Why MLS may be making a huge mistake

The Seattle Sounders have become the envy of all of MLS, succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest dreams for an MLS team, with by far the best fanbase in the league. From the day it started, the Sounders have been a truly major-league franchise in Seattle, something pretty much every other MLS team can only dream of. It would seem logical that if the MLS wanted to become a major league, if it wanted to continue its trajectory of growth, that its strategy for growth would be to find out what the Sounders are doing right and replicate it for their other franchises.

But there is one aspect of the Sounders’ success that suggests one thing that MLS has been doing – something that has been the cornerstone of its strategy for the health and growth of the league – may ultimately hold it back.

One thing the Sounders have become known for perhaps above all else in league circles is the experience on game day, which is widely praised as something unlike any other team in the league. Sounders fans pack CenturyLink Field to numbers unheard of for virtually any other franchise and create an atmosphere even the Sounders themselves can have trouble dealing with. The experience of a Sounders home game has been compared to that of a Premier League game. Hearing this, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the Sounders have, by far, the largest attendance in the league, to the extent that the upper bowl of CenturyLink is covered up, not because the tickets there can’t be sold, but to keep the Sounders from having an even larger crowd advantage and create a more intimate atmosphere.

But that massive attendance hides a dirty little secret: there is only one other stadium in the entire league that could even hold as many people as the Sounders regularly fill CenturyLink with, DC United’s RFK Stadium. (Although the Houston Dynamo’s Robertson Stadium comes close at 32,000.)

Over the last decade, MLS has moved all but two of the remaining teams into “soccer-specific stadiums” with capacities around 20,000. The idea behind it seemed simple and innocuous enough: at the league’s founding, teams were struggling to fill cavernous NFL facilities that regularly topped 60,000. Soccer-specific stadiums would give teams a place of their own to call home, rather than piggybacking on the local NFL team, and NFL stadiums wouldn’t need to be contorted to fit a soccer pitch. And by reducing the capacity to something closer to, yet still greater than, what most if not all MLS teams were drawing at the time, it would create a more intimate environment that would draw fans closer to their teams.

But by setting the ideal size of a soccer-specific stadium at around 20,000, MLS was effectively accepting that the popularity of the league would never exceed that level – and that its fans would never reach the number, and the gameday experience would never achieve the quality, seen in Europe. 20,000 isn’t “normal” in the Premier League – that’s the size of its current smallest stadium, and there are only five MLS venues, one of them only barely, with larger capacities than that of Wigan’s home stadium, third-smallest in the EPL. The league’s top teams don’t seem to have a problem playing in stadiums with over 40,000 capacity. The Sounders’ success – at attendance levels that would be only mid-pack in the EPL – should have sent a message to the league that it didn’t have to accept 20,000 as its ceiling. Yet the league continues to build soccer-specific stadiums unabated; next year’s expansion Montreal Impact could never place higher than third or fourth in attendance this year, no matter what they did, thanks to the size of its stadium.

Besides the Sounders, four teams in the league are filling their stadiums to over 95% capacity: the Portland Timbers, the Philadelphia Union, Sporting Kansas City, and the San Jose Earthquakes. Throw out the Earthquakes, who are still the lowest-attendance team in the league despite their stadium-filling prowess thanks to a whopping 10,000-seat stopgap stadium, and the other three teams all have stadiums below 19,000 capacity, yet all place in the top half of the league’s attendance figures. None of the three have any plans to move into new stadiums or renovate their current ones, and in fact all three just moved into new facilities within the last two years. The Timbers and Union are fairly new franchises, but they seem to have strangled their capabilities to become Sounders-caliber franchises in the crib – especially galling in the case of the big-market Union.

Another two teams – the Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC – are filling their stadiums to over 90% capacity. Yet despite having the third- and fourth-highest attendances in the league respectively, behind the Sounders and Los Angeles Galaxy, neither has any plans to move or renovate their stadiums either, though that’s not as outrageous as with the other teams. Toronto could conceivably expand BMO Field into the fourth-largest stadium in the league, but that’s nowhere near becoming a reality, and the Whitecaps are one of the three teams in the league that plays in a non-soccer-specific stadium but covers up seats, so expanding BC Place’s capacity, if warranted, would cost nothing.

More to the point, all these teams except Sporting Kansas City are fairly recent additions to the league, and their strategies reflect not only the lessons learned from what the Sounders did right, but what the early days of MLS did wrong. Most of the league’s early franchises still have not recovered from the catastrophic mistakes of MLS’ early days that alienated the existing soccer fanbase without attracting many casual fans. More recent franchises, founded in 2007 and later, have found more success, but will continue to be hamstrung by a stadium capacity limit set for the older, less successful franchises, during a less successful period for the league.

Of all the teams in the entire top half of the league in attendance, only three existed in their current markets prior to 2006: the Galaxy, Sporting KC, and the New York Red Bulls. Two of those teams renamed and, thus, rebranded their teams during that time, and two of those teams are in the top two markets in the country, making it relatively easy to attract a sizeable fanbase without being that major of a team.

Even more to the point, only three franchises founded in 2005 or later, all before 2007, aren’t filling their stadiums to 90% capacity: the Houston Dynamo, Chivas USA, and Real Salt Lake. I can’t stress this enough: every single expansion team since Toronto is filling their stadium to over 90% capacity. The Dynamo, as mentioned earlier, play in 32,000-seat Robertson Stadium, and are mid-pack in attendance (and will be moving to a soccer-specific stadium next year); Chivas plays in the fourth-largest stadium in the league, the Home Depot Center, where they play second-fiddle to the Galaxy; and Real Salt Lake is pretty close at 88%. The clincher? The four worst teams in the league in attendance not only existed prior to 2005, but were around for the league’s inaugural season in 1996.

Many of the league’s older franchises continue to struggle to fill their stadiums, even those in soccer-specific stadiums, but as Sporting KC is showing, that need not be the case forever, even though the Galaxy, despite their success on and off the pitch, are only filling 86% of the Home Depot Center. As the league continues to grow in popularity, their focus should be on continuing to grow all their franchises, including the established ones, to the levels of success the expansion franchises are seeing, to bring their entire league into the future. In this, their mantra should be: every team a Seattle. But if they continue pushing “soccer-specific stadiums”, it will only have the effect of keeping their new franchises in the past.

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