We all know that MLS is expanding to a 19th member next year and that they are actively looking for a 20th member but is MLS still viable in its 16th year of existence? As a side note the NASL lasted 17 years and next year the Mayan Calendar ends so it looks like MLS will also only last 17 years. The easiest way to tell if the MLS is healthy is to look at finances but since MLS is not a public entity there is not really any way to get that information, so that leaves us with looking at attendance. Since attendance shows the how much "demand" for the product there is you can at least get a general idea about how well the league is doing.
First and foremost the most successful season for MLS was the first season in 1996 as the average attendance was 17,458 per game. Every year since then has been less with the next highest being last year at 16,532. However despite the high league average the first year had 22% of their games have less then 10,000 for attendance. This year that number has dwindled to 5.7% of the games (and we haven't had one since July, almost 100 games ago). Even better this year the 1996 average will finally be topped with the current average sitting at 17,575.
More after the jump
Those numbers are all great for MLS as they show that there has been a steady growth and not the sharp decline that many have predicted. However if you watch MLS games regularly you may notice that some stadiums don't seem to match the attendance figures announced. Not only does this happen in MLS but lots of other leagues as well. Usually a team will count all tickets sold and given away despite the fact that a lot of those ticket holders fail to show up to the game. Turnstile attendance figures are usually lower and sometimes significantly lower. For a good article about this practice click here.
With all these figures you can easily say MLS is healthy and that MLS is not going the way of the NASL. Now there is something really interesting if you compare the current king of sports leagues in this country, the NFL, to how the MLS is growing. The NFL really started in 1932 and has only grown from there. Most of you may or may not know in the 1930's the top spectator sports were Boxing and Baseball and the NFL was just like the MLS in the fact that they used Baseball stadiums as their stadiums and were renting or had owners who owned the baseball team and the NFL team was just a hobby. Just like MLS the NFL learned that using a stadium not designed specifically for your sport makes it difficult to have a great fan experience.
The NFL's average attendance in it's first year was 11,063 but if you read Craig Coenen's book "From Sandlots to the Super Bowl, The National Football League from 1920 - 1967" you will see that the actual turnstile attendance was 6,997. Just like the MLS in their early years the NFL ended up giving away a lot tickets. However every year from that year on the average attendance increased until in 1945 the attendance was 28,482 with turnstile attendance 25,408. The NFL hovered around that average for the next 15 years with slight increases every year.
What does the attendance in the NFL have to do with the MLS? Well the NFL's attendance slowly gained over the first 15 years as more and more people came to the game. However the jumps in attendance really took 15 years as a new generation came to love the game and as more teams moved away from rented stadiums to stadiums they own. Granted the NFL has a 60 year head start but if the MLS continues the growth and adds those generations of fans MLS will be doing amazing.
In other words the MLS is healthy and they are really doing well. Now if they can just the New England some new owners.
Some interesting information I found, Portland was the 5th fastest team to 250k road attendance,meaning people like to come out and see the Timbers play on the road.