By Paul Kennedy
Major League Soccer attendance is down over its record-high average of 18,807 in 2012, but just how significant is the early decline?
MLS owners are reportedly examining whether the early start -- March 2 was its earliest opening day ever -- is to blame for the decline at the gate and whether to push back the season start to later in March.
At first blush, MLS's attendance decline is significant. MLS is averaging 17,377 fans a game through the first nine weeks of the 2013 season. That's down 8 percent from the final 2012 average and down 7 percent when you compare each team's 2013 attendance to its 2012 attendance after the same number of games.
2013 MLS Attendance:
CHANGE TEAM (2013 AVG.)
+39% New England (13,627)
+13% FC Dallas (15,937)
+6% D.C. United (14,619)
+5% Vancouver (19,414)
+4% Sporting KC (19,413)
+2% Seattle (39,157)
+2% Columbus (13,637)
+1% Portland (20,674)
+1% Toronto FC (19,288)
(1 game at Rogers Centre in 2013.)
-1% Real Salt Lake (18,321)
-2% New York (17,053)
-4% Los Angeles (21,271)
-7% Philadelphia (17,010)
-7% Colorado (13,546)
-14% Chicago (12,084)
-15% Houston (18,529)
-16% San Jose (10,325)
(1 game at San Francisco's AT&T Park as part of Mexico doubleheader in 2012.)
-37% Chivas USA (8,045)
-38% Montreal (25,128)
(4 games at Olympic Stadium in 2012, 2 games at Olympic Stadium in 2013.)
Note: Percentage change is the increase or decrease over the team's average attendance after the same number of games in 2012.
But if you throw out the three teams whose attendance averages are skewed by playing early-season games at bigger stadiums in 2012 or 2013 -- Montreal, San Jose and Toronto FC -- MLS's attendance is down only 2 percent.
More than half MLS's 2013 attendance decline stems from the Impact opening its 2012 season at Olympic Stadium, where its crowds included 58,912 and 60,860.
Nine teams have increased 2013 attendance over 2012 attendance for the same number of games, while 10 teams have experienced declines.
Besides Montreal and San Jose, the other teams that have experienced declines of more than 10 percent are Houston, Chicago and Chivas USA. The two teams that have increases of more than 10 percent are New England (whose first three crowds in 2012 included an MLS season-low 6,149) and Western Conference leader FC Dallas.
MLS started only a week earlier in 2013 than it did in 2012, so the early start isn't in itself an issue. It's been noted before that MLS's year-to-year attendance increases have been fueled by popular expansion teams and/or teams moving into new stadiums, so another increase in 2013 without any expansion teams or new stadiums was going to be a challenge.
Among the scheduling issues MLS will have to examine are:
-- whether to start the season later and pack more midweek games into the schedule with the hope that the midweek games later in the season draw better than early March games.
-- whether scheduling a full schedule of games during FIFA fixture weeks when many stars are unavailable is better than not playing during these weeks and scheduling more midweek games. The average for the weekend games played between the March 22 and March 26 qualifiers was the lowest weekly average in several years.
-- what to do in 2014, whether or not the USA qualifies for the World Cup. Clearing its schedule during several weeks for the World Cup -- like it did in 2010 -- would require MLS to load up on midweek games during another part of the season.
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