Nearly 5.5 million people attended Major League Soccer games this season. Almost 18,000 people went to the average MLS game. Those are the big numbers, and they both represent new high-water marks for the 16-year-old league. But to really understand how much MLS attendance grew this year, you need to dig a little deeper.
League-wide attendance was officially 5,468,951. Prior to last year, the league had never cracked 4 million, and only barely did so in 2010 (4,002,053). In total numbers, that's an increase of nearly 37 percent.
Of course, that does not take into account that there were 66 more games played this year than last. Even accounting for that nearly 28 percent uptick, average attendance was up about 7 percent to 17,872. Prior to this year, the league had only broken 17,000 in average attendance once and that was during the inaugural season of 1996. The closest MLS had ever come to reaching that number again was during David Beckham's first year when an average crowd of 16,770 watched 195 games.
It would be tempting to attribute much of this growth to the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps, the two well-attended expansion teams. While their combined average of 19,619 is certainly helping the bottom line, even taking them out of the equation leaves a pretty rosy picture.
Stripping out the two expansion markets still gives MLS an average attendance of 17,654, or about 1.2 percent more than the previous record. It also leaves MLS with a total draw of about 4.8 million or roughly 800,000 more than the previous record.
The big non-expansion increase comes from Sporting Kansas City, which opened up the palace that is Livestrong Sporting Park. A year after playing in a minor-league baseball stadium that fit fewer than 11,000, the smallest home crowd to see one of their games was 14,791 and just five of their 17 games were played in front of crowds of fewer than 17,000. Overall, they saw an attendance increase of 73 percent over last year. Even compared to their best attended season in their history (2003, 15,573), they were up 14 percent.
Other notable team-specific attendance figures: RSL's average of 17,591 was higher than any year since their expansion season of 2005; the Red Bulls average of 19,749 was their highest since 1996; the Galaxy's average of 23,334 was the fourth highest in their history; and the Sounders' average of 38,496 was about 10,000 more than any team had averaged prior to their joining the league in 2009.
This year's numbers were also helped by some huge single-game turnouts. The biggest of those were two Sounders games in which they opened up the entire stadium. They drew 46,065 to see a game against the Red Bulls and 64,140 for Kasey Keller's final regular-season home game. The Earthquakes also cracked 40,000 when they brought in 41,028 to see Fourth of July fireworks. In all, there were 28 games with reported attendances of more than 25,000. The median attendance for all games was 17,639.
The attendance bump was seen almost all the way across the league. Just four teams reported a decrease in average attendance over last year and seven teams reported increases of more than 5 percent.
Even among the teams reporting overall relative declines, there were positive signs. The Crew averaged 14,754 over their final six home games, which is actually more than the averaged last year; the Fire averaged 17,244 over their final six, which is more than they have averaged during any season since 1998; and Toronto FC averaged 20,983 over their final six, which is more than they've ever averaged during an entire season. The other team with a declining attendance, the Philadelphia Union, can blame their relative numbers on the simple fact that they did not play any games in the much larger Lincoln Financial Field, the way they did in Year 1.
MLS averaged more fans than either the NBA or NHL did in their last full seasons. Clearly, this is a watershed year and with the Montreal Impact promising to bring strong crowds in 2012, it could go even higher.
The previous two highest attended seasons both had clear reasons. In 1996, it was the return of first-division soccer after a 12-year absence. In 2007, the league welcomed its first true international star. This year is different, as the addition of two expansion teams was only part of the increase.
This feels like something that could really be lasting and potentially representative of a new normal. There was no gimmick this year, no obvious spark that drove people to MLS stadiums. Maybe, just maybe, people wanted to watch good soccer. MLS, and long last, seems to be delivering that very thing.