MLS Hanging Tough in Recession

By Jeff Kassouf

The rough economy has been taking its toll on all sports leagues in the United States and even worldwide. The recession (and what some are even calling a depression) has caused many fans to hold onto their money much tighter, which is not what sports leagues want to hear.

Less discretionary money means fewer fans in the seats, and that is never good for sports teams. Niche sports and leagues still looking to establish themselves are particularly susceptible to large dips in attendance.

Major League Soccer and Women’s Professional Soccer are no exceptions to this, and it would be very easy for attendance to dip for both of these leagues.

Women’s Professional Soccer is in its first season, and it could not have started at a worse time economically. While the product on the field is of high quality, it is still a new and untested product, meaning people will be more hesitant about spending money on it.

Thus far, WPS has done well. After 13 games, the league is averaging 5,543 fans per game, which is right on pace for the 4,000-6,000 average that the league is hoping for. If that number can hold through the summer months, Tonya Antonucci and company will be very happy.

Overall, the numbers have been good, including a great opening crowd of 14,832 in Los Angeles. The only really alarming number came when Sky Blue FC hosted FC Gold Pride in front of just 2,753, but it was on the evening before Easter Sunday and in poor weather.

Meanwhile, Major League Soccer is averaging 15,015 fans per game through 45 games. Last year, the league finished the 210 game season with an average of 16,460.

This dip in attendance thus far is considerable. Should the current average hold, it would be almost a nine percent decrease in attendance from last year, which was one of the best in MLS history.

However, Major League Soccer’s approach to these hard economic times will be to just withstand it and prosper once times get better. The league cannot be too upset with an average of 15,000 given the circumstances.

The most impressive number thus far comes from Seattle. The Sounders are currently averaging 29,664 fans per game, leaps and bounds above all other MLS teams. Toronto FC is the only other team averaging at least 20,000.

Hopefully, this trend continues for Seattle and future expansion teams. There are, however, some very alarming numbers.

The most troubling numbers have been coming out of Dallas. With a soccer-specific stadium in place, the team has been unable to draw any type of consistent numbers to Pizza Hut Park since it opened. This year, FC Dallas has a dismal average attendance of 9,747, which is second worst in the league. Only Kansas City has a lower average, but the Wizards play in a stadium that holds just over 10,000, whereas Pizza Hut Park holds 21,193.

Granted, FC Dallas has gotten off to a terrible start this season. The Hoops (1-4-1, 4 pts.) have one of the worst records in the league thus far. The PHP is also located well outside of the Dallas metro area in Frisco.

Unfortunately, before these troubles even began, FC Dallas was only able to draw a very mediocre crowd of 15,905 for its opening game against Brimstone Cup rival Chicago. Its other two home dates have drawn 6,524 and 6,813 against Chivas USA and Toronto FC, respectively.

Those numbers are comparable to WPS and USL-1 attendances, which is particularly alarming.

But, FC Dallas is not the only team bringing in strikingly low attendances.

Teams like the New York Red Bulls and Colorado Rapids have always struggled to draw fans, but even typically well-supported teams such as Chicago are struggling. The Fire has put an average of just 11,208 per game in Toyota Park in its two home dates.

Even Real Salt Lake has drawn just 12,550 per game to the beautiful Rio Tinto Stadium, and the defending MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew is drawing just 12,926 to Crew Stadium, posing a challenge to the idea that people support winners (even if they are struggling this season).

What all of this means is that Major League Soccer, along with Women’s Professional Soccer and even the United Soccer Leagues, is holding its own in a struggling economy. However, the league-wide average attendance is right on the cusp of a dangerous 15,000 average threshold.

Furthermore, the support in cities where it should be stronger is very troubling. Games in Rio Tinto Stadium and Toyota Park are extremely exciting on the field but lack the atmosphere that they so deserve in the stands. It may not be time to press the panic button for Major League Soccer, but certain teams must figure out how to boost attendance, or they may just find themselves defunct in the years to come.

                              HOME GAMES                  ROAD GAMES
                       DATES      TOTAL  AVERAGE   DATES      TOTAL  AVERAGE
Chicago Fire               2     22,415   11,208       4     58,145   14,536
Chivas USA                 4     59,354   14,839       3     49,756   16,585
Colorado Rapids            2     24,065   12,033       4     53,335   13,334
Columbus Crew              3     38,779   12,926       3     40,686   13,562
FC Dallas                  3     29,242    9,747       3     46,197   15,399
D.C. United                3     42,930   14,310       3     40,109   13,370
Houston Dynamo             3     48,255   16,085       2     21,771   10,886
Kansas City Wizards        3     27,692    9,231       4     71,469   17,867
Los Angeles Galaxy         3     58,039   19,346       2     28,042   14,021
New England Revolution     1     11,314   11,314       4     51,289   12,822
New York Red Bulls         3     31,273   10,424       4     74,035   18,509
Real Salt Lake             3     37,650   12,550       2     37,056   18,528
San Jose Earthquakes       4     45,091   11,273       2     35,760   17,880
Seattle Sounders FC        4    118,655   29,664       2     36,121   18,061
Toronto FC                 4     80,901   20,225       3     31,884   10,628
MLS Totals                45    675,655   15,015      45    675,655   15,015

Jeff Kassouf is a staff writer for The New Paltz Times and a freelance writer who covers soccer, and can be reached at: