It was another banner year for MLS in terms of attendance. Following up on last year's record-breaking average, the league set another high-water mark by besting last year by nearly 1,000 per game. In fact, with an average attendance of 18,807, MLS ranks seventh in the world by that metric.
At the same time, the league passed 6 million in total attendance for the first time. That's 500,000 more than it was a year ago and more than twice as many people as the league drew in its inaugural season of 1996 (2.7 million).
The attendance star was once again the Seattle Sounders, who crushed their own record for a third straight year by averaging 43,144 fans. They outdrew every other team in the league by more than 330,000 in total attendance, and even set a North American soccer record by drawing 733,441 fans (besting the New York Cosmos, who drew 717,840 in 1978). Each year attendance has gone up by at least 6 percent, with expanded seating leading to a 10.7 percent bump this year.
Obviously, attendance is just one metric that defines a league's popularity. As we all know, the TV ratings are still pretty dismal and revenues are not anywhere near where some of the other leagues in the world are. Still, it's a positive sign of growth.
While the attendance bump was helped by the fact that there were six games played this year in front of crowds of at least 50,000, the median attendance of more than 18,300 suggests a very real improvement in terms of the everyday atmosphere.
What makes it even more encouraging is those increases are spread pretty well throughout the league. Only seven of the 18 teams that were in the league a year ago saw a decrease from last year and just four of them saw attendance fall by more than 5 percent.
For my money, those four teams are the only ones that are cause for concern. That Chivas USA (13.6 percent decline) and Toronto FC (11.6 percent) are the two biggest losers, is hardly a surprise. Each of them suffered through horrendous seasons and their fans clearly noticed. TFC has responded by slashing season ticket prices back to 2007 levels, while Chivas USA appears dead set on once again redefining whatever it is that they consider their brand.
United enjoyed a real renaissance year, making the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and claiming as many points as in any of their previous 16 seasons. The good news is that the problem seems obvious: RFK Stadium. With new owners saying all the right things about building a new stadium, hopefully that's something that will be fixed sooner than later.
The Red Bulls are not quite as easy to explain. Despite playing in the soccer palace that is Red Bull Arena and featuring an attacking-brand of soccer that saw them score the third most goals in the league, they saw attendance dip to 18,281. That's the lowest of the three years they've been in Red Bull Arena. The firing of team president Chris Heck is a step in the right direction.
There were far more success stories. More than half of the league (10 teams) saw attendance go up at least 5 percent and five of them saw bumps of at least 10 percent. The Sounders, Timbers, Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake also set team records for attendance.
It should probably come as little surprise that the Houston Dynamo saw the biggest increase, as they were the only team to open a brand-new stadium this year. They saw an increase of 15.8 percent as they were became one of a record five MLS teams to average at least 20,000 fans per game (21,015).
Perhaps more encouraging were the bumps in Chicago (13 percent), San Jose (10.8) and Columbus (10.7 percent), as clever marketing and quality of play were more responsible and more easily repeated. In the case of the Crew, it doesn't even seem particularly tied to their team's performance, as they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
The Fire and Earthquakes fans seem to have been in response to both clubs having their best seasons in quite some time. The Fire ended a two-year playoff drought, while the Earthquakes won the Supporters' Shield. Most of the Earthquakes' increase was due to their drawing 50,000 for a game at Stanford Stadium. But even ignoring that game, they basically played to capacity crowds in 11 of their 15 matches at tiny Buck Shaw Stadium. That gives them some great momentum as they prepare to open their new soccer-specific stadium for the 2014 season.
Also encouraging were the increases in Kansas City (8.2 percent) and Dallas (9.4). Sporting's bump came a year after they opened their new stadium and they played to standing-room only crowds on a regular basis. FC Dallas still hasn't quite gotten back to where they were during the first couple years of their stadium opening, but this was the third straight year that attendance has gone up and it's not at a perfectly respectable 14,199 per game.
It's a little harder to know what to make out of the Montreal Impact's numbers. Their average of 22,772 meant that Canadians kept up their five-year streak of having at least one team average more than 20,000 fans per game, but it also came in rather roller-coaster fashion.
The Impact drew two enormous crowds at Olympic Stadium -- one of 58,912 for their opener and another of 60,860 against the Galaxy -- but also had five crowds of fewer than 16,000 at newly renovated Stade Saputo. A midseason price decrease, as well as the addition of some recognizable stars, seems to have righted the ship, which would seem to bode well for 2013.