2011 has been a banner year at gate across Major League Soccer. The league is averaging more than 17,300 fans per game in 2011. This is the first time since the league’s inagural season that average attendance has crested the 17k figure. Perhaps even more impressive, the median attendance in 2011 is at an all time high, easily surpassing the previous high (1996) of approximately 16,100. To put the averages in an American sports perspective, the MLS average has eclipsed both the NBA and NHL and lags only MLB and NFL among US based professional team sports. While its true that many MLS stadiums enjoy a capacity far in excess of their indoor cousins, soccer attendance is also limited by the reduced capacity in San Jose. Perhaps most impressively, the league is enjoying these fantastic numbers despite the presence of world soccer powers criscrossing the nation filling stadiums at a clip of more than 40k per game.
Not surprisingly, much of the credit for the fantastic attendance numbers rests in the trio of franchises in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle is averaging more than 37k per game, Vancouver just over 20k and Portland more than 18,600. Both Dallas and Colorado (the 2010 MLS Cup participants) have seen attendance increases well in excess of 10% while traditional attendance powers Los Angeles and New York (if tradition can be a one year run), have managed an increase in 2011. Kansas City’s attendance has increased in dramatic fashion (more than 70%), also a significant contributing factor. Most of the other teams (with two notable exceptions) have managed slight gains or limited drops suggesting a committed and vested base of fans.
Unfortunately, the news is not all positive. Chicago and Columbus, two of the league’s first teams to sport soccer specfic stadiums, are also suffering at the gate. The Fire’s attendance has declined by more than 2,000 gans (about 13%) in dropping below 14,000 per game. Yet the league’s worst performer sits about 350 miles to the South and East of Bridgeview. The Columbus Crew, just a couple of years removed from a championship and currently sitting atop the Eastern Conference are at the bottom of the league’s attendance table. Remarkably, the team is averaging less than 10,500 per match, more than 20% off their 2010 pace. The numbers are even more startling, because Columbuss has typically averaged more than 15k per game. As reported by the Columbus Dispatch, the team once had a season ticket base of 9,000. As the linked article indicates, the team is now exploringa a variety of new pricing options to reverse the trend.
Yet despite the news out of Columbus, the attendance picture in MLS is extremely positive. The average has been trending upward steadily since 2005 (there was a quick up and down in 2008 thanks to Mr. Beckham) and has been creeping back towards the 1996 peek since 2000 (the only year below 14k). We’ll continue to monitor these trends until the end of the 2011 campaign, but with Montreal set to kick off in 2012 and fans flocking to new stadiums around the league, the MLS future at the gate looks extremely bright.
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