Major League Soccer – State of the League, a closer look

So each year we get a couple editions of the “State of the League” from Don Garber and over the last 3 years they have sounded like the same record being played over and over. We get some info on how well things are going, but what if we take a closer look at what is being said, what is proposed? I have become more of a skeptic in the last couple of years, as I keep hearing different messages from MLS depending on who they are talking to and about, and as things that guys at the top level promise things that simply never materialize.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think MLS has done some great things over the last decade and almost all of them can be traced back to Don Garber. I firmly believe he was the right man for the job at the time, but I do question if the league is really going to break from where we are today and into the mainstream of American sports (and trust me we are not there), is he the guy we need going forward?

There are a couple of key things that were mentioned in this most recent rendition that over the next few days I will take a closer look at to perhaps remove the appearance of the spin. First up let’s look at an area that saw MLS setting records all year: Attendance, here are his comments about the topic:

Our league average this year was nearly 19,000 fans per game.  That is the highest in our history.  We had 114 sellouts, which also is a league record.  We doubled the number of sellouts during the playoffs compared to last year [despite] lots of midweek games, not a lot of time to sell those games. …  So we are very proud about that.  We had six games with crowds of over 50,000 or more, which is a first for our league.  We are pleased with our growth chart as it relates to total attendance.

Attendance – While there is little doubt that more people are attending matches and the average number is up nicely, we need to be honest about attendance. There is the announced number by teams and the league, then there is the actual gate (people who come to matches), and then there is also a number that is tickets sold. These numbers are not the same thing, and while almost every sport uses a formula to create the announced attendance (often based on tickets distributed, not actual attendance) so I can’t blame MLS for doing the same thing. However in an attempt to add some transparency where there clearly isn’t much.  So here are some things you should know about the attendance numbers.

I do think that we must remember a few things about the 6 million mark as well, first the MLS season now has more dates as we are currently on the 34 match season format which started in 2011, there are also now more teams than ever before in the league as Montreal joined MLS in 2012. Still 6 million is a big number and has to be respected, even with the addition of teams and more matches than past years.

A deeper look at the data from a couple years ago however shows that for many teams 15-20% of their tickets are still being distributed for free. The league measures this on a weekly basis via a Club Game Summary report, which contains the announced attendance, the actual paid attendance (which includes STH, partial STH, Groups, and Individual tickets). They track this from year to year and week to week in order to see the variances and look for opportunities. When I look at a copy of this from late in the 2010 MLS season, I see some alarming trends that I would love to know if the situation has changed but without any type of transparency in MLS we simply don’t and likely will never know.

Here is one example, after 11 home matches in 2010 Chivas USA was down 14% in their overall announced attendance from 2009 YTD (16,107 to 13,791), but what is shocking is that of that 13,791, the number for paid attendance was just 7,303. Meaning they comp’ed almost as many tickets as they sold, which is not a good thing for any franchise. We know by looking at the league announced numbers for 2012 that Chivas USA averaged even lower announced attendance of just 13,056, one would believe that they are probably still low on that paid attendance list as well.

Another example are the LA Galaxy, remember the ongoing theme of how important David Beckham has been, well they were up slightly in 2010 after 11 home matches (20,224 to 19,934) in announced attendance, but when you look at the numbers of people who paid, things were down a bit as the average was just 14,229 paid attendance after 11 home matches in 2010. Also their full season ticket numbers were down 6% in 2010 to just 4,955. In 2012 we saw the Galaxy improve their announced attendance to 23,136 for their home matches, which is would make sense coming off a MLS Cup winning 2011 season, and with all 3 of their big name DP’s back on the pitch for them.

There were some good success stories as well, the New York Red Bulls moved into their new stadium and after 12 home matches in 2010 their announced attendance was up over 43% from 2009, and the 17,927 announced included an average of 15,750 who paid for their tickets which was a 57% increase over their 2009 numbers. The growth has continued for the Red Bulls as their average was up in 2012 to 18,281, but as many of us who watched their many national TV matches know, announced attendance clearly didn’t match the actual people who showed up.

Another example of the good is the Seattle Sounders, in their 2nd year in the league they increased their announced attendance from just over 30,000 a match in 2009 to over 36,000 per match in 2010.  In this high demand market the number of comp tickets is low, just an average of 2,276 in 2009 and that number was down to just 2,210 per match after 13 matches in 2010. Their attendance continues to grow, as they averaged over 43,000 fans per match in 2012, a number that helps them rank among the top teams in the world when it comes to attendance.  Something that can’t be overlooked.

Yet you have to consider that the the league average of 18,807 per match is better than the 16,279 average of 2008, that is 15% growth over 4 years, a very respectable number. A large part of that growth can be traced easily to one source, 12% of this year’s 6 million plus fans came from the home crowds of the Seattle Sounders. If we remove their home crowds from the numbers the average would be more like 17,455 a growth rate of just 7% over the last 4 years. Not nearly as impressive. We also know that league wide in 2008 that just 73% of the announced attendance was actually tickets that were paid for.

Now some of you are going to say that this is an attempt by me to throw cold water on what was a great year for the league, where they hit the 6 million fans attending mark.  Nothing could be further from the truth, I am proud of the work done both at the league and team levels by the countless workers who have helped our league grow in such a substantial way. Instead it is just an honest look at some of the things that go on behind the scenes and shed some light on information that you may not know.

Now there are a couple of other topics I want to look at that while the league is right in claiming success, they are a bit less than forthcoming with all the facts, topics like; David Beckham, New York 2, and the TV numbers for MLS.  Those post will be coming up in the next few days and weeks.

That’s How I See It.

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