A Look at MLS Attendance Compared to Team Performance
Written by: Cliff Nelson
One of the best methods to determine the success of a sports team is very simply looking at its attendance. While television deals and sponsorships help fund and pay for teams, if a team isn't filling seats in its stadium, something is flawed. When looking at why some of the professional sports teams that do not see many of their tickets sell, there are many reasons for that outcome.
Since the success, or lack of success, of a team directly correlates with the attendance, it is crucial for teams to fill their seats. For instance, the NFL recently relocated the St. Louis Rams to Los Angeles after very disappointing ticket sales and attendance figures showing attendance is a paramount issue in sports. This pattern is not exclusive to the NFL as other prominent sports teams in different leagues go through the same thing.
Widely accepted as the biggest home for professional soccer in the United States, the MLS has seen continued growth ever since it was founded in 1993. Still, even though the MLS has always said that it has seen constant growth in attendance, it is important to note that attendance figures can't be taken at face value. To illustrate, this year the MLS said it drew over 7 million in attendance league wide. However, what they failed to mention that many of these tickets are given out significantly discounted prices or often for free. Giving out game tickets at a significant discount is a strategy that many failing (or even winning) teams make use of to get people into games. Much of the rise in attendance at MLS games has more to do with promotions and free tickets than the team's performance.
A good example of how an MLS team's success has a small effect on dictating how many people attend the game can be seen in FC Dallas's last two seasons. In 2015 FC Dallas was very successful. Earning the first seed in the Western Conference with an 18-10-6 record, FC Dallas’ season ended in the western conference finals, where they lost to the Portland Timbers in two close games. This past season, FC Dallas was once again excellent throughout the season, ending the season in first place in the Western Conference and a postseason finish in the Western Conference Finals.
Looking at the difference between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, many would assume that attendance would rise or stay the same. However, FC Dallas experienced the opposite as their attendance in 2016 dropped by over 12% compared to 2015 demonstrating that there is little correlation between a team's performance and people's presence in their stadium. Attending an FC Dallas game at the Toyota Stadium is an excellent way to understand why their attendance has decreased over time. From a lack of a mass transit to the opening of a nearby Tollway and organizational issues in ticket renewals, various other problems not including team performance have contributed to the decline in FC Dallas's attendance. Overall, nowadays, the success of an MLS team has less to do with attendance than other intangible issues like ticket promotion and adequate travel availability nearby the arena.