Big Crowds, Big Temptations for MLS

Mercedes-Benz Stadium soccer

With Atlanta United attracting 73,019 fans to this weekend’s MLS Cup game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the team’s success in attracting fans may force league officials to rethink its commitment to smaller stadiums and in some cases seek out larger facilities.

Atlanta United set records both for MLS single-game attendance (a record the team already broke twice in 2018) and MLS Cup attendance, shattering the mark set in 2002, when 61,316 fans were on hand at Gillette Stadium to see LA Galaxy defeat the New England Revolution. Atlanta United has drawn the seven largest crowds in MLS history.

Setting league attendance records three times in a single season is a pretty major accomplishment. Atlanta United did it by marketing to a pretty specific audience: millennials who are putting down roots in central Atlanta and have corporate jobs with the disposable income to attend MLS matches. They’re not tied to their cars, using mass transit and ride sharing to get to the games, negating the need for large expanses of parking lots surrounding a stadium. Add to that the traditional soccer families who have always been a backbone of MLS support, and even in a sports- and football-crazy market like Atlanta, MLS has exceeded all expectations.

Is this a formula that can be replicated elsewhere? Maybe not to the tune of 70,000 fans a game. And even MLS Commissioner Don Garber says putting teams in larger stadiums is something to look at. Atlanta and Seattle led MLS in 2018 attendance, and in both cases the MLS shares a facility with an NFL team. They do differ operationally: Arthur Blank owns both the NFL and MLS teams, while the Seattle Sounders are a tenant at CenturyLink Field. In Boston, New England Revolution shares Gillette Stadium with the New England Patriots. While the location works for football, it doesn’t work for MLS and the target MLS demographic. As a result, the Kraft family continues to work on a new-stadium solution closer to the Boston fan base. Still, the potential of those big crowds certainly has the league’s attendance, as Garber said in his MLS Cup comments:

“Every now and then, you have something that shocks you,” Garber said. “What happened in Seattle (which entered the league in 2009) was the first example of that. What happened here in Atlanta continues to astound me. We’re more open to thinking about it. We have two examples of success with large stadiums. But the model is still focused on smaller stadiums.”

This may be the last MLS Cup played in December, by the way. The league is looking at overhauling its playoff system, which could lead to playoffs ending in November.

Image courtesy Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

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August Publications