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Where the rubber meets the road in MLS attendance

Sep 25, 2012, 11:27 AM EDT

BMO empty

Here’s why bad management just crushes a team:

Attendance is generally a pleasant tale these days in MLS, where the gate isn’t always great, but it tends to be pretty good.

For instance, Major League Soccer attendance passed the 5 million mark for 2012 last weekend. That’s not going to scare Major League Baseball, of course, but it’s a happy place for a league where growth keeps chugging along.

Individually, too, it was a good weekend for MLS club. Most clubs, at any rate.

Here are the numbers for weekend matches in Round 29.

  • Seattle Sounders: 38,948
  • Los Angeles Galaxy: 27,000
  • New England Revolution: 24,364
  • Real Salt Lake: 20,524
  • Montreal Impact: 20,521
  • Chicago Fire: 19,172
  • Vancouver Whitecaps: 18,992
  • Philadelphia Union: 17,666

Those are all reasonable figures, which included four sellouts and a season-high in New England. But then there’s one more: D.C. United, which had a huge match against Chivas USA.  On a Sunday evening as the playoffs approached, a match that once would have drawn perhaps 18,000 to RFK attracted just 11,770.

That’s what happens when a club cannot get it together; United has not made the playoffs since 2007, an awful reminder of how this club’s management has bungled matters in a league where, statistically, it has always been easier to make the playoffs than to miss.

But this isn’t just about D.C. United. Take a look at the league’s current attendance report (which, curiously, is listed alphabetically rather than according to leaders as other categories are):


What you see are four clubs drawing fewer than 14,000 a game. No, the slowpokes of this herd aren’t the usual suspects, the notoriously under-achieving markets like Colorado, Columbus, Dallas, Kansas City, etc. (Yes, yes, I know SKC is an attendance winner now … )

The three bottom clubs include two teams that were always seen as “strong” markets: New England and D.C. United, along with Chivas USA. (The other sub-14,000 average belongs to San Jose, where capacity is listed at 10,500 but matches played elsewhere elevates the number.)

Conclusion: Yes, market factors do speak loudly in crowd counts and brand presence in a given city. But so does performance, in front office marketing and in competitive matters.

Speaking of which:

Toronto, perpetually in the ditch in competitive matters, is clearly suffering. The numbers still look good – but who are we kidding? We see the matches and the gaping swatches of red in the BMO Field stands, compelling evidence that fans have turned increasingly apathetic.

A lively market can clearly sour. The difference, of course, is that favorable market factors make it easier to rally the gate counts once competitive breath is found.

Probably, anyway. I suppose we’ll know eventually.

  1. dfstell - Sep 25, 2012 at 12:31 PM

    I think there are a couple of things going on here. One is whether these teams are losing fans in general. Attending a live event has some negatives: expensive food, expensive parking, driving to and from, annoying fans, uncomfortable chairs, heat/cold/rain/sunburn….. Of course, that is all worth it if the team is winning. It’s harder to endure that stuff when the team sucks.

    The question is whether the fans who aren’t attending are still fans of the team. Maybe they still like the Rapids, but just would rather stay home and watch on TV or listen to the radio or follow it via some play-by-play thing on the internet. They’re still engaged…..they just don’t want to structure their entire day and wallet around a game. I can get that.

    Or….are they still soccer fans, but are less enamored with their local club and realize that they can pretty easily follow a European club?

    Or…..has the crappiness of their local club turned them off on soccer totally.

    I just think that in 2012, with all the options for watching soccer, that a team needs to convince its fans that it is at least TRYING to be great or risk losing them to someone else.

    • Steve Davis - Sep 25, 2012 at 12:34 PM

      best guess … still fans, perhaps less so, but still engaged enough to drift back once things improve. but the longer they drift away, the longer it may take to bring them back. but you are correct, there’s a lot going on, which is why i always say it’s more complicated than just “that’s a bad market” and “that’s a good market.”

  2. bobinkc - Sep 25, 2012 at 2:16 PM

    I’m going to go way out on a limb here; you just need to hand me the saw. I am basing this on sports teams in Kansas City only, so you can see that I have a bias.

    Kansas City has managed to acquire and lose 3 pro hockey teams over the years; just not enough people willing to spend the big bucks on expansion teams, so they relocated fairly quickly. Acquired and lost at least 3 pro basketball franchises; same problem.

    Baseball still manages to hang in there, but only due to the generosity of the Kaufman estate; they left enough money to fund the team in perpetuity, but the only parts of the stadium that consistently sell out are the general admission seats. There is just no appeal from a team that is perenially the butt of their division. Absolutely no love after they won the World Series and then blew the very next season. Players come just long enough to get a taste of major league ball and then either get sent down to the minors or move to a bigger-market team that can afford to pay more. So mediocrity and low attendance continue.

    Football comes and goes with the win-loss record. For the last 10 years the Chiefs have consistently gotten worse, fired coaches, stayed with mediocre quarter backs, blah, blah, blah. Back the 1970s season tickets had a waiting list 30 years long and holders tried to pass their tickets on in their wills (didn’t work, rules prevented it). Now the Chiefs cannot sell out a game and have even had trouble giving away tickets. Over half the stadium is now sold in 1 to 3 game packages at super low prices that even include hotel nights for out-of-towners.

    Sporting KC has a brand new stadium, a team that is on the make this year and has been fairly consistent, wins that are not predicated on one superstar but are based on a team that is consistent across the entire pitch, a bench that can handle filling in for starters when they are injured or sitting out suspensions. SKC is still selling tickets the day of most home games.

    All that to say this: Kansas City fans will support a winner to the death. Losers get very short shrift. Kansas City is possibly the most fickle market for professional sports in the country. I know this is only one market, but you might want to consider winners vs losers as a major factor of who has good attendance and who doesn’t.

    • Steve Davis - Sep 25, 2012 at 4:44 PM

      Yup. It’s mostly about performance, along with some sliding scale of performance + marketing + media treatment + market factors (stadium logistics and such).

    • dhagentj - Sep 25, 2012 at 11:46 PM

      To be fair, every market ebs and flows to some extent based on the quality of the product on the field. Well, except perhaps for Chicago Cubs fans.

  3. chiphaynes1962 - Sep 25, 2012 at 8:29 PM

    Dcu also has problems because the sports buzz isall about mlb these days. Casual fans are going to watch baseball this year since nationals and orioles are both heded for post season.

  4. wesbadia - Sep 26, 2012 at 9:12 AM

    I said this about KC when they were still in the lowly CBA Field. I’ve also said it about SJ and Buck Shaw before. But I’ll say it all again: a stadium deal that provide adequate seats to put butts in along with a raucous and inviting atmosphere is a key driver of the success of an MLS team. Garber and Co know this, and that’s why they’re pushing for SSS’s to be built for existing clubs and expansion clubs alike. Want an MLS franchise in your town? You better have a SSS deal in place.

    When KC was proceeding through their stadium negotiations, I heard a lot of people online clamoring over it saying “Why does a team that only averages 9,000 a game need a stadium all to themselves?” I defended KC and guaranteed that once the stadium was built they’d see record crowds. I was right.

    A year or so ago when SJ was still in uncertainty about their stadium deal, the same thing happened. Same people came out against SJ and said the same thing: “Why does a team that only gets 9,000 a game need a new stadium?”

    Stadiums limit attendance. College stadiums REALLY limit attendance. College stadiums at small schools REALLY REALLY limit attendance. And college stadiums at small schools that weren’t designed specifically for soccer REALLY REALLY REALLY limit attendance.

    CBA and Buck Shaw had very low capacities. CBA had like a 9800 limit. Buck Shaw has just over 10,000. Yet SJ is selling 3,000 more tickets than what the stadium can seat. That’s a bad thing? That’s negative news? Not to me. That’s GREAT news! Just like Livestrong Park, SJ Stadium is going to be amazing once it opens. If they’re not averaging over 16,000 a game in 2014, I’ll be surprised. Winning the Shield this year will go a long way to bolstering attendance. Winning the Cup would be even better. The trick for SJ will be to go through all of 2013 trying to live up to 2012’s successes so they can ride that huge wave into a new stadium. If everything goes right, we may see the same problem in the new stadium as we see in Buck Shaw: not enough seats.

    Two of the other three teams you point out have the same problem: founding clubs that are still rocking the same digs they have since 1996 — NFL stadiums never designed for soccer. When DC gets their stadium built (hopefully at Buzzard Point), they will sell out games in the 18,000 range. When the Kraft’s finally get their heads out of their butts and build a stadium IN Boston instead of Foxborough, the Revs will sell out games in the same range or higher. Winning trophies and hardware will only help. (And we wonder why NYRB can’t get attendance up… they never win ANYTHING).

    Chivas is the only outlier. A team designed for Latino fans in a predominantly Latino market sharing a stadium with one of the biggest names in the American sport. Talk about niche. I’m only left with two options for Chivas: build a stadium in LA in a “Latino” part of town, or rebrand/relocate, preferably to San Diego and give Tijuana a rival. Attendance would be much higher then.

  5. futbolhistorian - Sep 26, 2012 at 5:38 PM

    When was Chivas USA ever considered a “strong” market?

    And New England hasn’t been a strong market in a decade. Their attendance decline was in full swing when they were making the playoffs (and MLS Cup) year after year.

    In MLS, winning helps, but it doesn’t always correlate with strong attendance.

    Good points made, but it’s not entirely black and white.

    • joeyt360 - Sep 28, 2012 at 4:41 PM

      Are you trying not to understand his use of the word “market?”

      Hint: you don’t work backwards from attendance. That would be tautological.

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