The MLS Cup Final like the NBA Finals and the NFL Super Bowl, is a visually striking sports event that has evolved to entertain millions of soccer fans across the United States and Canada.
Since its inception in 1996, the match annually marks the conclusion of the MLS Cup Playoffs and holds tremendous relevance in the league’s development and popularity.
Despite its annual occurrence, a few cup finals have emerged as earth-shattering events, perhaps thanks to the antics of MLS greatest stars who grace these fixtures, thus capturing large spectator audiences and history-making viewership numbers to secure heroic spots in the league’s history.
As such, we will examine the latest edition of the top ten MLS Cup Finals that have amassed ground-breaking numbers regarding viewership.
MLS Cup Finals with Highest Viewership in History
10. 2020: Columbus Crew SC vs. Seattle Sounders FC
- Peak Viewership: 1.57 million+
The 2020 MLS Cup Final between Columbus Crew SC and Seattle Sounders FC amassed millions of viewers despite the COVID-19 pandemic that ravaged the world.
With only 1,500 people strategically positioned in Mapfre Stadium, over 1.5 million tuned in to Fox, UniMás, and Univision Deportes in the United States.
However, Canadians watched the match on TSN and TVA Sports while hundreds in 190 countries followed along on ESPN Latin America, BeIN Sports, and Abu Dhabi Sports.
Fox reported a thirty percent viewership increase from 2019, with over a million Americans watching the match on English-language television.1
9. 2021: Portland Timbers vs. New York City FC
- Peak Viewership: 1.63 million
Three-time finalists Portland Timbers were matched against New York City FC, the club’s first appearance in an MLS Cup Final.
Victory for the New Yorkers would see them become the first MLS Cup winners from the New York City area.
As such, an average of about 1.14 million viewers tuned to ABC to witness New York City FC win the title.
Others would enjoy Spanish commentary on UniMás and TUDN and French on TVA Sports. English-speaking Canadians also followed along on TSN.
The 1.14 million average TV audience made the match the most-watched MLS Cup Final on ABC and ESPN networks since 2009.
Remarkably, the game peaked at 1.63 million viewers.2
8. 2009: Real Salt Lake vs. LA Galaxy
- Peak Viewership: 1.63 million
Utahns would hope for a Real Salt Lake victory against a more experienced finalist in LA Galaxy as the soccer team had a chance to restore the state’s glory.
A Real Salt Lake victory would mean the first professional sports championship since the Utah Stars won the American Basketball Association championship in 1971.
As such, over 46,000 people filled Lumen Field to make the final the sixth-largest in MLS Cup history.3
The 2009 MLS Cup Final averaged just 1.141 million viewers despite being broadcast on a cable network, the first of its kind.
However, viewership peaked at 1.63 million in the United States. ESPN and Galavisión televised the match in English and Spanish in the United States, while GolTV Canada Broadcast the game in Canada.
More so, ESPN International showed the game in 122 countries across the Middle East, Australia, and Latin America.4
7. 2014: LA Galaxy vs. New England Revolution
- Peak Viewership: 1.9 million
The 2014 MLS Cup Final is not the most historic under any metric.
Nevertheless, it signified Landon Donovan’s last game for the Los Angeles side before retiring as the league’s all-time highest-scoring player.
More so, the two clubs had met twice in the MLS Cup Final, with LA Galaxy emerging victorious on both occasions.
New England Revolution hoped to avenge this time to win their first MLS Cup title, something their fans hoped for following four disappointing outings in the cup final.
These reasons contributed to the immense viewership of the 2014 MLS Cup Final.
The tie delivered almost two million viewers across English and Spanish-speaking networks, the then-highest TV audience since 1997.5
ESPN aired the match in English, while UniMás and Univision Deportes broadcast it in Spanish.
6. 2001: San Jose Earthquakes vs. LA Galaxy
- Peak Viewership: 2.0 million
2001 was a significant year in America’s history due to the effects of the September 11 attacks.
However, the MLS contributed its quota in elevating the nation’s spirit with a California soccer buzz between LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes.
The Los Angeles side glued about two million people to their screens in 2001 as they faced fellow Californians in San Jose.
While the match’s TV audience peaked at two million, it averaged 1.5 million views.
5. 2018: Atlanta United FC vs. Portland Timbers
- Peak Viewership: 2.07 million
Atlanta United FC only had their maiden MLS season in 2017 and were overlooked as underdogs against the likes of D.C. United and Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference.
Remarkably, the club qualified for the playoffs and reached the MLS Cup Final against all odds to put up a show before 73,019 spectators at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The on-site support set a new record for the MLS Cup Final attendance, breaking the 61,316 former record at Gillette Stadium in 2002.6
Viewership peaked at roughly 2.07 million with Fox, UniMás, and Univision Deportes on broadcast in the United States and TSN and TNA Sports airing the game in Canada.
Fox’s broadcast received a 1.2 metered market rating, the highest for an MLS Cup Final since 1998’s match between Chicago Fire and D.C. United.
4. 2022: Los Angeles FC vs. Philadelphia Union
- Peak Viewership: 2.2 million
LA Galaxy is a regular name in the finals, and they boast the most MLS Cup titles, with five in their trophy cabinet following nine appearances.
However, the 2022 edition featured LAFC, a less reputable side in the Californian city, against Philadelphia Union.
No more than 22,384 spectators gathered at the BMO Stadium, one of the biggest soccer stadiums in the US, to support the teams, but over two million people looked to find a winner from their homes.
FOX, Univision, and TUDN broadcast the games in the United States, while TSN and TVA Sports did so in Canada.
Various networks and streaming corporations also aired the match to countries and regions outside the U.S. and Canada.
The U.S. broadcast amassed 2.16 million viewers to become the second-largest television audience for an MLS Cup final in the country, bested only by the 1997 edition, which drew 2.2 million viewers.7
It also became the United States’ second most-watched club soccer broadcast of the year, behind the UEFA Champions League Final.
3. 1997: DC United vs Colorado Rapids
- Peak Viewership: 2.2 million
Following the 1996 MLS Cup Final that laid the foundation for the league’s success, 57,431 spectators gathered at RFK Memorial Stadium in Washington, D.C. to watch D.C.
United and the Colorado Rapids battle for the ultimate prize. The crowd would become the second-largest attendance for a sporting event at RFK Memorial Stadium.8
However, it was the number of people who viewed the match from their homes that stole the headlines.
The match attracted an estimated 2.2 million viewers in the United States, a record that remained unrivaled until the 2016 final.9
Despite the single-goal margin that separated both teams, the league’s heavyweights scored big on TV.
ESPN International televised the match in over 100 foreign markets and it became the first MLS game to be aired in the U.K.10
2. 1996: D.C. United vs. LA Galaxy
- Peak Viewership: 3.1 million
One could expect the MLS Cup Final to struggle for viewership when the NBA Finals, World Series, and Super Bowl were well-established annual championship events in the United States and Canada.
However, a league-impressive 3.1 million viewers tuned in to ABC to commemorate the inception of a new event in American sports.
The D.C. United’s victory against LA Galaxy remained the most-viewed MLS Cup Final for two decades until 2016’s showdown between Seattle Sounders FC and Toronto FC.11
1. 2016: Seattle Sounders FC vs. Toronto FC
- Peak Viewership: 3.5 million
Virtually no MLS fan could think of missing the first-ever cup final between two expansion teams, one that would signify the crowning of a maiden champion as neither team has lifted the trophy before.
As such, over 3.5 million viewers in the United States and Canada tuned in to watch the match broadcast on Fox and UniMás.
This viewership figure set the record for the most-watched title match in league history.12
Over two million people viewed the Sounders’ triumph in the United States, with about 1.4 million tuning in on FOX and roughly 600,000 enjoying a Spanish commentary on UniMás.
Almost the same number of people watched the match on TSN in Canada, and about 92,000 viewed it in French on RDS.
The tie rewarded fans with a competitive battle that dragged on to a shootout; however, it would be the Sounders’ time to lay their hands on the holy grail.
MLS Cup Finals have done well in setting themselves in people’s schedules in a country where people prioritize some other sports.
Thanks to the immense attention the MLS Finals attracts, little wonder the MLS in recent times have attracted comparisons with major European leagues.
These ten finals with the highest viewership have played crucial roles in establishing soccer’s relevance in the American and Canadian sports world.
Acquiring renowned players and further league developments will only increase the expected viewership of future finals.
References & Notes
- FOX reports 30 percent viewership spike for MLS Cup. National Post
- 2021 MLS Cup Scores ESPN Networks’ Best Audience for Major League Soccer Championship Game since 2009. ESPN Express Room
- This date in RSL history: RSL wins MLS Cup 2009. RSL
- ESPN Kicks Off MLS Cup 2009 In Primetime. Multichannel News
- MLS Cup 2014 delivers second-highest viewership for league championship in MLS history. Revolution Soccer
- 2018 MLS Cup in Atlanta shatters previous MLS Cup attendance record. MLS Soccer
- MLS Cup has second-best English/Spanish audience on record. Sports Business Journal
- RFK Managers Having a Ball With Soccer. Washington Post
- Sounders score big on TV in MLS Cup final. The Associated Press
- Colorado spoilers aim to poop Washington party. The Guardian
- MLS, ESPN Move MLS Cup Final To ABC In 2019. Front Office Sports
- MLS Cup 2016 sets record for most-watched title game in league history. MLS Soccer