MLS enjoyed its most exciting regular season ever with every team still in contention for the playoffs until the final week of the season. Attendance was up for the second straight year. The weekend games during the last two weeks of the regular season averaged 21,942 fans.
MLS officials report good progress on the bottom line. And there's even serious talk of expansion in 2004.
But interest in the playoffs remains minimal. If you throw out the crowds at the Rose Bowl, average attendance in the other playoff markets for the quarterfinals and semifinals was down 38 percent from what it was during the regular season.
If playoff attendance is an accurate gauge of a sport's interest level, MLS still depends on its small, hard-core base. It hasn't always been the case in pro soccer.
It's 25 years since the Cosmos took New York by storm with the their huge playoff crowds: a record 77,691 in the quarterfinals and 73,669 in the pouring rain for the semifinals. Few remember that the Seattle Sounders drew crowds of 42,091 and 56,256 at the same stage in 1977.
In the 1970s, Detroit, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Toronto also drew crowds of greater than 30,000 for NASL playoff games leading up to the Soccer Bowl. MLS has had only one crowd of greater than 30,000 for its quarterfinal or semifinal series since its inaugural season.
The sports landscape has changed since the 1970s. There is far more sports on television today - and far more entertainment options available.
MLS officials bemoan the fact that they can't attract owners even though MLS teams are in some cases losing a tenth of the money NHL teams are losing in the same markets.
Most of the value of the NHL's nine-figure television contract stems from its playoff broadcasts. MLS had one pre-MLS Cup playoff game on national television.
MLS is on the right path in making a viable business out of its regular season, but giving value to its playoffs remains a huge challenge.
by Soccer America Managing Editor Paul Kennedy