Breaking Four Million: Aggregating The Attendance Rise in MLS

The average attendance in Major League Soccer this year is up 7.7% on 2009, to 16,627 per game. This takes the league up above 2008 levels as well, though not quite back to the Beckham and Blanco (and Toronto FC) bounce of 2007:

1996 regular season average attendance: 17,416
1997: 14,619
1998: 14,312
1999: 14,282
2000: 13,756
2001: 14,961
2002: 15,822
2003: 14,898
2004: 15,559
2005: 15,108
2006: 15,504
2007: 16,770
2008: 16,459
2009: 16,120
2010: 16,627 (incomplete season)

At face-value, the league is still running to get back to the buzz it had in its inaugural season. But that’s not really true: last year, 3,608,359 total fans attended MLS’ 225 games in a 15 team league. In 1996, 2,786,673 fans attended the 160 games played by a 10 team league. For most of the decade, this aggregate number didn’t change much, dipping with contraction in 2002. Fast forward to 2004, and we have a 10 team league, and 2,489,440 fans in attendance at the 160 games played.

1996 regular season aggregate attendance: 2,786,673 (10 teams)
1997: 2,339,040 (10 teams)
1998: 2,747904 (12 teams: Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion join league)
1999: 2,742,144 (12 teams)
2000: 2,641,152 (12 teams)
2001: 2,872,512 (12 teams)
2002: 2,531,520 (10 teams, contraction of Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny)
2003: 2,383,680 (10 teams)
2004: 2,489,440 (10 teams)
2005: 2,900,736 (12 teams, addition of Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA)
2006: 2,976,768 (12 teams)
2007: 3,270,210 (13 teams, addition of Toronto FC)
2008: 3,456,390 (14 teams, addition of San Jose Earthquakes)
2009: 3,608,325 (15 teams, addition of Seattle Sounders)
2010: On pace for 3,990,480 at current average (16 teams, addition of Philadelphia Union)

So the story of MLS 2.0, or whatever crappy name we want to give it since the league started expanding again, is that aggregate attendance has improved by almost 50% since 2005: over one million more fans attend MLS games each season than in 2004, and if there’s a late summer surge of interest in the league a little above normal (with the addition of Thierry Henry likely to help), Major League Soccer will welcome over four million fans through its doors for the first time this year.

This rate of improvement will almost certainly not slow until 2012 at the earliest. With at least a 19 team league by then with the addition of the Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact, aggregate attendance will approach five million for the season in 2012 even if average attendance only holds steady at 16-17,000 (presuming teams still play 30 regular season games a year). This seems likely as Vancouver and Portland already have very strong season ticket sales for their opening season in 2011: 13,000 for the former and 7,000 for the latter with almost nine months still go to kick-off. Montreal will be the same story, as Philadelphia has been this year.

Indeed, that points to perhaps the most important story of expansion: since the arrival of Toronto FC in 2007, and with the exception of the curious backstory to San Jose’s existence, the new teams have been backed by season ticket numbers that make the original MLS teams blush in embarrassment.

The quick story on all these numbers is this: holding steady at this level of average attendance whilst also massively increasing aggregate attendance numbers and the league’s footprint with a big rise in the number of season ticket sales league-wide (albeit, an awful lot of them in two cities, Seattle and Toronto) is impressive — especially in the midst of a terrible recession.

Also: unless the landscape of soccer in America has changed drastically in the past four years, don’t expect a post-World Cup bounce simply because of the World Cup.

Also also: MLS attendance numbers aren’t entirely to be taken at face-value, but the trends above stand as a whole, and given the rise of season ticket sales in the expansion teams’ fanbases, the story of the rise in paid attendance is probably an even more dramatic success story over the past five years.

Also also also: The SportsBusiness Journal piece cited at the top has some interesting television viewership numbers as well that deserve their own analysis, but suffice to say, the number of viewers on the box is pretty flat this year so far. Numbers on ESPN2 are down 1.6% from the same period last year at 251,000 per game, while Fox Soccer Channel is attracting a dismal 53,000 per game. The latter’s contract with MLS expires this year, and rumours that MLS might be in discussions with Versus make some sense as FSC’s interest may well be waning, with MLS probably disappointed in their poor effort at promoting the league’s games.

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