ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Major League Soccer set a record for the fifth consecutive year for the racial diversity of its players, according to a study released Thursday by the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
MLS earned a combined grade of a B-plus in racial and gender hiring practices with 84.55 points, up from a B with 83 points in 2011. Its grade for gender hiring practices rose from a C-plus to a B, scoring 80.5 points. It scored a B-plus/A-minus for racial hiring, dropping from 90 points to 88.6 this year.
Fifty-one percent of MLS's players are minorities, the first time the minority percentage is greater than that of white players. MLS also had the largest percentage of international player in league history at 48 percent.
Primary study author Richard Lapchick called the scores encouraging, but said the challenge -- as for all professional leagues -- is attracting diverse voices at the executive level.
"I think that is something the league office has to continue to do, which they have been doing and continue to emphasis," Lapchick said. "They said a long time ago that they wanted this sport to look like America. To achieve that they need that leadership at the top to let (the teams) know it's a priority in the league. And let them know they're doing well, but can continue to do better."
To that end, the MLS league office remained the standard bearer for the entire league with minorities holding 40 percent of all professional positions, and women 42 percent. The latter is the highest percentage for women as professionals since the 2008 season.
Team vice presidents experienced the greatest growth of all positions in both racial and gender hiring practices. Minorities now represent 14 percent of all team vice presidents, up from 9 percent in 2011. During the 2012 season women held 13 percent of all vice president positions, an increase from 6 percent in 2011.
Lapchick said the increase of minority players is another big step as MLS tries to keep pace with its larger professional peers.
"Both the NFL and NBA has more players of color as well," he said. "I think for MLS it's partially in reaction to the slow spread of soccer. ... I think in the last 10 years its popularity, especially in urban areas, has grown. It's also grown with more popularity among African-Americans and Latinos and that has helped change those numbers. I think that will probably increase in the future."
Lapchick said that confidence comes from the league's diversity initiatives, which also received an A-plus in the report.
Along with significant racial and gender minority presence in its internship program, MLS is also on pace to set an attendance record in 2012 during its 10th anniversary year for MLS !Futbolito! The program is the largest touring Hispanic grassroots initiative of its kind hosted by a professional sports league, with more than 90 percent of its participants of Hispanic descent.