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MLS attendance, TV viewership numbers slip

David Beckham helped kick up MLS’s attendance and ratings in 2007, but the league wasn’t able to build on that growth in 2008.

This season the league suffered its first decline in average regular-season attendance and television viewership on ESPN2 in three years. Half the teams in the league saw a decline in average attendance in 2008, causing the league’s average attendance to fall by 1.8 percent, or to 16,459 a game.

David Beckham’s Los Angeles Galaxy
again led the MLS in attendance,
averaging 26,009.

MLS officials contend that the Kansas City Wizards’ decision to play in a 10,385-seat stadium played a role in that fall, but excluding Kansas City from both years still results in a slight drop in attendance for 2008.

MLS President Mark Abbott said it’s difficult to show growth when teams are playing in stadiums that seat 10,000 spectators. “You always want to do better,” he added, “but we feel good, particularly in light of the current economic climate.”

The Los Angeles Galaxy led the league in attendance, averaging 26,009 spectators per game. It also broke the record for average road attendance this year, drawing an average of 28,132 spectators for its away games. That topped the 28,035 it averaged in 2007, Beckham’s first season, and the 23,686 that D.C. United averaged in 2004.

“A lot of people wondered what was going to happen with Beckham the second time around,” Abbott said. “Despite that factor, we saw growth.”

Attendance remained strong in Toronto, which sold out every game for the second straight season. The league also saw increases in average attendance for the Houston Dynamo, Chivas USA and the New England Revolution. The Dynamo’s average attendance was up 6.6 percent to 16,939, Chivas USA’s was up 5.7 percent to 15,114 and the Revolution’s was up 5 percent to 17,580.

But those increases were offset by declines in two key markets — Colorado and Dallas. FC Dallas had a league-worst 14 percent drop in average attendance to 13,024. The Colorado Rapids, which are playing in a new MLS stadium that opened in 2007, saw average attendance drop 7.4 percent to 13,659.

MLS ON ESPN2
Year
No. of telecasts
Avg. rating
No. of viewers
2008
26
0.2
253,000
2007
25
0.2
289,000
2006
21
0.2
263,000
MLS AT THE GATE
Team
Avg. attend.
% change
Los Angeles Galaxy
26,009
7.20%
Toronto FC
20,108
-0.10%
D.C. United
19,835
-5.40%
New England Revolution
17,580
5.00%
Chicago Fire
17,034
3.30%
Houston Dynamo
16,939
6.60%
Real Salt Lake
16,179
1.40%
New York Red Bulls
15,928
-3.60%
Chivas USA
15,114
5.70%
Columbus Crew
14,622
-4.00%
San Jose Earthquakes
13,713
N/A
Colorado Rapids
13,659
-7.40%
FC Dallas
13,024
-14.00%
Kansas City Wizards*
10,686
-7.80%
Totals
16,459
-1.80%
* Includes Sept. 13 game vs. Los Angeles played at Arrowhead Stadium (posted att.: 26,113)
N/A Not applicable
Source: SportsBusiness Journal

A spokesperson for FC Dallas said the team reduced the number of complimentary tickets offered this season and televised all home games for the first time, which affected attendance.

The Colorado Rapids did not return a call for comment before press time.

The league’s mixed results at the gate were mirrored in its performance on TV. MLS games on ESPN2 averaged a 0.2 cable rating for the third consecutive year, but total average viewers per game fell to 253,000 — down from 289,000 viewers in 2007 and 263,000 in 2006.

ESPN also began simulcasting games on ESPN Deportes this year, which attracted an average of 40,000 viewers per broadcast.

On Fox Soccer Channel, which just began getting ratings in October, MLS averaged a 0.1 cable rating and 30,000 viewers over four games. The last game of the season on the network between the Dynamo and Chivas USA delivered a 0.0 cable rating and 24,000 viewers.

“We’re pleased,” said David Sternberg, Fox Soccer Channel’s general manager. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I don’t think anyone expected (MLS) to do World Cup numbers at this stage of the league’s development.”

Ratings on Univision’s Telefutura, which broadcast 26 games this season, were flat, while total viewers were down 11 percent from 2007 to an average of 254,000 a game.

“Obviously, there’s been a change in the economy in the country in the last few months,” Abbott said. “We feel we’ve really performed well given some of those changes. We’re looking forward to 2009, and took it as a great sign that seven markets submitted applications to receive an expansion team.”

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