Attendance Shows Good And Bad News For NASL, USL

Both leagues have success stories and clubs they should be concerned about
by Ray Marcham   |   Friday, October 09, 2015

US Soccer Federation (USSF)

Tracking attendance on the lower levels of North American professional soccer is always a tricky task, but this year has shown some interesting numbers.

A USL team has a bigger average than any NASL club. Most of the in-house MLS teams in the USL don’t draw well. The “glamour” teams of the NASL don’t draw well, while the two Midwest teams in the league draw the biggest crowds. New clubs did very well in both the USL and NASL, mostly. A few clubs had one big crowd that skews their averages significantly.

That USL team that outdrew every NASL side is, not surprisingly, Sacramento. They averaged 11,323 per game, over 4,500 per game more than the next club on the USL attendance ladder, newcomers Louisville City. They also drew over 1,400 more per game than the current NASL attendance leader, Indy Eleven. With the season not over yet, the Indianapolis club will likely join Sacramento as the only clubs in the NASL or USL to average over 10,000 per game.

A look at the current NASL attendance figures (as of October 6) is an interesting read. Just three sides average over 8,000 per game; Indy Eleven, Minnesota United and Jacksonville Armada. While the numbers for Indy and MUFC show clubs that fill their stadiums (or come close to it) on a steady basis, Jacksonville is a bit misleading. If one takes away the opening night crowd of 16,164 (a record crowd for the current NASL), then the average attendance drops from 8,121 per game to 7,390, still good enough for third in the league. As a league, the average is 5,922, but only Indy, Minnesota, Jacksonville and San Antonio have averages above that.

But the NASL side that has their average attendance most affected by a single crowd is the team the league tries to push the most: the New York Cosmos. The current average home attendance for the Cosmos in NASL matches (not including the US Open Cup home match against MLS’ New York City FC) is 5,020, which is seventh best in the 11-team league. Take away the crowd of 12,550 that showed up at Stuart Stadium for the Cosmos’ home opener against Tampa Bay, and that attendance average (for New York’s other 13 home matches) drops to 4,441 per game. That’s only better than Atlanta (4,190 per match) and Edmonton (2,900 per match).

The other “glamour” side in the NASL, Fort Lauderdale, isn’t doing well, either. The Strikers are eighth in NASL attendance, just behind the Cosmos, with a 4,802 per match average. Again, that’s skewed by a home-opener crowd, as they drew 11,691 (a record for this version of the Strikers) for the Cosmos on April 4. For the 11 matches after the home opener, Fort Lauderdale is averaging just 4,175 a game, and only Edmonton draws worse. We also have the great unknown of Miami FC going into the NASL next season, and whether that will affect crowds for the Strikers. Still, those numbers are not good for a club that promotes itself as “world-renowned”.

In comparison, the MLS club with the lowest average attendance is Colorado, with a 15,546 per match average. Ten of MLS’ 20 clubs average more than 20,000 per game, led by Seattle’s 43,547.

The USL also has clubs with crowd numbers that aren’t quite what they seem. Real Salt Lake’s in-house USL team, Real Monarchs, had the biggest crowd of the USL season when they drew 13,979 for a match against Seattle Sounders 2. With that match, the Monarchs averaged 4,698 (6th in the USL), but only averaged 3,983 for the other 13 league games.

Real Monarchs, along with Portland Timbers 2 and Seattle, were the exceptions to the rule when it comes to attendance for “MLS2” sides. The three were the only ones to average over 2,000 per game, while four MLS2 teams (LA Galaxy II, Red Bulls II, Toronto FC II and FC Montréal) averaged fewer than 1,000 people a match, with Montréal being the worst drawing team in the USL at 313 per match. The one independent club with attendance down with the MLS2 sides is Orange County Blues, with only a 1,398-per-match average.

But one bit of good news for the USL is the success of their expansion “independent” teams, the ones not an in-house MLS2 side (though many have affiliations with MLS teams). Louisville City averaged 6,765 per match, second to Sacramento. St. Louis was fourth in attendance with a 4,885 average, while Tulsa was fifth. Of the second-year USL clubs, besides Sacramento, Oklahoma City was seventh in attendance. The USL’s most reliable club, Rochester Rhinos, is the third-best drawing team in the league at 5,570 per game. As a league, the USL averaged 3,369 per match, with nine of the 24 teams being above that.

The success of Louisville City and St. Louis may be a good omen for next year’s USL Midwest expansion club, Cincinnati. In both the NASL and USL, clubs in the Midwest have shown strong support. This was a particular worry in St. Louis, which had a disastrous experience with AC St. Louis back in 2010. St. Louis FC’s average crowd in 2015 is more than 2,000 more than what AC St. Louis drew, a very encouraging sign for the club’s long-term stability.

With both the NASL and USL expanding in 2016, seeing how the new teams draw will be an item to watch. In the NASL, Miami FC is a mystery, and it still hasn’t got a stadium to play in. Puerto Rico FC does have a stadium to play in, Estadio Juan Ramón Loubriel in Bayamón. But the former NASL team in Bayamón, the Puerto Rico Islanders, only averaged 1,864 a match in their last season, 2012. While PRFC likely will exceed that number, how they draw will be watched closely. But both clubs will have work to do if they want to get close to the success Jacksonville has had in 2015.

Besides Cincinnati, the USL will have new affiliated clubs in Edinburg, Texas (Houston Dynamo) and Bethlehem, Penn. (Philadelphia Union). Orlando City and Sporting Kansas City will also have in-house MLS2 clubs, with OCSC ending its affiliation with Louisville City. With the loss of Austin Aztex for 2016, that brings the number of USL sides next season to 28. More will likely be made of the how three affiliated clubs will draw, especially non-affiliated Cincinnati. The bar has been set high by Sacramento, Louisville and St. Louis, and the affiliated teams will be compared to the previous newcomers.

Tracking attendance is tricky, but the numbers tell a story that’s both good and bad. Midwest and western clubs seem to have the most success, with the NASL’s most visible clubs (Cosmos, Strikers) struggling to draw after big opening nights. Most MLS2 teams in the USL are not bringing in crowds, and more are coming. And with both the USL and NASL eyeing bigger stages, they both have a lot of work to do to ensure enough fans show up to prove their product is worthy of those stages.

And the story continues.


Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.