As we approach the midpoint of the 2018 professional soccer season, it’s a good point to analyze some of the numbers posted by MLS, NWSL and USL teams. If you subscribe to our weekly newsletter, you know we provide a weekly hot take on the numbers; here we’ll look at trends in each league.
To date MLS is down some 4 percent from 2017. If you break down the numbers by team, however, the news is generally good for the circuit heading into the second half of 2018. The dip in the numbers can generally be traced to three factors:
- D.C. United still has yet to play a home match in Audi Field, which opens later this month. The team has been a nonfactor on the league’s bottom line, playing two poorly attended “home” games while waiting for the new stadium to be completed. That missed D.C. United attendance — either at RFK Stadium or Audi Field — is a big chunk of the 4 percent deficit.
- With an attempt to move the Crew from Columbus to Austin, attendance at MAPFRE Stadium has suffered. Wiping out the 29 percent drop with numbers from 2017 would also make a dent in that 4 percent deficit.
- Bad weather has played a role in overall 2018 MLS attendance, but nowhere was it more pronounced on the bottom line than at Gillette Stadium, where New England Revolution numbers are down by 22 percent. Those numbers will be boosted the remainder of the summer.
If we extrapolate some normalcy to those three situations, MLS attendance would be down 1 percent — a perfectly acceptable outcome in a season where bad weather depressed the league numbers for weeks.
By shedding poor performers and adding a solid draw in Utah, the NWSL has seen attendance rise by some 15 percent year over year. It’s true that 2017 was a miserable year on the NWSL attendance front, so the comparison may not be all that great, but the fact is NWSL numbers are pretty solid and will serve as a solid base for 2019 and beyond.
The biggest business development in American pro soccer this year has been the big numbers put up by USL teams, as new teams playing out of Minor League Baseball ballparks and an NFL stadium have dramatically boosted the numbers. Whether these huge numbers are a blip or a long-term trend remains to be seen, as they’re clearly not sustainable. FC Cincinnati makes up some 15 percent of total USL attendance, and those numbers are going away in 2019, when the team jumps to MLS. Nashville SC, averaging 10,000 or so fans a game, will eventually disappear after a move to MLS.
Take away those two teams, and USL numbers aren’t quite as shiny. USL does distinguish between the independently owned teams (like Las Vegas and Sacramento) versus the MLS-owned teams that don’t put a premium on attendance, but even those numbers are mixed. League officials say playing out of MiLB ballparks is a transitional move before a shift to soccer-specific stadiums, but not every ballpark-centered team will make that move. Because of the volatility on the USL front, let’s sum up 2018 this way: USL has been a beast, and comparisons in the future may not be valid because of volatility in the league lineup.
Image courtesy Toronto FC II.