MLS Stadium Locations & Attendance Comparison

Comparing distances of MLS stadiums from their urban cores with recent club attendance figures
by Mike Firpo   |   Friday, April 27, 2012

The nearly complete BBVA Compass Stadium will draw many fans in downtown Houston

This week I decided to compile some statistics on something that always seems to come up in MLS: the current attendance per club stats and the location of their stadiums in regards to those trends. This time we see how the distance per club and the classifications of those distances may (or may not) affect overall attendance.

I have to admit this is hardly scientific data here so thankfully I’m not getting graded by a professor. So please just take it for what it is, some mostly correct figures and data and a few basic assumptions from that. Hopefully it’s mildly entertaining.

KNOWN ISSUES:

- There are no perfectly defined urban core locations for North American cities, ie: Google says its lower Manhattan for New York City, but many might say that it should be Times Square, midtown or maybe Queens as the city center. In Los Angeles, a metropolis of many smaller cities, the downtown is a poor locale for a core but it will also have to suffice. In Salt Lake City the downtown is densely populated but RSL’s stadium location will be the future heart of overall sprawl. So, there is no perfect core to most MLS cities so I went ahead and used the generally most acceptable (see easiest) center – basically what Google Maps decided.

- Even using Google’s cores as city epicenters, things are a little askew because not all population is evenly distributed within that distance in all directions. Chicago and Toronto for instance, both have a lake to their immediate east, so a suburban location might not hinder fans access to the stadium as it may in Dallas in its northern suburbs.

- When looking at different cities it’s hard to compare them just on attendance as they vary in population, area and the number of rival sports present.

- Cities vary in density so the 5 miles that Crew Stadium is outside of Columbus’ urban core might be relatively much further than for Stade Saputo in Montreal at about the same distance but still very much in the urban core of its metro area.

- The Vancouver (old) data includes the first match at BC Place. San Jose’s numbers include matches in San Francisco. Montreal’s first match was at The Big O, not Stade Saputo as it's being renovated for use later in 2012.

So with all that here is the compilation:

MLS Stadium Distances & Attendances

CONCLUSIONS:

The first thing that pops out is that the current 4 “core” based stadiums have the highest average attendances. Some of that could be due to the markets, as the 3 with stats (Houston will be done soon) are all Pacific Northwest clubs and we know that soccer is enmeshed in the region. However, would Seattle draw nearly 40,000 fans per match if they were based in a non-downtown setting like at their training facilities at the Starfire Sports Complex in nearby Tukwilla or some other suburb outside the city? Doubtful. How much that would affect them we can only speculate, but it would to some degree. The popular marches to the stadium would die a sudden suburban death as even the most ambitious or intoxicated wouldn’t be hiking 12 miles to the south for pre-game festivities.

The three groupings of distances (Core, Near Core & Suburbs) produces an average attendance difference of 4-5000 per grouping. Meaning the further the MLS stadiums are from their downtowns, the fewer fans attend, generally. LA Galaxy at #3 in attendance in 2012 bucks the trend, but they are the league’s powerhouse club and they have Beckham, and his last vestiges of drawing power. Sporting KC at #6 also is an anomaly, but it’s safe to say much of their newfound popularity comes down to the fact that besides a positive rebranding, they have one of the best small stadiums in the world now and certainly the best soccer stadium in all of the Americas. That’s a big deal and certainly attracts fans out west.

The picturesque PPL Park and its usually passionate and packed stadium belies the fact that it’s the 3rd most distant stadium to its urban core. Surely that’s a testament to the strength of the soccer fanbase in Philadelphia and also makes you wonder: even without the beautiful riverfront stadium and bridge setting, if you dropped that SSS and all of Doopville in urban Philly would the Union get another 8-10,000 fans to show up and firmly position itself behind Seattle as MLS’ attendance runner-up? Quite possibly.

Though Salt Lake is 14 miles out of downtown, in the Wasatch Front that is not necessarily a negative as it is a very decentralized metro area. So 18k attendance for the smallest market in the league makes a little more sense when you factor that the new Sandy locale is preferred over a downtown based one, especially given future sprawl. In other words, they placed Rio Tinto Stadium right for today and perfect for the future.

Houston’s new downtown orange jewel of a stadium will have a 22k capacity and tickets will be highly sought after. With a very successful short MLS history, a loyal following and now a perfect venue for fans to show their passion in a great location – it is fair to assume they will average 19k at home in 2012, with more than a few sell-outs. After Portland, Houston might be the next MLS club who will need to expand capacity in the coming decade.

When you compare Houston to their Texan rivals with similar demographics, sprawl, huge youth soccer participation and love for the game it makes the neutral MLS fan wish that FC Dallas hadn’t opted for the youth soccer complex (Colorado being #2, and last) experiment back in 2005 and move itself so far away from its population core and historic fanbase. Yes, Frisco is a very fast growing suburb, but it is just too far away from the DFW metro area for most to attend reasonably.

Much praise has to be given to club president Doug Quinn who came to change FCD’s fortunes and has so far in 2012 raised attendance 17% from the previous year. Funny enough Dallas averaged 12,520 in the 1996-2002 seasons it played at the Cotton Bowl. Since moving to Frisco FC Dallas has averaged roughly 13,192, a modest gain for all the trouble of negotiating, financing and building a stadium. Of course there are many increased revenue streams that comes with owning/managing the venue and surrounding complex – the foremost being that finances are vastly improved over renting at the archaic Cotton Bowl. However, it might not be ludicrous to theorize that if The Hoops were in the urban core like Houston they’d also be about to average 20k fans per match as well. Who knows, maybe in the distant future the Hunt family will take a bold step and relocate FCD back to the Dallas-Fort Worth core again and emulate the off-field success of their ginger enemies to the south.

With the longest average driving time to a stadium from its downtown core, the cavernous Gillette Stadium might seriously be holding back a Northeastern powerhouse. Yes, not surprisingly New England is pulling up the rear of MLS attendance in 2012 and has been eroding for years but eventually the Kraft family will get a Soccer Specific Stadium in the Boston area. Don’t hold your breath in the meantime, but when it does happen there is a good chance that as Commissioner Don Garber has alluded to more than once, The Revs can potentially be the East Coast version of Seattle and match its fanbase for size and passion. They love them some soccer in Boston, unfortunately the Revolution don’t play there.

Dallas is tied to a long-term lease in Frisco so their options are slim. New England however is just lulled into cheap rent at a facility they manage, but that can be remedied much easier. For that matter New England and DC United can fix their attendance woes rather quickly if they steer clear of their giant NFL and antiquated (RFK) venues respectively. Columbus might also be able to do that as well if they get a chance in the next decade to move closer to downtown. That might add another 5k to their numbers and push their crowds and fanbase passed a tipping point. Columbus has many similarities to Salt Lake (small markets, not much pro competition and definitely college football towns) – there is a great chance that they can emulate and even surpass the Utah-based club if they move to their core eventually.

There are a fair amount of lessons that MLS has learned in its 16 year existence, some more important than others. The most significant takeway league HQ might have now is that it’s better to wait until you have the ideal stadium deal in a downtown or near urban core setting than just a financially sound deal with a far-flung suburb (Chicago) and even when its coupled with a mega youth soccer complex (Dallas/Colorado). Professional soccer fans, at this point in MLS’ evolution, are not yet ready to spend over 30 minutes going to distant stadiums. The lure is not there. The strength of the league is not yet there. Similar to why the league is not yet strong enough financially for relegation or to be played in winter months, the same goes for venue distance. Until MLS is a top 3 American sport or a top 5 soccer league worldwide complete with all-star laden clubs, their stadiums need to be based downtown, in the most central and convenient locations possible.

Garber and MLS’ owners seem to know this firmly now as they have taken the very ambitious and risky move of selling a part of Soccer United Marketing (SUM) in order to get cash to be able to help finance a centrally located New York City franchise. Such is the importance of the NYC club and the location of its stadium. They know if they get that stadium right the future success of the league is further solidified. It’s a gamble but they know the recipe for stadium success now with nearly two decades of data, trials, errors, other sports to compare, other soccer leagues to look at abroad and much more sophisticated stats than compiled above.

For me, it simply and generally helps to confirm what most of us already know. That although markets are very unique in North America, every MLS club can benefit relatively by having their stadiums nearest to the hearts of their cities and most passionate fans.

What about you, what do you think these stats say or don’t say? Let’s hear your thoughts below.

Mike FIRPO

Nationality:
USA
College:
Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, NYCFC & RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli & FC Barcelona
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.
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