During the final days of 2016, the USL published a series of posts on its site to revisit the top stories of the year from around the league. With many narratives worthy of the spotlight, the USL selected the substantial increase in overall attendance as its top story of the year. Nearly 1.5 million fans paid to attend USL regular season matches in 2016, a 33 percent increase over the previous season.
The ability to draw so many more spectators to matches is impressive, and the USL is not out of line to boast about the attendance figures. The number one story, as presented by the league, does lack some context, though. One uncovers a more modest tale by digging into the numbers.
The USL reports that 1,496,493 fans came through the turnstiles in 2016, compared to 1,132,218 in 2015. These values represent the total of all announced attendances for all teams for all regular season games, and they are how the 33 percent increase is calculated.
Hidden in those values, however, is expansion, an increase in the number of teams and the number of games played by each of the teams. Nearly 100 more matches were played in 2016 (435 matches) than 2015 (336 matches). Yes, overall attendance increased by 33 percent, but compare that to the 29 percent increase in the total number of competitions.
A better representation of the USL’s gains at the gate is obtained by looking at the average attendance per match. In 2016, the USL averaged 3,440 fans per game, up from 3,370 in 2015. That is an increase of 2.1 percent. That is modest growth, but it obviously does not resonate with potential investors and sponsors in the same way that 33 percent does.
It is also illustrative to examine the contributions of individual teams to the overall growth in the USL attendance. The table below, originally computed by Kenn Tomasch, shows the 2015 and 2016 average attendance per game for the clubs that competed in those seasons.
|Team||2015 Avg.||2016 Avg.||Percent Change|
|Sacramento Republic FC||11,323||11,514||1.7|
|Louisville City FC||6,765||7,218||6.7|
|San Antonio FC||6,170|
|OKC Energy FC||4,635||4,950||6.8|
|Saint Louis FC||4,885||4,923||0.8|
|Tulsa Roughnecks FC||4,714||3,950||-16.2|
|Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC||2,723||3,152||15.8|
|Wilmington Hammerheads FC||2,960||3,000||1.4|
|Bethlehem Steel FC||2,573|
|Real Monarchs SLC||4,698||2,528||-46.2|
|Portland Timbers 2||3,122||2,323||-25.6|
|Rio Grande Valley FC||1,994|
|Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2||1,682||1,779||5.8|
|Swope Park Rangers KC||1,753|
|Harrisburg City Islanders||2,590||1,547||-40.3|
|Arizona United SC||3,304||1,470||-55.5|
|Seattle Sounders FC 2||2,221||1,401||-36.9|
|LA Galaxy II||969||1,211||25.0|
|Toronto FC II||479||1,026||114.2|
|Orange County Blues FC||1,398||1,010||-27.8|
|Orlando City B||958|
|New York Red Bulls II||595||589||-1.0|
As Tomasch states, the average attendance per game for the league increased despite the fact that 13 of the 23 returning clubs actually incurred a decrease in average ticket sales. Without the strong sales from a few teams at the top of the list, the league’s attendance figures would have plummeted.
Two of the top four draws in 2016 were FC Cincinnati and San Antonio FC, and the independent clubs were competing in their first USL seasons. The remainder of the first-year franchises all finished the season below the league average, and all four of them were “MLS2” sides or, in the case of RGV FC, had its technical side run by an MLS franchise.
The disparity between independent clubs and “MLS2” teams was not limited to expansion teams. The top 12 USL draws in 2016 were independently owned and operated teams. The bottom of the attendance table was predominantly occupied by MLS reserve sides, with notably horrible attendances for New York Red Bulls II (league champions) and FC Montreal (ceased operations heading into 2017 season).
Bethlehem Steel FC topped the list of “MLS2” teams in terms of average attendance. Perhaps this lends credibility to the opinion that distance, in terms of both location and brand, helps to sell MLS sides in the USL. Real Monarchs SLC was the “MLS2” team with the second best attendance. The Monarchs share a home venue with Real Salt Lake, but the branding is dissimilar. The theory is not bulletproof, though. Orlando City B attracted fewer than 1,000 fans per match, and the B side played home games an hour from the parent club.
There were success stories in 2016. FC Cincinnati’s successes have been well documented. Sacramento Republic FC maintained its status as a powerhouse at the ticket booth. Louisville City increased its average attendance after an impressive debut season in 2015. The Richmond Kickers broke their own single-season attendance record for the second straight year. “MLS2” sides like LA Galaxy II and Toronto FC II saw improvements at the gate.
The USL has already announced the addition of more teams and games for 2017. Breaching 2 million in total attendance is not out of the question. More eyes on the product is good for the league, but when the announcement comes, remember total attendance is a small part of the complete attendance picture.