Last season, the Seattle Sounders averaged 44,038 fans per game. In other terms, they averaged almost double Major League Soccer’s second best-attended club. Seattle is an extreme outlier, for which there isn’t really precedent in modern American sports. Even in the heyday of the New York Cosmos, during which they averaged better than 45,000 fans per game, they never doubled their nearest competitors; clubs like Minnesota and Tampa were around 29,000 fans per game.
I am still not sure what created Seattle. If it was a simple formula, we would have seen it replicated across the league. There are still bottom-end markets where clubs are struggling to draw 16,000 per game, and that will have to change as the league grows. It seems to me that it would beneficial if MLS had at least one other club that separated itself from the pack. Even as an optimist, I’m talking here about 30,000, not 40,000. Let’s explore the most likely candidates.
Perhaps we don’t need to look too far from Seattle to find the answer. The passion of the Cascadia clubs is unquestioned, but for differing reasons neither Vancouver nor Portland seems poised to join Seattle in hosting massive crowds. Vancouver plays in a stadium built for football, but unlike Seattle they don’t ever open the upper deck seating for MLS matches. Unlike Seattle, some 6,000 lower bowl seats are tarped off to cap attendance at 21,000. This year the Whitecaps have hit 21,000 for all their home games so far, but that’s a new trend. They are going to have to keep up that pace for a while before ownership opens more seats at BC Place.
Portland has something of the opposite problem. The demand is certainly there in the Rose City, which boasts the largest season-ticket waiting list in the league. But there is no room to put more seats at Providence Park, which has already grown from its original MLS size. The stadium is bounded on all four sides, and for the foreseeable future Portland will max out at just under 21,000 every game.
The Galaxy are the only one of MLS’s inaugural franchises that has been above the league average in attendance every season. They have been the closest club to matching Seattle’s crowds, but even a Beckham-era peak of 26,009 fans per game in 2008 doesn’t really sniff what the Sounders are doing. Their attendance has settled into a distant second place of about 23,000 fans per game in recent years, and they only sell out the 27,000-seat Stubhub Center on rare occasions. Fact is, we’re talking about a suburban stadium, and LA’s numbers, while not what you might expect from the second largest city in the country, are much better than Chicago and Dallas.
But Carson is also home, for now, to the smallest crowds in MLS. Chivas USA, which briefly challenged the Galaxy for attendance supremacy, are now on their last legs. The team will have new ownership, new branding, and perhaps even a new place to play before next season begins, and it is anyone’s guess as to how this will affect Los Angeles’ soccer scene. A downtown stadium is the ultimate goal for the city’s second club, and it might be the only way they challenge the Galaxy again.
Outside of the Stubhub Center, Red Bull Arena is currently the largest soccer-specific stadium in the MLS. But for various reasons, the Red Bulls don’t come particularly close to filling it on a regular basis. They’ll sell the place out once or twice a year, but average attendance has hovered around 19,000 fans per game since moving from the Meadowlands. The worry, now, is that this may decrease with the introduction of New York City FC.
The Red Bulls’ new neighbors have gotten off to a noisy, if not always ideal, start. For the time being, they will play their home games at Yankee Stadium, which isn’t great for soccer, but does boast a lot of seats. Since the Sounders, no east coast team has had a stadium large enough to think about rivaling Seattle. When Yankee Stadium was announced as the club’s first home, it was stated that about 33,000 seats would be available for most MLS matches. But when season tickets went on sale recently, the capacity had dropped to 27,000. Perhaps this reflects tepid deposit purchases. 27,000 is still large by MLS standards, but with David Villa, rumors of Frank Lampard and a third designated player slot available, NYCFC seems determined to fill Yankee Stadium with both stars and fans.
TFC saw attendance decline in the past few years as the Reds struggled. But with the offseason splashes of Jermain Defoe, Julio Cesar, and Michael Bradley, Toronto has sold out every home game so far this year. But that’s on 22,591 per game. Next year, however, BMO field is getting a major makeover in advance of the Pan-American Games, which will ultimately result in a new capacity of 30,000 and a roof over the seats. It’s hard to say how close they will come to filling that on a regular basis, and much of it may rest on whether their signings translate at long last into success on the pitch. But an average crowd of even just 26 or 27 thousand would elevate them into a clear second tier behind Seattle.
Sporting Kansas City, like TFC, sell out all their home matches, but their plans to expand Sporting Park are less immediate. The listed capacity is 18,476, but SKC have averaged 19,715 so far this season, and they are one of the few clubs with a waiting list for season tickets. But the only hints regarding expansion have been vague at best; CEO Robb Heineman said in a Reddit AMA that Sporting Park could expand by as much as 8,000 seats, but he did not provide any timeline on the matter.
Atlanta, like the Sounders, plans to play in NFL stadium. Like the Whitecaps, they plan to cover up the upper deck with a set of retractable curtains. During the club’s announcement, it was mentioned that the new stadium would hold bout 29,000 for MLS matches, which seemed remarkably ambitious for a market that so many people have doubts regarding. But within just two weeks, close to 4,000 people bought deposits pledging to buy more than 9,000 season tickets. That alone would put them in the upper half of the league. This is a club that doesn’t begin play for two and a half more years. If early signs are any indication, filling 29,000 seats might very well be an achievable goal.