Orlando City’s new stadium, which has been delayed until 2016, will seat 25,000 instead of the previously rumored 18,000. This is according to a Facebook post (in Portuguese) from the MLS expansion club’s Brazilian owner. Orlando City is able to expand their future stadium thanks to a sales-tax subsidy from the state of Florida. David Beckham, who is pushing to bring a soccer-specific stadium to Miami, had been lobbying the state to allow soccer teams to receive these subsidies, which previously had been limited to the “big four” sports. Florida legislators passed legislation allowing MLS teams to apply for state subsidies on Friday.
But enough legal details. A 25,000 seat stadium is a statement of ambition for Orlando City. Their attendance last year in USL Pro was a league high 8,056; it is lower this year only because they left the spacious Citrus Bowl. But of course MLS would be expected to bring about a significant increase in attendance. When Seattle made the jump to MLS, their average attendance ballooned from 3,386 to 30,857. But the Sounders, of course, are an extreme outlier.
Currently, Seattle is the only MLS team that averages 25,000 fans per game (they drew an average crowd of 44,038 in 2013). But they are also the only team with a downtown stadium capable of holding crowds that large. The 27,000 seat Stubhub Center, home to the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA, is in Carson, California. Red Bull Arena is famously in New Jersey, not New York. Neither of those stadiums is filled on a regular basis. Meanwhile, downtown stadiums in Portland, Toronto, and Vancouver are typically sold out, but their small capacities limit crowds to just over 20,000. BMO Field in Toronto is expected to expand to 30,000 in the near future, when it becomes the host of the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts.
I am something of an optimist on this matter; I have often wondered if the current batch of soccer-specific stadiums will be made obsolete by their size in the not too distant future. As the game grows, 18,500 may not be enough seats. Orlando City’s stadium will be downtown (near Amway Arena, where the Magic play), and if you believe in the quadrennial World Cup bump, 25,000 may very well be a perfect capacity for the Lions in 2016.
But about that World Cup bump. How much of that is imagined, and how much is real. The simplest (but perhaps not the best) way to figure this out is to look at the league’s average attendance before, during, and after World Cup years. It’s hard to find data that looks at month-by-month attendance for the league’s early years, so the exact effect of the World Cup is of course hard to measure. All attendance figures listed below come from Kenn.com, and the writer acknowledges that MLS attendance figures were rife with inflation in the league’s early years.
1997 MLS attendance: 14,603
1998 MLS attendance: 14,312
1999 MLS attendance: 14,282
If the World Cup bump exists, it didn’t in the MLS’s first few years. League attendance was on a downward trend after the inaugural season in 1996, and the addition of teams in Miami and Chicago in 1998 did not change this. The USMNT did not help: in France for the World Cup, the Americans lost all three games in the group stage. 1999 saw the Women’s team win the World Cup on U.S. soil, but this too didn’t seem to help the domestic league.
2001 MLS attendance: 14,961
2002 MLS attendance: 15,821
2003 MLS attendance: 14,898
From the numbers alone, there would seem to be some support for the World Cup bump. The USMNT made their best World Cup run, making the quarterfinals. But the bump, if it occurred, didn’t have a lasting effect. Context matters. After the 2001 season, MLS contracted the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion, both of which were near the bottom in attendance. Of the remaining 10 teams, five had lower attendance in 2002 than in 2001. And while the U.S. had great success at the World Cup, they did so in the obscurity of the early morning. The games in South Korea and Japan were watched only by those willing to wake/stay up for them.
2005 MLS attendance: 15,108
2006 MLS attendance: 15,504
2007 MLS attendance: 16,770
Once again, the World Cup cycle bests its predecessor, and here we see a clear upward trend. The increase in attendance from 2006 to 2007 is the largest in league history…but it doesn’t make sense to credit it to the World Cup. In Germany, the USMNT managed only a draw against the eventual champions, Italy, before failing to make the knockout rounds. Meanwhile, MLS added Toronto FC in 2007, and the Reds quickly became one of the league’s best attended teams. Oh, and the Galaxy got David Beckham. Like Pele in the 70s, Becks drew big crowds wherever he played, including 66,237 to Giants Stadium. His appearances are probably the single biggest factor in the attendance boost.
2009 MLS attendance: 16,037
2010 MLS attendance: 16,675
2011 MLS attendance: 17,872
Everyone has an anecdote about how Landon Donovan’s game-winning goal against Algeria changed soccer in this country forever. I tend to think that to these are right, and that goal signifies something of a “point of no return.” But in MLS, I’m inclined to give more credit to Cascadia than the Galaxy star. Seattle joined in 2009, and not only have they led the league in attendance, but their attendance has increased every year. In 2011, Portland and Vancouver made the jump, and both posted above average attendance. For good measure, the Philadelphia expansion in 2010 also helped.
Major League Soccer has been on an upward trend since the dark times of the early 2000s. But I find it difficult to credit this rise solely to the World Cup’s appeal. This year’s tournament will be held in Brazil, with games kicking off at U.S. friendly times. Undoubtedly, new soccer fans will be created in this country. But will they go to MLS games? In 2016, when Orlando City will begin play in their new stadium, the U.S. will host Copa America. It’s the biggest soccer event to be held on American soil since the 1994 World Cup, two years before MLS began play. It could be yet another big moment for soccer in the U.S., but I wonder: will it bring more people to MLS games, or draw fans away?