The 2014 MLS regular season ended with a bang. Week 33 average attendance was 22,500, the second highest average of the 2014 season, and stadiums were filled 95.06%, also the second highest of the season. The highest average of 2014 came in July in Week 18 during the World Cup averaging 22,762. The week with the most full stadiums though, came in Week 11 at 95.73% and six sellouts.
The final contributions to the 2014 season attendance data brought average attendance for the season to 19,148, the highest average attendance in MLS history and a 2.9% increase from 2013. 2014 represents the first time the league has averaged more than 19,000 on the season and at 86.18% full on average, stadiums in 2014 showed an increase of 3.72% from the 2013 regular season.
There were five sellout matches for the second straight week in MLS’ final week- Real Salt Lake versus Chivas USA at Rio Tinto Stadium, Seattle Sounders versus Los Angeles Galaxy at CenturyLink Field, New England Revolution versus Toronto FC at Gillette Stadium, Vancouver Whitecaps versus Colorado Rapids at BC Place, and Sporting Kansas City versus New York Red Bulls at Sporting Park. Every sellout this week featured a home team still in MLS Cup contention.
The Supporter’s Shield deciding match between the Seattle Sounders and the Los Angeles Galaxy match hosted the second highest crowd in 2014 with 57,673 people filling CenturyLink Field. New England showed in week 33 that it has the potential to draw large crowds to football stadiums like Seattle does, as they packed 32,766 into Gillette Stadium, their highest attended match of the season, despite already solidifying the 2nd seed in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Sporting Kansas City showed once again it is a soccer city, posting a sellout for their Sunday night matchup while their Kansas City Royals played Game 5 of the World Series in San Francisco.
Sellouts aren’t exclusive to MLS Cup contenders though. Six different clubs had double digits sellout games throughout the season: Sporting KC (17), Portland Timbers (16), Real Salt Lake (15), Seattle (14), San Jose (14) & Vancouver (11). Portland and San Jose are both out while Red Bull Arena never sold out and Eastern Conference Champions DC United only pushed RFK’s capacity twice. All in all the MLS fans caused 113 sell out games across fourteen different clubs.
There are certainly many things that MLS stakeholders can be happy about heading into the 2015 season. Only Six clubs showed negative growth in average attendance from 2013 and the biggest improvement can be found in the 180 that DC United pulled this season with the club and the nation’s capital fan base improving attendance by 25%. Four clubs actually maintained a 100%+ attendance average across the season. From the introduction of MLSNext to the Crew96 facelift, the league looks set to continue its growth both commercially and on matchdays.
In 2015 San Jose will finally leave tiny Buck Shaw Stadium behind and move to their first soccer-specific stadium. They will most likely provide a bump in MLS attendance next year as they sellout crowds much larger than the 10,525 they are used to. The additions of Orlando City SC and New York City FC will also likely help increase league attendance. Local support will be very strong for Orlando City SC as well, and both teams will likely travel well too. Fans in these markets have waited a long time for a club of their own, and MLS diehards will also want to come out to see the league’s shiny new teams face their local team. All of this plus consistency in the MLS schedule with matches televised every Friday and Sunday afternoon/evening on ESPN, Fox, and Univision could mean growth in 2015 attendance and consequently matchday revenue.
On the flip side of the coin, Chivas USA has been a black mark on the league for the past few years and a detriment to matchday revenue across the league, having shown the largest negative change in average attendance compared to 2013 at -16%. Without Chivas USA in play, the league’s season average increases to 19,820 for 2014. However, there are outliers on the opposite end of the spectrum, like Seattle, that boost the league’s average attendance far more than Chivas drags it down. Without Seattle, the 2014 average attendance would be 17,783. Without either team, the average is 18,431.
Finally, while there appears to be a slight attendance increase in MLS over the past several years, at some point the league will stop growing, in terms of number of teams, conference structures, etc. Other top leagues throughout Europe maintain a set format for clubs to compete, and their followers have certain expectations which remain the same from year to year. In short, the rules don’t change and supporters like the familiarity. Will MLS find continued growth and success in attendance when the league begins to find consistency? Or will matchday attendance decline as novelty wears off in an ever-changing league? Perhaps over the next several years as the league’s expansion plans become a little more clear and solidified, we’ll have our answer.
Until then, we still have MLS Cup to look forward to, and it starts today. Ten teams still have the opportunity for glory but after 11pm ET tonight that number drops to nine, and at 10pm ET tomorrow it will drop again to eight. For the teams in MLS Cup competition, the average attendance for the season is 21,615, with stadiums on average filled 88.9%. No doubt fans will be out in full force for their teams’ playoff runs, but as shown above, their dedication won’t just be a product of playoff participation. The energy and fervor has been there all season and across most of the league – an encouraging sign of growth.
Here are the final visualizations for the 2014 MLS regular season. First, the season average compared to the individual weekly averages.
Below is a visualization of the season average throughout the history of MLS since 1996.
Below is a chart for each team’s average attendance for the 2014 season as well as the change from the previous season.