After failing to eclipse the average attendance from its inaugural season in any of the subsequent 14 years, MLS is now poised to break that record for a second straight season. A little more than a third of the way through the 2012 campaign, an SB Nation Soccer study of attendance reveals that the average is up about 7 percent over this point a year ago.
Average attendance currently sits at 18,542 through 121 matches. A year ago, the average was 17,245 at through 116 matches.
What's especially encouraging from that perspective is that attendance tends to improve over the summer. In 2011, the average improved by about 600 by the end of the season from this point. A similar uptick would give MLS an average above 19,000, which would be considerably better than any of the second-tier leagues in Europe. That would put MLS on similar footing as Argentina's Primera Division (19,843), France's Ligue 1 (19,742), and Netherlands Eredivisie (19,538). Those three leagues enjoy much larger revenues, but it's at least a sign that people are paying attention.
While much of the improved average can be credited to the Montreal Impact pulling in an average crowd of 36,498 -- a number that will be much lower over their final 12 home matches as they move to 20,000-seat Saputo Stadium -- even stripping out their contribution still leaves MLS looking good. Without the Impact's five games, MLS is pulling an average crowd of about 17,768, still about 3 percent better than last year. It's also worth noting that while the Impact averaged more than 60,000 in their two best attended games, the Seattle Sounders are likely to draw at least two crowds of a similar size this season.
The attendance is not just because of a few teams getting off to strong starts, either. Eight of the 18 teams that played in MLS last year are currently at least 7 percent ahead of last year's pace. The biggest bump belongs to the Columbus Crew, whose modest average attendance of 13,219 is a 24 percent increase over the first six games at Crew Stadium last year. Unsurprisingly, the Houston Dynamo are up about 21 percent from last year as the first three games at BBVA Compass Stadium have all been announced as sellouts.
It's not all good news
On the other side of the coin, six teams have seen declines of at least 6 percent. The most notable decline belongs to the New York Red Bulls, who are down about 12 percent from last year's pace to 15,823. That's nearly 24 percent off last year's final numbers, would be by far their worst attendance average since moving into Red Bull Arena in 2010 and would be their fourth lowest attendance figure during their 17-year history. All this despite getting off to one of their best starts in franchise history.
One possible explanation for the Red Bulls' decline is that their last two games have been midweek affairs, both drawing fewer than 14,000. Just one of their first six home games in 2011 was played midweek.
The compressed schedule has actually forced a slight uptick in midweek games league-wide. There have been 18 games played between Monday-Thursday this year, four more than were played at this point in 2011.
The two biggest average declines belong to D.C. United (17.6 percent) and Chivas USA (16.8 percent), both of whom are either openly looking or at least rumored to be looking for new homes. Their declines can at least partially be chalked up to drastically reducing their capacity this year. At this time a year ago, each team had played in front of two crowds bigger than their current capacities. United may also be hurt by having played two home games midweek, after playing just one at this point a year ago.
United and Chivas were just 2 of 8 MLS teams to reduce capacity this year, although only the Dynamo reduced theirs by a similar amount. The only two teams that significantly raised their capacities this year are the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders. Still, overall stadium capacity in MLS has essentially remained constant, as long as we count the Impact as playing at 66,000-seat Olympic Stadium. From here on out, though, average capacity is down about 2,000 seats from a year ago to 21,009.
Based on current capacity, the percentage of seats sold is roughly the same as it was last year, 79 percent. Most teams fall either well above or below that mark, though, with nine currently selling more than 90 percent of available seats and six at 70 percent or below.
In another sign of health, the strong attendance numbers are not limited to the six post-Toronto FC expansion teams, which are all among the league leaders. Stripping out those teams leaves us with an average of 15,678. That would already be better than all but one year between 1997-2006.
Among those 13 teams, there are certainly some legitimate success stories. The LA Galaxy remain among the league leaders in average attendance, ranking third with an average crowd of more than 22,000; the Dynamo have sold out all three of their games at their new home; Real Salt Lake is filling about 91 percent of their seats; and Sporting Kansas City is actually well ahead of their record-setting pace of a year ago (using the end-of-year numbers, as they had yet to play a home game at this point last year).
Like the Crew, who set their bar pretty low, the Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes are also enjoying nice upticks. The Rapids, at 15,194, are about 10 percent ahead of last year's pace. That would be their best attendance since 2005, the year Dick's Sporting Goods Park opened, and their fifth best year in their 17-year history. The Earthquakes' average crowd currently sits at 11,688, which is 16 percent ahead of last year's pace. Although they play at 10,525-seat Buck Shaw Stadium, they'll pull at least one more big-crowd game this year when they'll play the LA Galaxy at 50,000-seat Stanford Stadium for a fireworks night.
What this means
There's no reason to pretend otherwise, the overall attendance picture is very good. Assuming the trend holds, this will mark the first time in league history that average attendance has gone up for the third straight year. From the low point of 2000, when the league averaged fewer than 14,000 fans, 26 percent more people buy tickets to each game.
At the current pace, MLS will draw more than 6 million people to its stadiums this year. Even allowing for a tapering off, the league is still poised to boost its total attendance numbers for an eighth straight year.