Commentary

What those big soccer crowds mean, and don't mean

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

Soccer's summer of 2015 has seen some extraordinary attendance figures across the United States.

Major League Soccer remains on course to smash its all-time average attendance record set in 2014. The 2015 average is up to 21,292 a game and showing no sign of dropping as seven of the nine crowds last weekend topped 20,000.

The big summer events -- Gold Cup and International Champions Cup -- once again drew huge throngs with four crowds each of 60,000 or more for both events.

Nothing new here.

MLS attendance has steadily increased with wave after wave of expansion. Of the 10 MLS teams averaging more than 20,000 a game, nine are expansion teams that entered the league in the last decade.

The Gold Cup -- primarily but not exclusively, the Mexico national team -- has drawn well for more than two decades now while big-name European clubs continue to fill football stadiums for the ICC even if stars go through the paces of preseason workouts at best or aren't even around at worst (Lionel Messi and Neymar both skipped Barcelona's 2015 tour).

But a few other attendance figures from the past week are worth noting:

-- Chattanooga FC set a U.S. amateur club record with a crowd of 18,227 for the 2015 NPSL final against New York Cosmos B on Saturday night.

-- The Portland Thorns drew 15,858 fans for their NWSL match against the Chicago Red Stars on Sunday night.

-- Sporting Kansas City attracted 16,117 fans Wednesday night for its U.S. Open Cup semifinal against Real Salt Lake.

Chattanooga, whose women's match between the USA and Costa Rica next Wednesday is already a sellout, doubled the NPSL attendance record it shattered the week before. Along with strong crowds at clubs like Detroit City FC and Grand Rapids FC, the NPSL's success in Chattanooga has demonstrated the organic potential of soccer in communities below the pro level.

It has also renewed talk of promotion and relegation throughout the ranks of the American pyramid, though pro/rel has zero chance of happening in Major League Soccer and would seem still far off below the top tier, even along the lines of what NPSL chairman Joe Barone proposed to the Daily Telegraph.

Sunday's NWSL crowd in Portland was higher than the 2015 average attendance of four MLS clubs: Colorado, Chicago, FC Dallas and D.C. United. The Thorns have been without superstar Alex Morgan for all but their season opener in April, but they are still averaging 15,027 fans a game.

Unfortunately, the Thorns are outliers in the NWSL, in terms of the enthusiasm of their followers and overall numbers. When you arrive at Providence Park for a Thorns game, you'd think you stumbled on a Timbers MLS match, such is the passion and color of Portland NWSL crowds. That's something you'd never confuse the crowds for at any other NWSL venue. Portland's average attendance is more than triple that of all but one other NWSL team even with their post-Women's World Cup bumps

Finally, the crowd of 16,117 at Sporting Park for the 3-1 win over RSL gave Sporting Kansas City a clean sweep of its four home games en route to the final. Each set an Open Cup record for the largest crowd at that point of the competition in the modern era with Wednesday's crowd following up on crowds of 19,298 in the fourth round, 19,113 in the round of 16 and 17,589 in the quarterfinals.

The catch -- if you'd call it that -- was that the crowds for the first three rounds were featured in the packages of Sporting KC season-ticket holders as "Special Game A." Wednesday's crowd was more organic, drawn by the chance to see SKC face off against bitter rival RSL and -- well -- two hours of cheap eats -- $1 hot dogs, $2 sodas, $3 domestic draft beers and half-price hamburgers on the pre-game menu. (The game wasn't televised but USSoccer.com's stream was viewed by more 88,000 people.)

A couple of other MLS Open Cup quarterfinal crowds were decent -- Real Salt Lake-LA Galaxy drew more than 11,000 and Red Bulls-Philadelphia game had more than 9,000 fans on a Tuesday afternoon -- but they still lag far behind Sporting Kansas City. Sadly, KC won't host the final. In a draw held before the semifinals, Philadelphia -- which drew just 5,000 and change for Wednesday's semifinal against Chicago -- was selected as the site of the final.

In the macro picture, the depth of the support underscores the  insatiable appetite of the American public for soccer in face of often harsh weather conditions and puts into touch the folly of those like me who suggested MLS adopt soccer's fall-spring calendar and effectively shut down for part of the summer.

There is no such thing, it seems, as the dog days of summer when it comes to soccer.
3 comments about "What those big soccer crowds mean, and don't mean".
  1. David Sirias, August 15, 2015 at 11:55 a.m.

    I still don't think it's folly. MLS playoffs and finals in really bad weather is going to get worse, not better. With more sunbelt teams coming in and better stadiums to protect fans being built in the future, MLS should go apertura /clausura . The key is to keep the breaks as short as possible AND money for deeper rosters because you will need many more mid week games, not only for league but for the other tournaments. You could have a long apertura that starts the week after WC finals ( or GC), ends early December And then resume for the clausura March 1 culminating in MLS final Memorial Day weekend or the next . Other than the timing of playoffs for good weather , a big benefit is star players being rostered all year. The day of Lampard and Pirlo arriving loo late into the season are numbered. Fans will find it unacceptable. Finally, the having exclusive focus on the national teams is good long term planning. The national teams are the gateway drugs to local club enthusiasm .....

  2. aaron dutch, August 16, 2015 at 1:09 a.m.

    We could play a late summer/fall & late winter/spring schedule. play all the cold weather cites matches first in the late summer/early fall & the warm weather returns in the late fall/winter and finish up in cold weather towns in the spring

    MLS is a complete outlier they will do what they want independent of US Federation/FIFA/UEFA world standards etc..

    I think NASL/NPSL hookup would be great and if the NWSL was included & expanded so you could get full teams mens/womens and play the womens matches before the men where possible (manage costs etc..) you could get great supporters culture in these towns.

    If they all built a single academy system and partnered with European leagues the support would be tremendous.

  3. Footballer Forever, August 16, 2015 at 10:59 p.m.

    In a nutshell this is what it means: Football, not that boring /brain-damaged eggball trash, keeps growing each year throughout this entire country. Long gone are the days where the zealous "soccer-haters" had a feast, but now they re simply a bunch of fools simply trying to repeat old-biased cliches.

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