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MLS attendance numbers are a game of smoke and mirrors

MLS attendance numbers

Each game, we hear about the MLS attendance numbers at the stadium. However, on TV we notice the vast swath of empty seats at the stadium. Although, this may not apply to you Seattle, Orlando or NYCFC fans.

Then you get your soccer geek on and check the boxscores for the game and see that the attendance has been reported at a sellout or a near sellout. You think to yourself, what the heck is going on here?

Welcome to the world of attendance reporting.

Back in 2006, Mark Ziegler of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote several articles on sports attendance reporting, where he cites that “Major League Soccer’s attendance numbers have been among the most questioned in pro sports.” In those articles, he reveals several methods used by sports teams to announce crowd turnouts. Everything from ‘tickets distributed’ to one case of a team announcing 12,345 as the reported attendance (creative, huh?).

MLS attendance numbers and how they get exaggerated

Here are 13 ways ticket sellers and clubs get creative to push up numbers, according to an article published in Forbes entitled How Sports Attendance Figures Speak Lies:

  1. Sell standing-room only tickets. First at a reduced rate to reach a sellout threshold before selling seats in the bowl.
  2. On season tickets, deeply discount tickets, offer “Buy 2 get 2 deals” or offer pay-as-you-go season tickets. Tickets are tickets. Getting you to close the deal is imperative.
  3. For group tickets, offer 50 to 70 percent off weekday early season.
  4. Sponsors get tickets. Each team has 50 to 100 sponsors times 4 to 8 tickets each is 200 to 800 potentially paid season ticket buyers.
  5. On those sellouts, employees get comps. The front offices have 75 to 150 full-time employees plus innumerable number of part-time staff that could potentially “comp out” 300 to 2000 seats a night.
  6. Player coaches and retired player comps.
  7. Visiting team comps – 4 times 35 players per game whether used or unused.
  8. Umpire/referee comps – 4 Umps/referees equals 16 tickets per game per Umps/referee contract
  9. Commissioner’s Initiative – requires each team to donate 50 or 100k tickets per year to lower income charities. While this doesn’t impact paid attendance, it can push the needle up for sellouts.
  10. Voucher redemption – offer free or virtually free discounted tickets through sponsor store or product
  11. Team charities – The league sends out thousands of tickets to games to local charities via team, seats sold to charity at pennies so they are sold then written off by team.
  12. Internet – Similar to groups like Travel Zoo, Groupon, etc. Offer deep discounting on 3rd party website to push unsold inventory
  13.  Military Night – Many are offering free tickets, which is a great gesture as it doesn’t count as paid attendance. But, not all. For example, the Orioles just announced a $3 discount deal off of all tickets for all military (active, retired and reserve) and their families, which bumps up paid attendance.

SEE MORE: MLS reported average attendances increase 13% in 2015.

These various mechanisms of boosting up attendances have been utilized across many sports platforms, not just in MLS, and they may have, in part, aided in the growth of the league over its formative years. But now, in my opinion, it is time to get over the fact that the actual game attendance is not reflected in the announced gate numbers. The boon in ticket sales has reduced the number of ‘freebies’ and put more cash in the tills.

SEE MORE: MLS sees 38% decline in 2015 MLS Cup TV viewing numbers.

More people are actually coming out to the parks, not only with the MLS 2.0 teams, but with the charter clubs, specifically in Kansas City and San Jose in their new stadiums. In fact, only Philadelphia has dropped in average MLS attendance numbers since 2010 given their performance in recent years, which is no surprise. That means more revenues in parking, game day merchandise and food sales. And make no mistake that these are important revenues streams for MLS clubs.

Which brings me to this… most of the clubs are still losing money. Going forward, the real bucks are in television revenues. That is where the great leap forward will take place. MLS television revenues are a pittance compared to the ‘big 4’ North American sports leagues, but that’s for another article. So for now, embrace the growth of actual attendance and don’t sweat the numbers. The Nielsen ratings are the ones we should be paying attention to as we look to have MLS attain the status that of a world class league.

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. provoly

    December 31, 2015 at 1:26 am

    the answer to your question is “DUHHHH.” of course the reported game attendances are a lie: the attendance numbers for soccer games in the United States are some of the most made-up numbers you will find. and that’s because we’re talking about soccer here: it’s the most boring, un-American sport in the world, and Americans don’t care about it. never have, never will.

  2. Rob

    December 24, 2015 at 3:41 am

    I can’t wait for MLS to fold. What a joke of a league and a total insult to the sport.

    • Henry

      December 24, 2015 at 1:21 pm

      Rob you should want the MLS to succeed in this country so we can continue to have a league. Not fold. This is a nascent league and it’s doing great things for the sport in the US. This is a huge market with a potential. Don’t be so negative.

      • Sdflash2006

        December 24, 2015 at 5:49 pm

        Being a troll is so much more fun though.

    • Jd

      December 27, 2015 at 12:05 pm

      People like you make me sick. You want the league to fold but I bet you follow the league and look for articles everyday for you to be a troll on. When you troll you make it obvious you have no life, have nothing going on other than your everyday routine of being a pathetic human being. See something positive for once. Maybe get off your ass and go for a walk. Be a participant in anything other then trolling.

  3. Kei

    December 23, 2015 at 6:07 pm

    Teams like Toronto, Columbus etc routinely report sellout crowds despite having rows (and even sections) of empty seats virtually every game.

    Attendance numbers in general are bogus, but MLS franchises seem to take it to a whole different level. Who’s to say that even the likes of Seattle, Orlando, and NYC aren’t goosing their own numbers a bit?

  4. Blue Lou

    December 23, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    14. Lie

    And you left off SKC as one of the tiny handful of MLS teams that doesn’t play at home in front of thousands of empty seats.

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