Major League Soccer and Liga MX have made a big deal about the new and improved Leagues Cup in 2023. The expanded event is no longer a glorified series of friendlies. Instead, it now features every MLS and Liga MX club, and has spots in the following year’s CONCACAF Champions Cup up for grabs. But did the fans respond by filling seats? Here’s how Leagues Cup attendance faired in the 2023 group stage.
Tournament notes and background
The Leagues Cup competition in 2023 featured all 47 MLS and Liga MX teams, broken into 15 groups of three teams each. Each team played the other two teams in their group once.
The 2022 MLS Cup winners, LAFC, and 2022 overall top Liga MX team, Pachuca, received byes to the knockout stage.
Even though some Liga MX sides were designated as “home” teams in the group stage, every match was played at an MLS venue. No games were played in Mexico. There were only two games where Liga MX teams played each other.
A few games, hosted by NYCFC and Chicago, were played at alternate local venues. For these games, standard capacity at each club’s regular venues was used for comparison.
Data below is based on officially announced attendance figures, which usually means tickets distributed or sold, not a turnstile count (actual humans in attendance).
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Breaking down Leagues Cup attendance
The group stage was played from Friday, July 21 to Monday, July 31. No games were scheduled on Monday, July 24 and Friday, July 28.
First, here are the top five attended matches overall from the group round:
|Atlanta vs Cruz Azul
|Seattle vs Monterrey
|Charlotte vs Necaxa
|Cincinnati vs Chivas
|Toronto vs Atlas
And now, the five worst attendances in the competition:
|Mazatlan vs Juarez
|Tijuana vs Queretaro
|Dallas vs Necaxa
|NYCFC vs Toronto
|RBNY vs New England
Cross league matchups definitely had appeal, as shown by the best and worst crowds. The entirety of the top five, and eight of the top ten, attendances were MLS versus Liga MX clashes. The top spots were unsurprisingly taken by attendance stalwarts Seattle and Atlanta. The top three were also all in shared NFL venues, though none required opening up behind the standard, pared-down MLS capacity.
Meanwhile, the two smallest, and by far most embarrassing crowds, were all-Liga MX affairs (to be fair, none of these clubs are particularly popular).
The New York area didn’t fair too well, either. NYCFC hosted games at Citi Field and Red Bull Arena, as Yankee Stadium was unavailable. Speaking of Red Bull Arena, the New York Red Bulls themselves drew the fifth- and sixth-lowest crowds, making the New Jersey venue the site of three of the six worst attendance figures, including the NYCFC “home” game.
Meanwhile, soccer fans in the New York/New Jersey had no problem getting to the stadium for the Newcastle against Brighton friendly on July 28. That attendance was reported as 26,150.
Did day of the week matter?
Midweek versus weekend schedule usually has an effect on crowds. Was it the case here? Here’s the average attendances across the group stage for each day of the week:
|Saturday (7/22 & 7/29)
|Sunday (7/23 & 7/30)
Surprisingly, Thursday was the top drawing day across the Leagues Cup. And it wasn’t propped up by a big crowd in Seattle or Atlanta, either. The highest drawing game on that day was Cincinnati hosting Chivas. Unfortunately this game eventually had to be stopped due to weather, and resumed behind closed doors the following day.
Only Tuesday the 25th you could really call a bad night, which funnily enough contained one of the biggest games of the tournament:
The Messi effect
The 2023 Leagues Cup will forever be remembered as the competition where Lionel Messi made his debut for Inter Miami. The Herons had two home games with their new global icon, so how did they do?
|Miami vs Cruz Azul
|Miami vs Atlanta
Ahead of the star’s arrival, the team expanded seating at their temporary DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. Unsurprisingly, the debut game was a packed house, a sellout of 20,512 (apparently the new capacity of the formerly 18,000 seat venue).
But surprisingly, in just Messi’s second game, they failed to sell out one of the smallest stadiums in the league. Yes, it was a Tuesday. Yes, it was against Atlanta and not a Liga MX team. But it’s still surprising that seats went unsold for the game. And as Miami thrashed United, social media documented the scene as large chunks of fans headed to the exits after Messi was subbed off in the second half. Has the novelty worn off already? It appears that the culprit is expensive ticket prices. Note the Leagues Cup games aren’t included in all of the club’s season tickets for teams in the league. So, for instance, Inter Miami season ticket holders are paying anywhere from $100 to $200 per Leagues Cup game for the cheapest tickets available.
Still, Inter Miami saw the biggest increase, by far, of any MLS venue versus their 2023 regular season average (16,483). But this was surely due to their new star attraction rather than the competition.
Leagues Cup attendance vs MLS vs Liga MX
The powers behind Leagues Cup have certainly hyped up the event. But how did fans across the US and Canada respond? Was it a bigger draw than the MLS or Liga MX regular seasons? Let’s take a look at the 2023 average attendances for each league compared to Leagues Cup:
|MLS Regular Season
|Liga MX 2023 Clausura
|Liga MX 2023 Apertura
It’s not a huge drop-off, but Leagues Cup group stage was outperformed by both the MLS and Liga MX regular season(s) to date.
Only 13 of the 45 group stage games posted attendance figures that bested the regular season average for the host team. And of those, only Miami’s two games brought in substantially bigger crowds than usual (the average increase for the other eleven games was 938 over the season average). And we know the real reason for Miami’s bump.
On average, a hair over 75% of available capacity was filled across the tournament. Just more than half of the games, 23, filled to 80% capacity or higher which is pretty decent. And ten games were announced as sellouts.
What does 2023 Leagues Cup attendance say about the tournament?
Overall, you could call the competition a modest success in terms of attracting fans. For a new (or reborn) event, crowds were pretty respectable.
What can be done to improve things in subsequent editions? When San Diego joins up, there will be 48 teams, an even number to work with, so the format will require adjustment. It could actually exactly mimic the 2026 World Cup format, with twelve groups of four teams each.
Minimizing MLS-v-MLS and MX-v-MX games is key, especially if it’s not a marquee game such as Chivas versus America. But this is tricky to completely get rid of, considering the unequal number of teams in each league. Also – and this should absolutely be done for fair play reasons regardless considering CONCACAF places are on the line – Liga MX teams need real home games.
But back to the present, now the real test comes. Teams were able to promote the group stage games long in advance. But with less than one week’s notice, will people turn up for the knockout stage? The importance the fans really place on this competition will be easy to see depending on the response to the “win-or-go-home” fixtures.
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