MLS efforts to lure fans to stadiums not guaranteed as attendance drops
By Nick Green, Daily Breeze
Posted: 03/08/17, 9:02 PM PST |
Atlanta United packed its stadium for its first MLS opener Sunday when 55,297 showed up, the league’s largest attendance and the world’s fifth biggest for a soccer game on the weekend.
Amazed? So was MLS commissioner Don Garber.
“I was just speechless and I’m not speechless very often,” he marveled. “This is just remarkable.”
He had every reason to wonder.
MLS all but abandoned the Southeast in 2002 after not one, but two money-losing Florida teams. The Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion were folded at the same time before they took the seven-year league with them, too.
Yet here was a mammoth crowd taking in a regular season MLS game, more confirmation the domestic game is making headway in an area that has sometimes seemed indifferent or even openly hostile to it.
And it followed on the heels of Orlando FC’s box office success.
The second-year club drew a regular-season average of 31,324 last year, behind only the Seattle Sounders (42,000-plus), although with a move to a smaller soccer-specific stadium this year, those numbers will not be repeated.
Still, it’s worth noting that compared to MLS’ opening weekend last year, published reports indicated the average crowd declined almost 4 percent.
And a good thing Atlanta drew big because the Sounders didn’t play and without Seattle’s boost, the decline would have been much larger.
The Galaxy, for example, didn’t sell out StubHub Center on a Saturday afternoon, drawing 23,554 to the 25,667 capacity venue, a number the club ignored the figure on its official stats sheet.
Remember, this is supposedly the flagship franchise of MLS. Yet, after more than two decades in existence, the Galaxy’s season opener is not a must-see game for its fans.
Did the relative lack of star power after the offseason exodus play a role in reducing the buzz around the Galaxy?
Other established MLS franchises also experienced attendance declines.
The Colorado Rapids and Columbus Crew, both original members of MLS in 1996, had their opening day attendances fall almost 8 percent and 12 percent respectively compared to the first game of 2016.
Sure, there are newer franchises in MLS that draw a fanatical young, hipster element.
Seattle, for example, has released even more seats at CenturyLink Field ahead of its Sunday home opener. The Sounders averaged 42,636 last season.
In addition to Atlanta, Orlando (the first game in its new stadium), Portland and San Jose also had sellouts.
Let’s just hope the MLS novelty doesn’t wear off, like it apparently has elsewhere (the Galaxy’s first game in 1996 at the Rose Bowl attracted nearly 70,000).
Fortunately, television ratings rose.
Ratings for the inaugural Friday night MLS game on Fox Sports 1 reportedly jumped 40 percent over last year’s opener on the channel.
Likewise, Univision’s coverage of Sunday’s Galaxy game drew more viewers than any other MLS game shown on Spanish-language television.
But the Galaxy’s soft attendance could get worse before it gets better.
The 0-1 Galaxy play their second game of the season 4 p.m. Sunday against the Portland Timbers in Carson on FS1.
That’s similar to the time slot that resulted in Vancouver’s attendance last weekend, diving nearly 14 percent over last year’s first game.
The typical MLS fan still needs a good reason to go to a game it seems.
That 22-team MLS is getting ever bigger is a certainty.
Not so certain is whether the quality is there to keep fans who increasingly want events and experiences rather than mere games coming back week after week.
For more soccer news, read the 100 Percent Soccer blog at www.insidesocal.com/soccer.