Stadium Analysis: Understanding the Universe of US Soccer Venues in the Modern Era

One of the great and universally beloved aspects of the Beautiful Game is its heritage of legendary grounds and storied international stadiums—Wembley Stadium in England, the Maracanã in Brazil,  Estadio Azteca in Mexico,  La Bombonera and Estadio Monumental (both Argentina).  Even the supposed “lesser lights” of global soccer, such as Scotland (Hampden Park) and Turkey (Atatürk Stadium) play home to some of the most imposing and iconic stadiums in the game.

But in the early 1990s, as the United States prepared for the 1994 FIFA World Cup and the subsequent launch of Major League Soccer, the landscape of scheduled host venues more closely resembled a list of “who’s who” of New Year’s Day Bowl Games and Super Bowl venues than anything else.

In these early years of the modern era of US Soccer, a neutral spectator could be forgiven for thinking that American soccer had been gifted an old box of hand-me-down suits by its more established stepbrothers in the US sporting community.  Oversized, ill-fitting, and often finished with bizarre prints such as yard lines, end-zone paint, and occasional infields/basepaths, there was always considerable doubt as to whether the newest sibling of American sports would ever really “grow into” its inherited clothes.

Indeed, there may be no more “uniquely American” aspect to US soccer culture than the enormous and diverse selection of stadiums that fans of club and country have called “home” during the sport’s relatively brief modern history.   Even the Rose Bowl – host of both a Men’s and Women’s World Cup Finals – remains best known as a college football stadium rather than an iconic international soccer venue. And until quite recently, few if any of the stadiums used for international or first-division club matches had been built with soccer in mind.

Nonetheless, the abundance of existing, ready-to-wear sports stadiums located throughout the US played a critical, if not irreplaceable role in the emergence of soccer in the US.  The 1994 World Cup remains the best-attended in the event’s 84-year history, thanks in large part to the high-capacity football-style and multi-purpose stadiums utilized as host venues.

Moreover, the availability of in-service American football stadiums provided a much-needed foundation for Major League Soccer in its formative years.  For a league that lost an estimated $250 million in its first five years of operation, the cost of constructing a new fleet of soccer-ready stadiums might well have proved prohibitive.  The “angel investors” who absorbed the bulk of these losses – notably Lamar Hunt and Philip Anschutz – were subsequently the first two team-owners to invest in “soccer specific” stadiums, with the 1999 opening of Hunt’s Columbus Crew Stadium and the 2003 opening of Anschutz’s Home Depot (now StubHub) Center to support the LA Galaxy.

Hunt and Anschutz realized that the prudent development, utilization, and expansion of the country’s prolific stadium infrastructure would play a critical strategic role in facilitating the establishment of a mainstream soccer culture in the US.  And with another wave of new soccer-specific stadiums scheduled to come online within the next five years, Business of Soccer decided to have a closer look at the historical development in American stadium infrastructure that have accompanied the remarkable growth of the domestic game.

Overview of Analysis

So what does the “universe” of US Soccer stadiums look like?  Business of Soccer evaluated the pool of stadiums that have hosted at least one of the following since 1990:

  • US Senior International Matches: US Men’s World Cup Qualifiers or Int’l Friendlies
  • International Tournament Matches: World Cup (1994) and CONCACAF Gold Cup (1991-Present)
  • First Division Domestic Club Matches: Major League Soccer Regular Season or Playoff Games

Exhibit 0

It should be noted that the “actual” universe of soccer venues in the US is considerably larger.  Not included in the ensuing analysis (due primarily to data availability/consistency) are college soccer stadiums, USL and NASL stadiums, venues used for US-hosted international and club matches not involving the US itself, and women’s international and club venues.

Below are additional key drivers, trends and observations from this data:

US Soccer has been consciously “spreading the love” in selecting host cities

Since the dawn of its modern era in 1990 US Soccer has used a staggering 72 different stadiums to stage its international friendlies and/or World Cup Qualifiers.  Among this total, 44 stadiums have been used on multiple occasions.

As shown in Exhibit 1 below, this total exceeds that of most all of its international peers by a considerable margin, many of whom prefer to host  a vast majority of international matches in a “national stadium” (such as England’s aforementioned Wembley Stadium or Mexico’s Estadio Azteca).

Exhibit 1

Though US Soccer does not formally disclose specific details of its venue selection process for international matches, this extremely broad and diverse distribution likely reflects a functional response to the unique challenges that have confronted US Soccer during its protracted growth phase, including:

  • Ensuring Home Field Advantage for Competitive Matches: There is an uncommon consideration that US soccer must manage when selecting venues for high-value competitive matches, such as World Cup Qualifiers. In many of the major regional soccer hotbeds, such as Southern California, Texas, and Florida, US fans occasionally find themselves in a surprising minority when facing nations with significant immigrant populations (most notably Mexico).  As a result, the US has recently preferred to move and rotate its home venues based on its specific opposition, preferring mid-sized, northererly and centernally-located cities like Columbus, Kansas City, Denver, and Salt Lake City (as illustrated in figure 2 below), in order to foster a more compelling “home field advantage”, even though these venues are not necessarily revenue-optimizing.
  • Maximizing Americans’ Exposure to International Soccer: The US has a far larger geographical footprint than most of its international rivals, as well as a far shorter and less entrenched history as a “soccer country”. As US Soccer seeks to cultivate and accelerate the growth of the domestic game, administrators realize that connecting fans – and potential fans – with the national team in a direct sense is an imperative task.  Casual fans of a not-yet-established sport are unlikely to fly several thousand miles in order to watch a team and/or sport that they typically only notice once every four years. In this sense, designating a national stadium does not make sense for American soccer – not when it is possible to deliver the primary “product” directly to the customer base.
  • Adapting to Ongoing Growth There has also been considerable turnover amongst venues over the past two decades, reflecting the increasingly popularity of US matches as spectator events, as well as the proliferation of more modern, soccer specific stadium.  This has naturally led to the “phasing out” of a number of older and non-optimal stadiums used during the embryonic phase of the modern era.   Some venues, such as Fullerton’s Titan Stadium and Mission Viejo’s Trabuco Hills High School (indeed, this happened… twice) have been retired simply due to obvious size constraints.

Exhibit 2 below shows the historical distribution of international friendlies and World Cup Qualifiers amongst venues hosting a minimum of two matches:

Exhibit 2a v1

Exhibit 2b v1

MLS has been Driving a Stadium Revolution During the Past 15 Years

When MLS launched in 1996, it featured 10 teams playing in stadiums with an average age of 50+years.  Average attendance of 17,400 per game, while reasonably encouraging, represented approximately a mere 25% of the stadiums’ cavernous average capacity of 69,500.  After five years of operation (which included the  addition of 2 new neams in Miami and Chicago), average attendance had dropped to a troubling 13,750, barely more than 20% of the available capacity per game.  Two teams – Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny- folded after the following season, and many felt the league’s days were numbered.

But the league’s strategy – and fortunes – began to change during this time, as did the complexion of the league’s host stadiums.  Suddenly, crowd interest began returning, and the interest proved no fluke – attendance data has been steadily improving over past 15 years.  The most recently completed season in 2014 saw 18 teams (15 US teams) playing in stadiums with an average age of less than 20 years.

As previously detailed by Business of Soccer, average attendance has bounced back to 19,100 per game representing over 62% of the stadiums’ full average capacity, and close to 86% when considering “soccer-adjusted” capacities (a number of stadiums artificially reduce available capacity / ticketing for certain games to reduce operating costs and/or fulfill stadium-specific contractual limitations).

A significant driver of this dramatic change has been the conscious and strategic introduction of a fleet of modern new soccer-specific stadiums to host the league’s teams, beginning with the opening of the 20,000 seat Crew Stadium in Columbus in 1999. Other teams soon began following suit, and the response from fans has been strongly positive.   In total, MLS now has 11 US-based soccer-specific stadiums, constructed over the past 15 years at an aggregate cost of $1.4 billion (2015-adjusted dollars), or a little less than $130 million per stadium.   While this is no small investment for a league of MLS’s size, the fact remains that soccer-specific stadiums are relatively cost effective; by comparison, a single new NFL stadium has an estimated all-in cost of higher than $1 billion.  At least six new soccer-specific stadiums are expected to come online for MLS in the next 5 years, as the league expands to an announced 24 teams.

So what are the advantages offered by these stadiums?  These new “English-style” stadiums tend to be smaller (typically 20,000-30,000 seats) with seats situated more “vertically” in stands, offering a more intimate atmostphere as well as a closer view of the action.  Soccer-specific venues offer the league and its franchises the opportunity to capture higher capacity factors for potentially less-popular games, which improves operating cost efficiencies while also providing a better and more exciting in-stadium experience.  The matches also  “project well” via television compared to half-filled games in cavernous NFL stadiums, enhancing the league’s TV brand presentation and perception.  Only small handful of teams still play in “first generation” stadiums, and most all have advanced plans to construct new soccer-specific stadiums within the coming years (the NE Revolution are perhaps the only true “holdout”, though they have blamed siting challenges rather than a long-term desire to stay put in Gillette Stadium.)

Exhibit 3 below examines the universe of MLS venues used since the leagues inception, as well as the location of planned and announced venues:

Exhibit 3a v1

Exhibit 3b v1

US- Hosted International Tournaments Have Created Additional Demand for Stadium Infrastructure

While the 1994 World Cup remains by far the largest and most significant international tournament the US has hosted, it is not the only such tournament, nor is it the first.  The Gold Cup, CONCACAF’s regional championship, has been hosted (or co-hosted) by the US every two years since 1991 and now enjoys aggregate attendances in excess of 1 million.  As previously detailed by Business of Soccer, the Gold Cup has itself undergone significant transformations in its selection of host venues, using 33 total venues during the event’s 22 year history.  The tournament’s popularity has grown rapidly during this period, as has the sophistication of the strategies involved in selecting host cities/venues.

Unlike US Friendlies and World Cup Qualifiers, these international tournaments must be organized in concert with other governing bodies (CONCACAF and FIFA) to optimize attendance for games featuring multiple teams, not just those involviing the US.  Ensuring strong attendance and capacities for US-Mexico games is easy enough, but organizers must also optimize attendance for group-stage games featuring Canada-Jamaica or El Salvador-Guadeloupe.  In response to this challenge, organizers have taken a cue from MLS and begun using an increasing number of smaller and soccer-specific stadiums.  Of the 13 cities announced (12 in the US) as hosts for this summer’s 2015 Gold Cup, six will use soccer-specific stadiums.

Exhibit 4 below shows the stadiums that have been used as hosts for either the World Cup ’94 or the Gold Cup (1991-2013):

Exhibit 4a v1

Exhibit 4b v1

 

Another key test of the nation’s stadium infrastructure is expected in 2016, when the US plays host to the highly-anticipated Copa America Centenario (co-organized with CONMEBOL, the South American confederadion), which many expect to be the most significant and well-attended soccer event in North America since the 1994 World Cup.  In total, 26 cities have been short-listed as potential hosts. However, due to the anticipated popularity of the tournament, organizers have stipulated that all venues must have a minimum capacity of 50,000, effectively eliminating any of the country’s current  soccer-specific stadiums from consideration.  Ironically, it would appear that US Soccer will once again find itself relying primarily on a core group of American football stadiums to help stage a major international tournament.

Times have changed since World Cup ‘94, however, and a number of the American football stadiums utilized in the early 1990’s have become “seasoned veterans” of the American soccer landscape, having hosted dozens if not hundreds of first-class international and club matches over the past two decades.  Recently-constructed American football venues have become increasingly soccer-friendly, with perhaps no better example than Seattle’s CenturyLink Field (home of the highest average attendances in MLS—a jaw-dropping 44,000+ per game).  Longtime MLS and US Soccer stalwarts such as Giants Stadium, Foxboro Stadium, Soldier Field, Mile High Stadium, Texas Stadium, and the Rose Bowl have either been replaced by nearby state-of-the-art stadiums, or undergone significant renovations/overhauls that will make them even more appealing to the emerging domestic soccer audience, as well as foreign visitors expecting a best-in-class tournament experience.

Going Forward: New Stadiums and the Next Phase

America may not ever have a Wembley Stadium or Estadio Azteca.  And history suggests that it may not need one.

As shown previously in Exhibit 2, at least six new soccer-specific stadiums will be joining the US soccer landscape in the coming years, starting with Avaya Stadium, the recently completed new home of the San Jose Earthquakes scheduled to come online when the MLS season begins next month.  A seventh stadium – to be shared between the commonly-owned NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and the recently announced expansion Atlanta MLS franchise – is scheduled to be completed in 2017 and includes plans for a soccer-specific configuration.  Additional plans and stadium renderings – such as those released by Minnesota’s expansion MLS groups recently – suggest that future “planned partnerships” desgined to maximize the in-game experience for both football and soccer fans, may be on the way.

There are also existing non-core venues that are attempting to increase their presence within the soccer landscape.  New York’s Yankee Stadium has hosted a number of international friendlies amongst both countries and clubs, and will be hosting new MLS side NYCFC over the coming three seasons as the team seeks to site and construct its permanent home.  This past summer, Michigan’s Ann Arbor Stadium (aka the “Big House”) hosted a friendly between Manchester United and Real Madrid that drew 109,000 fans, the largest crowd ever to witness a soccer game in the US.  With dozens of stadiums in the US who have the size and capability to host first-class soccer, the universe of stadiums used may continue to grow in the coming years.

The emergence of additional and and newly-constructed stadiums may also mean the “end of the road” for a number of US Soccer’s most well-worn venues.  Washington DC’s RFK Stadium, which has played host to more MLS and US National Team matches than any other stadium, is almost certain to be retired once DC United’s recently approved new Stadium at Buzzard Point comes online in 2017.  Other early stalwarts of US Soccer, such as Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, Dallas’s Cotton Bowl and San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, face an uncertain future over the next decade– though there is no explicit plan to see these venues phased out.

One additional consideration that may affect the stadium landscape in the coming years involves the playing surfaces themselves.  A recent “hot topic” in international soccer has involved the use of FieldTurf and other advanced artificial playing surfaces for elite-level matches.  Artificial playing surfaces have long been a part of US Sports, including soccer.  Although purists have expressed a number of credible complaints related to long-term health concerns as well as the movement of the ball, artificial surfaces offer a multitude of financial and operational advantages — they are cheaper to install/maintain, more durable, can be used in all seasons and can accommodate multiple sports.  For teams like Seattle and New England, who share ground with NFL teams, artificial surfaces are effectively a “must, given the wear-and-tear NFL teams put on a grass playing surface when they are in season.  Going forward, FieldTurf and similar products may also drastically reduce the costs of water in regions like the Southwest, where drought is creating long-term water shortages.  It remains to be seen how this will influence the future construction of soccer stadiums in this country, but the implementation of more advanced artificial-turf fields has received the explicit backing of FIFA, and it appears neither US nor MLS will be pushing a grass-only agenda in the coming years.

Ultimately, there are many questions that are awaiting resolution. Over the next year, American teams and players will play first-class games in stadiums ranging from 20,000 to 100,000+ in size.  They will play on turf and natural grass.  They will play in outdoor bowls, domes, retractable-roof stadiums in regions ranging from Seattle to Miami, and Los Angeles to New York.  This is American soccer, and it continues to grow and evolve based on its inherent diversity and abundant resources.

 

What do you think about the US soccer stadium landscape and how it has evolved? Let us know in the comments section below, or via Facebook or Twitter.

 

 

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.