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MLS Attendance Numbers Reveal Lack of Growth

The 2007 season was one of the most significant for MLS ever. David Beckham signed with the Gals (but didn’t play much) and his popularity increased the league’s average attendance per game by a whopping 1,000 fans. Commissioner Garber was finally delivering on his promise of growth to a league that had toiled in near obscurity for over a decade. 

The 2008 MLS Season was supposed to build on 2007’s success and many predicted this would finally be the year MLS achieved relevance. Mr. Beckham’s first full season was supposed to turn casual sports fans on to the league and put their butts firmly in the seats when the Galaxy rolled into town. The hope was that after fans came out to the park to see Becks, they would have such a good time they would return the next week. It was a good plan, but the 2008 attendance results indicate it will not be a successful one.

Last year, MLS averaged 16,770 spectators per match. This year, with just six weeks left in the season, MLS is only pulling 16,407 fans per game. Though 300 or so less fans per game is not a decrease of monumental proportions, it does signify that the “Beckham Burst” in popularity the league expected to receive turned out to be more of a “Beckham Bust”.

I don’t blame Beckham. He’s played well and he’s been on the pitch a ton (he has the 2nd most minutes of any Galaxy player). Sure, his team blows, but casual fans have proven they will show up for Becks anyways. The problem is, they don’t come back the next week when the home team takes on the Wiz.

As for individual teams, the attendance figures reveal more mixed results.

Chicago, Chivas USA, Houston, Los Angeles and New England have all increased their average attendance. While LA has had the biggest boost (no surprise there), the increased fan turnouts in Chicago and New England (two of the league’s top teams in 2008) have been huge. Chivas somehow has been drawing more while winning far less and Houston’s attendance is up, but just a sliver.

Attendance figures in New York and Toronto have stayed almost exactly the same as last season. Of course, in Toronto’s case, there is definitely no attendance problem. In fact, the team’s average attendance in 2007 and 2008 is basically equal to their stadium’s total capacity.

Some teams appear to be in trouble though.

Kansas City, despite having a great start, has played poorly down the stretch and its average attendance has dipped by nearly 2,000 fans per home game. While the loss of 2,000 fans a game wouldn’t mean a ton to an NFL team that still draws 60,000, it reveals a major loss for an MLS side only pulling in around 9,000 warm bodies per game.

Colorado is also in trouble. Despite having a beautiful soccer-specific stadium, the Rapids have drawn nearly 1,500 less fans to home games this year than last. Ditto for Dallas and DC. Real Salt Lake has lost about 1,000 fans per game despite having their best season ever.

The biggest head scratcher for me though has got to be Columbus. The Crew drew 15,230 fans on average to home games last year despite the fact they were pretty mediocre and missed the playoffs. This year, the Crew has played fantastic and is poised to take home the Supporters’ Shield, but their supporters at home games have dwindled to an average of only 13,848.

Now, in the Crew’s defense, they (like KC, HOU & CHI) still have not been paid a visit by Becks, who will surely bump up their overall average by a few hundred spectators. But still, it’s strange to think a team could have its breakout season and lose fans.

Finally, San Jose has been doing pretty well attendance-wise for a franchise team. SJE has averaged nearly 15,000 supporters at home games this year, which is more than COL, CMB, FCD, KCW and RSL. Not too shabby for a city that lost their team because MLS didn’t think they could support one.

Overall though, you can’t dispute the fact that attendance figures for 2008 are a little depressing. Everyone wanted this year to be the year MLS would finally capture the nation’s interest. Instead, if you look at the numbers below, it looks like MLS’s growth may have stalled once again. 

  • 2008: 16,407
  • 2007: 16,770
  • 2006: 15,504
  • 2005: 15,108
  • 2004: 15,559
  • 2003: 14,898
  • 2002: 15,822
  • 2001: 14,961
  • 2000: 13,756
  • 1999: 14,282
  • 1998: 14,312
  • 1997: 14,619
  • 1996: 17,406

As you can see, MLS has lower attendance figures today than it did thirteen years ago during its inaugural season. Unfortunately, the large swell of support during the ’96 season receded after the first full season. MLS brought in Becks to pump attendance back up and he has so far.

But just like the league was no longer a novelty in 1997, Becks won’t be one next year. Let’s hope MLS has some other ideas about how to promote the league and bring in new fans. Otherwise, it may not be long before attendance numbers begin to sharply decline once again.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Joel Seskin October 16, 2008, 12:14 am

    David’s comment above mentioned the push by ESPN. Sure they carry a game a week but you can’t even find a highlight on SportsCenter afterwards or the next morning. Heck, MLS is lucky if Sportscenter shows more than 15 seconds on Sunday morning from the previous days activities. They cover the minimal amount necessary to pretend they care.

    I agree, playing during International Breaks hurts. MLS should rethink their schedule and ESPN coverage.

  • Greg Bean October 10, 2008, 1:37 am

    This week, Columbus fans stepped up. There were 4.5% more fans at this weeks home game than their overall average for the year. However, they are still down 6% from last year and are having their 4th worst year out of 13 seasons.

    As for the rest of the league, I don’t think a 2.3% drop in attendance from last year is too much to worry about. Both the NBA and MLB saw a similar drop in attendance this year, so perhaps it is more about the economy than popularity.

    Finally, the MLS is having its third best year ever in attendance and is up 19% since the year 2000. I thonk the MLS will weather a small drop and continue to grow.

  • David Wilson September 13, 2008, 1:44 pm

    Good points Randall. With the push of FSC and ESPN you would expect that attendance would have increased.
    One thing I think MLS has to look at is playing games during International designated breaks. MLS teams end up playing their reserves and this hurts the quality of the game and keeps the average fan away.

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