he explained that the ESPN Sports Poll follows on research carried out between 1988 and 1993, in which "we tested over 35 types of 'fan' measures against audited behaviors to find the single measures most predictive of the underlying behaviors," with "two core proprietary questions" emerging.

The first is a general measure of interest in sports, the second is a measure most effective at predicting behavior against specific sports. In both cases fans at the "AVID" level are statistically higher than the mean value for all fans of that sport on most, if not all, fan behaviors. So, for example, "AVID" PGA fans consistently watch statistically more events on TV than do PGA fans in total...

This seems merely tautological: Yes, avid fans of a sport watch it more than casual fans do, but that doesn't really have anything to do with how popular the sport is. Asked to clarify his meaning, Luker responded as follows:

18% means 18% of all 12-17 year-olds. "Avid" means they really are avid, not just some arbitrary distinction. A lot of careful research went into being sure that statement is linked to the underlying behaviors.

The best guess here is that Luker is testing for characteristics or behaviors that should in theory correlate with being a fan of a league, throwing them in a blender, and serving up the result as his "avid interest" metric. Luker might, for example, classify a 13-year-old who's played FIFA in the last year as an avid fan, disposed to watch MLS according to his research into "underlying behaviors." That's just a guess, though, because Luker has declined to provide the following:

  • a description of his careful research
  • a description of the behaviors that lead to an interview subject being classified as avid
  • a copy of his survey
  • a plain-English definition of what he means by avid

Whatever "avid interest" is, it clearly doesn't necessarily involve actually following a sport, and no one should conflate it with popularity. (Maybe avid MLB fans between the ages of 12 and 17 aren't watching much MLB; maybe they are. Who knows?)

Don't take this as a knock on MLS, or as a defense of MLB. It's entirely possible that a non-bullshit study would find that MLS is much closer to MLB in popularity among teenagers than most people would think, and almost certain that a non-bullshit study would find that soccer in general is. This, though, is a bullshit study, released as part of what passes for MLS opening day hype, tracking nothing more than how well various leagues are doing by a metric that Luker is either unable or unwilling to clearly define. No one should cite its bullshit findings.

Photo via Getty