Attendance worries have quietly disappeared for Major League Soccer

Worrying about attendance figures has long been an American soccer obsession. Supporters religiously fretted over single-game crowd counts, average attendances, season tickets sold, advance ticket sales for that upcoming friendly, and the rest. We all did a little touchdown dance every time a big soccer crowd filled the bowl or whenever an attendance record fell. I’m not sure what comparing MLS attendance figures to leagues around the world ever told us about actual, popular appeal – but that sure didn’t stop us, did it?

But these soccer times, they are a-changin’. Seems so, anyway.

Previously, doting on the showy numbers (and justifying the dogs) was about affirmation, of course, but more than that, it was about the basic instinct to survive. Robust crowds meant validation, that our little game was doing OK. It meant we were correct in our suspicion that there were plenty of soccer fans out there, surely in growing numbers – even if drawing them consistently into MLS matches or national team games was always a tricky maneuver.

Recently, the Citrus Bowl and Yankee Stadium teemed with team spirit and atmosphere as new MLS clubs debuted. We marveled at the energy in both places and at the historical significance in the Bronx.

And about the strong attendance in both spots? Well, we talked about it, but it sure didn’t catch anyone by surprise. Nor did the Week 2 average attendance in MLS, a robust 24,028. The news still gets reported, we just don’t get as worked up about it. We all seem a little more comfortable with where all this is going, so we don’t require the constant IV drip of validation.

Portland Timbers v Real Salt Lake - Western Conference Championship - Leg 1

When talking about crowd counts, MLS stadiums now fall into one of two categories: They either sell out regularly (Seattle, Kansas City, Portland, Vancouver, Salt Lake, Houston), or they don’t. But neither are they regularly, embarrassingly empty. That puts them squarely into the category of “not great, but not a big ol’ pimple that everyone else is staring at.”

On the other side (the “good news” side, that is), everyone knows that Seattle pours rave green into CenturyLink the way they pour beer along 1st Avenue in the pre-game fuss. So crowds of 40,000-plus, which once kicked us all into a message board and social media tizzy, are barely worth mentioning anymore. And did you realize that eight MLS clubs topped 20,000 in average last year? That’s pretty solid.

Want more evidence of the “solid.” Consider some recent attendance news elsewhere:

  • As mentioned, Week 2 matches averaged 24,028. It won’t last; the figures are spiking due to opening week crowds. Still, there’s reason to think the league could top last year’s record, overall average of 19,151.
  • The Week 2 attendance counts were buoyed by a crowd of 43,507 at Yankee Stadium and just a smidge fewer at CenturyLink in Seattle. Also of note, the low crowd was 14,149. Not so very long ago, that was very close to Major League Soccer’s average.
  • The Citrus Bowl spilled over with purple passion and energy as 62,510 filled the ground for Orlando City SC’s debut. That represented the second highest attendance mark for an MLS inaugural match, falling behind only the L.A. Galaxy’s 69,255 inside the Rose Bowl in 1996. It was also the biggest gate for a soccer event in Orlando, besting crowds from the 1994 World Cup.
  • The Montreal Impact has sold 30,000 tickets for this week’s CONCACAF Champions League semifinal against Costa Rica’s Alajuelense. With no snow in the forecast, a decent walkup crowd seems likely, suggesting even larger numbers inside Olympic Stadium.
  • The San Jose Earthquakes just announced that they have reached the 12,000 season ticket cap for the club’s debut season at Avaya Stadium. So, that’s it! Get your place on the waiting list for 2016.

Take a look back at 2014 in MLS. If we scratch Chivas USA and subtract San Jose (which regularly filled the league’s smallest ground, the stop-gap solution that was Buck Shaw Stadium), we are left with Colorado, Chicago and New England as the three attendance slow pokes of 2014. And none of them were gawd-awful, all above 15,000 in average, which is hardly terrible. (Although New England’s 16,681 average inside massive Gillette Stadium does remain something of an eyesore.)

There will always be laggards, but that’s everywhere in the world, yet we’re not wasting energy drawing false conclusions about the game’s worldwide popularity. And same here for other sports. Philadelphia has the lowest attendance this year in NBA. But everyone recognizes that’s because the 76ers stink; they aren’t asking silly questions like, “When will basketball make it in Philly?”

In the NFL and NBA and other sports we don’t worry about attendance. The structures are stable and so we do not attach attendance figures so steadfastly to ongoing league health and essential viability. Also, those leagues live by a basic truth: for revenue generation and for overall public/ media perception, TV numbers are far, far more important than butts in seats.

We may not quite be there just now in U.S. soccer, but we move closer every year. Where we once may have hithered and shivered at a showy attendance count, now we might nod with approval and just move on.

And ain’t that something when you think about it?

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