MLS Attendance in Decline: The Old and the New Diverge

David Beckham

No surprise there, then: in a tanking economy where even the nation’s most popular league, the NFL, has had trouble selling tickets and Major League Baseball’s attendance fell 6.9%, it’s not a shock to learn that as Soccer America reports, MLS’ attendance fell overall by 2.9% in the regular season just concluded, falling from 16,460 in 2008 to 16,037.  Notably, without expansion team Seattle and their record-breaking 30,897 average, that would have been a 9% fall.

The question is whether the depth of the decline, especially in numerous older clubs, is of serious concern beyond an acceptance of the tough economic times.

Let’s look at the good news and the bad news, by dividing the clubs into two groups: the six newer clubs that have  joined the league since it began its second round of expansion in 2005, and the nine older clubs that have been here since the beginning in 1996 or joined in the first round of expansion in 1998 (of whom only Chicago still exist).

Seattle Sounders

The Good: Expansion has Worked with the Newer Clubs

Five of the top seven spots in average attendance are taken by newer teams Seattle (2009), Toronto (2007), Real Salt Lake (2005) and Chivas USA (2005). Houston (2006) can also be considered part of this group of new teams, as a relocated franchise just four seasons old in their new city, and they rank fourth in attendance with 17,074.

It’s clear that MLS’ arrival in four of those cities has been a success (wildly so in Seattle’s case), and Chivas USA in Los Angeles aren’t doing too bad given they share the city with the Galaxy. In terms of appealing to new investors for the league as expansion continues, being able to point to solid crowds in places as diverse as Seattle and Salt Lake is a big plus for MLS.

And it seems as if the recession didn’t impact these places very much, a point supported by the massive attendance at international club friendlies in SUM’s “Summer of Soccer“.

There is one striking exception amongst the newer teams, with 2008 expansion team San Jose still struggling to find their feet: a modest attendance rise of 2.9% was bolstered by 61,572 for a “home” double-header featuring Barcelona and Chivas at Candlestick Park, and their search for a stadium goes on. It’s notable that this may be explained by an older failure, the decision by MLS and AEG to move the original successful San Jose Earthquakes to Houston in search of a stadium there.

In total, the newer teams returning from 2008 (so minus Seattle) collectively defied the recession to have a rising attendance of 1.1%. Only one team that has joined the league since MLS’ first round of expansion in 1998 suffered a fall in attendance, a minuscule 0.1% fall for Chivas USA.

FC Dallas

The Bad: Older Teams in Decline

Which brings us to the bad. . .Every single team that had an average attendance decline of over 1% has been in the league for over a decade. And several had declines far beyond what one might expect as an effect of the recession: the Galaxy (-21.5%), D.C. United (-18.9%), Chicago (-13.8%), New England (-21.9%) and New York (-21.6%).

The Galaxy (albeit falling from a high perch), DC United and Chicago, in particular, ought to cause considerable concern: all three have been fortunate to have visionary leadership in their first decade, between them winning no fewer than seven of the league’s first ten league championships and consistently leading the league in attendance. All three appear unable to build on this solid foundation, and are in fact slipping from it.

But none of those three are in as much trouble as the teams that have never managed to establish themselves as successful winning franchises, MLS originals Dallas (-4.5% at 13,024), Colorado (-9.7% at 13,659) and Kansas City (-5.9% at 10,053) prop up the bottom three places in the attendance table, having less far to fall from their terrible 2008 crowds to begin with. Dallas were also massively propped up by a 51,012 for a “home” double-header at the Cotton Bowl featuring Mexico-Colombia — without that, Dallas’ average at Pizza Hut Park was just 9,678, down a whopping 25.7% on 2008. Their woes run deep.

And recent success on the field has done nothing to bump Columbus’ ever mediocre attendance, staying mid-table with a 1.2% fall to 14,447 despite their second consecutive best record in the league.

In total, the older teams saw their average attendance collectively decline by 14.6%, or 16.8% if we take out Dallas’ Cotton Bowl double-header bump.

What’s going on here?

blanco

Each case has their own excuses. The Beckham and Blanco effects appear to be wearing off respectively in Los Angeles and Chicago, and this has also impacted the entire league, which benefited greatly from a home attendance bounce from both in 2007 and 2008 when each team visited. New York, for example, had their attendance average considerable bolstered by Beckham-effect crowds of 66, 237 in 2007, 46,754 in 2008 but by only 23,238 in 2009 for the visits of the Galaxy.

Given both are pretty much irreplaceable in terms of appeal in the U.S., those bounces aren’t likely to be seen again for a while, even if both do flit through the league again in 2010.

D.C. United, New York, Kansas City and New England all have stadium woes, with only one of them (New York) to be resolved for 2010 and none of the others looking likely to be resolved soon, perhaps with the exception of KC.

But new soccer-specific-stadia is not a magic potion for attracting fans at older teams, as Dallas and Colorado are doing well to prove: nobody appears interested in trekking out to either suburban complex, despite two impressive stadiums. Some may say the same for Chicago as well, though I won’t be the one to do it.

Executives at all these older teams are now looking at the marketing success of Seattle and planning to replicate that in 2010. Will MLS clubs attempting to appeal to adult fans of soccer perhaps be the magic potion? This seems to be a common thread amongst both the successful new teams AND the older teams who had initial success, such as DC United and Chicago, who did not go down the foolish marketing routes taken by many other clubs.

Unfortunately, many older clubs have for so long alienated adult soccer supporters that there’s more damage than a “Scarf Seattle” type campaign might be able to repair. Some of them, such as Dallas and Colorado, have had front offices who have outright driven away the kind of soccer fans Seattle and Toronto have embraced with success.  New England and Kansas City never have had very strong groups, and for all the press Columbus’ new “hardcore” has attracted, it hasn’t helped their crowd grow despite remarkable on-field performance for two years.

MLS has clearly moved in the right direction since the “Game First” initiative and new round of expansion put the league’s appeal more in line with that of the world’s game; this has had, quite naturally, the most appeal in cities unscarred by the league’s early marketing failures. MLS now needs to figure out how to reinvigorate clubs in crucial cities with strong soccer communities who this year have abandoned MLS in worrying numbers. It can be done, but it will take imagination, creativity and a closer willingness to work with long-time supporters willing to act as evangelists for their clubs.

Here’s the full attendance table courtesy of Soccer America. I’ve marked the older group of teams in bold.

MLS Average Attendance 2009 2008 +/-
Seattle 30,897
Los Angeles 20,416 26,009 -21.5%
Toronto FC 20,344 20,120 +1.1%
Houston 17,047 16,939 +0.6%
Real Salt Lake 16,375 16,179 +1.2%
D.C. United 16,088 19,835 -18.9%
Chivas USA 15,092 15,114 -0.1%
Chicago 14,689 17,034 -13.8%
Columbus 14,447 14,622 -1.2%
San Jose 14,114 13,713 +2.9%
New England 13,732 17,580 -21.9%
New York 12,491 15,928 -21.6%
FC Dallas 12,441 13,024 -4.5%
Colorado 12,331 13,659 -9.7%
Kansas City 10,053 10,686 -5.9%
TOTAL 16,037 16,460 -2.6%

Note: I’m aware MLS’ attendance numbers are often skewed by comped tickets, and I may have missed other double-headers impacting on attendance in various places (especially in 2008). But reports suggests it’s the older teams comping more tickets (we know Seattle, Toronto and Real Salt Lake don’t do it much), so the actual gap may actually be wider.

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