Saturday, January 31, 2009

MLS Attendance, Nothing to Worry Much About

One of the factors used in gauging the popularity of a sporting league and/or a sports team is attendance. While I have heard some, not all, MLS fans complain about poor attendance for MLS matches, I have never really taken the time to sit down and compare MLS attendance with attendance in other US sports or in other soccer leagues. But, I have finally taken the time to look into this issue.

We shall start with the MLS, using figures garnered from ESPN. In 2008, the Los Angeles Galaxy, despite its poor performance on the pitch, had the largest total and average attendances with 390,762 throughout the season and an average of 26,050. Not surprisingly, Toronto FC took second place with a total of 303,623 and an average of 20,241. The top five was rounded out by DC United with an average of 19,835, Houston Dynamo with an average of 17,752, and Chicago Fire with an average of 17,052. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Wizards had the lowest attendance with a total of 170,769 throughout the season and an average of 10,673 per game. But don’t let those figures fool you, since one figure I found indicates that capacity of CommunityAmerica Ballpark for soccer matches is 10,385. Wonder how they squeeze in another 300?

So, the dishonor of having the worst MLS attendance for 2008 actually goes to FC Dallas. Despite having its own soccer specific stadium with a capacity of 20,500, Dallas only averaged 13,097 throughout the 2008 season.

Finally, according to ESPN, the unofficial average attendance for all MLS matches in 2008 was 16,310.

Since the MLS is a summer league, it is only fitting that we take a look at how Major League Baseball did attendance wise in 2008. Not surprisingly, the New York Yankees managed an average of 53,069 per game and pulled a season total attendance of 4,298,655. The caveat being that the MLB has a much, much longer season and larger stadiums then the MLS. The worse 2008 attendance in MLS was experienced by the Florida Marlins who averaged 16,688 per game. The Marlins must have had some decent attendance in the Spring, because I saw pictures of late season home games with attendances that could be counted in the hundreds, not thousands. The second worst performing team was the Kansas City Royals who averaged 19,986 per game.

Since the 2008/09 NBA season is ongoing, we’ll take a quick look at attendance numbers from the prior season. The team with the best attendance was Detroit, averaging 22,076 per game. Meanwhile Indiana only averaged 12,221 per game and Memphis averaged 12,771 per game. Surprisingly, the Los Angeles Lakers only averaged 18,997 per game.

With this being Super Bowl weekend, I’d be remiss if I ignored the juggernaut on the professional sporting landscape in America, the NFL. In 2008, Washington took the honor of having the largest average home attendance, 88,604. While Oakland only had an average of 54,497; however, the figures for Denver and San Francisco are not available yet. Of course, by only having 8 home games a season and gigantic stadiums, these numbers are not that surprising.

In the larger scheme of American professional sports, MLS does have the lower average attendances, but all the MLS teams average over 10,000 fans per game, a respectable number. While there is room for attendance improvement, last season’s attendance figures indicate that all MLS franchises have managed to secure a decent niche in their home cities.

Much as the NFL is the juggernaut when it comes to American sports, the English Premier League is the juggernaut of soccer leagues. I’m sure nobody will be surprised to learn that during the 2007/08 season, Manchester United had the highest average attendance in the EPL with 75,691, averaging over 15,000 more per game then second place Arsenal. Rounding out the bottom of the attendance table in the EPL were Wigan with 19,046 and Portsmouth with 19,914. The overall average attendance in the EPL for that season was 36,076.

Meanwhile on the continent last season, Serie A averaged 25,115 per match, with Inter pulling an average of 59,054 compared to Empoli’s 7,437 per match. The average attendance for Spain’s La Liga was only slightly higher at 28,920, with Real Madrid pulling a respectable 73,162 per match, while Levante only averaged 11,134 per match. Not surprisingly, Bundesliga pulled the largest attendance amongst the big leagues of Europe, averaging 43,679 per game. VfB Stuttgart had the biggest average attendance 105,520, while Energie Cottbus pulled in only an average of 18,820 per game.

While it’s interesting to put these attendance figures all in one place, due to the variety of all the external factors (season length, stadium side, weather, marketing, money, etc.), I don’t feel qualified to crunch them all together and make some grandiose statement about the future success or demise of the MLS. However, I believe I am qualified enough to look at these numbers and get a sense that yes, on the whole, other sports in the US and other soccer leagues draw more spectators on average then the MLS; however, the MLS’s average attendance figures are very respectable and suggest the existence of a strong, devoted base. As MLS teams move into their own stadiums, increase their revenue, and expand their local marketing, I suspect the average attendance numbers should rise across the board. Who knows, despite the economic situation, MLS might see gains because it often provides the best bang for the consumer’s entertainment dollar, as I understand it the Houston Dynamo will soon be offering a special 15 games for $150.00 package, basically a barebones season ticket package.

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