Charter MLS member and star, Jaime Moreno of DC United.
Of all the soccer leagues in the world, MLS is perhaps the most difficult to pick results in from year to year. One team could be bottom of the table one year and be fighting for the MLS Cup the next year. But is this a good or bad thing for the league? Let’s investigate.
Below are the attendance averages for the league per game from 1996 to 2008, according to SoccerTicketsOnline.com:
• 2008: 16,407
• 2007: 16,770
• 2006: 15,504
• 2005: 15,108
• 2004: 15,559
• 2003: 14,898
• 2002: 15,822
• 2001: 14,961
• 2000: 13,756
• 1999: 14,282
• 1998: 14,312
• 1997: 14,619
• 1996: 17,406
Popularity in Different Eras
The logical place to start would be the popularity of the league at different points in MLS history. During the “powerhouse” years of DC United in the league’s early years (1996-98), the league averaged 15,445 people per game, with a large part of this number attributed to the 17,406 people who attended each game in the league’s first year. Since these first three years of having a dominating franchise, the attendance figures have gone slightly down on average to 15,306 people per game, with 8 different teams lifting the MLS Cup since 1999.
As logical as it may seem, attendance numbers in every sport increase if teams are doing considerably well. Powerhouse franchises help increase attendance numbers each year as well. Looking into other leagues helps affirm this fact. Last year, the top 5 teams in the EPL with the most attendance were Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea, all teams in the top 7 of the league. The top 4 teams in La Liga for attendance were Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia, and Sevilla, all teams in the top 4 of the league in that order.
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Impact of Designated Players
When the league added David Beckham in 2007 as a designated player, attendance figures began to rise substantially. Attendance numbers seem to correlate with the addition of significant designated players, such as Thierry Henry or Cuauhtémoc Blanco. However, the limitation of the salary cap and the fact that teams can only have three designated players hinders the growth and retention rate of higher level players. The salary cap helps ensure that no one team can have a powerhouse franchise. As a result, the league suffers to have typical powerhouse franchises similar to other leagues common in almost all other sports.
The addition of designated players is a positive but the salary cap is the true hindrance of the league. Parity has shown not to be a catalyst in increasing attendance but rather in the addition of top talent. With the growth of the league in terms of adding franchises, attendance numbers should be going up, but this is not the case. MLS is making positive steps so that each team has a soccer-specific stadium as state-of-the art facilities. European teams are in awe and smile from ear-to-ear when coming stateside into the beautiful pitches MLS has helped to create. This still doesn’t dismiss the fact that cities cannot rely on their team to produce a good season year-in and year-out. Of the 14 MLS Cups, only two teams have won two championships in a row (DC United and Houston Dynamo).
Nearly every other sports leagues has some sort of storied franchise and the MLS needs to get on board. Every league needs to have that team to hate (The New York Yankees of American baseball). It brings media attention, scintillating stories and drama, something MLS lacks. The more international talent we can get the better (as long as MLS doesn’t become the retirement home of leagues). Parity is nothing but bad for the league.
About the Author
Chris Behrens works for SoccerPro and is a proud supporter of MLS.