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Volume 20 No. 42
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Northwest, K.C. help boost numbers for MLS

Sellout crowds in the Pacific Northwest combined with a new stadium and rebranding effort in Kansas City helped Major League Soccer post midseason attendance gains for the second consecutive year. The league has also seen an incremental increase in television viewership from most of its TV partners.

Through 177 games, the league’s average crowd increased by 6.3 percent from its 2010 midseason mark, to 17,526.

Expansion teams in Portland and Vancouver have lived up to preseason expectations and produced impressive crowds. The Timbers have sold out all 10 home games at Jeld-Wen Field, which after a $31 million renovation seats 18,627. Vancouver has sold 95.3 percent of its capacity and averaged 20,008 fans a game at its temporary home, Empire Field, while its permanent home, BC Place Stadium, undergoes construction. The region’s third team, the Seattle Sounders, which has topped MLS in attendance since it entered the league in 2009, has also posted its best midseason mark, 37,189, which is 104.8 percent of capacity.

For a June 23 match against the New York Red Bulls, the Sounders organization opened upper-bowl seats at CenturyLink Field and attracted a crowd of 46,054 — the club’s best draw against an MLS opponent, and the largest MLS gate so far in 2011.

“Clearly, what has been going on in the Pacific Northwest is tremendous, both with the size of the crowds and how that has translated onto television,” said MLS President Mark Abbott. “At some point before the season we realized we were going to end up with something special in terms of attendance. We knew it would be special, [but] it’s more special than I anticipated.”

Sporting Kansas City’s attendance jumped 81 percent after the team moved to its new home.
Outside the Pacific Northwest region, the New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas, San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City have all posted double-digit percentage increases in attendance, with Sporting Kansas City growing the most at 81 percent and San Jose following at 36.7 percent.

The team formerly known as the Wizards rebranded itself Sporting Kansas City in November 2010 in the lead-up to the completion of its $200 million soccer-specific facility, Livestrong Sporting Park, which opened June 9. The club also launched an online supporters club, offered free tickets to away games and promoted the park’s sports bar, which is open to the public on non-game days. The efforts helped the team raise its season-ticket sales from 2,200 to just more than 11,000. The club is averaging 18,107 fans a game, compared with 10,006 in 2010.

The Chicago Fire, Toronto FC and Philadelphia Union posted marginal losses in attendance — the latter team’s 2010 average was inflated by two games at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL Eagles. One team — the Columbus Crew — saw a drastic drop: a 22.7 percent decline to an average of 10,846.

Abbott said he is not worried about the decline in Columbus, and called the drop part of the “natural ebb and flow” of the franchise.

The league’s gains at the gate follow overall incremental growth in TV audiences. On ESPN2, ratings were flat through 12 games with a 0.2 cable rating, but viewership was down 6 percent. However, the three MLS games on ESPN, including the July 10 Cascadia Cup game between Portland and Seattle, averaged a 0.4 rating, up from 0.3 last year, and the network saw an 82 percent growth in total viewership, averaging 566,000 viewers.

Fox Soccer Channel registered similar gains, and registered a flat 0.1 rating but saw total viewership increase 33 percent to an average of 79,000 viewers across 13 matches. Fox Deportes increased its audience by 69 percent.

But MLS still trails international soccer in TV viewership. The league’s biggest audience this season tuned in for ESPN’s telecast of the March 15 MLS opener between Seattle and the Los Angeles Galaxy, which earned a 0.5 rating with 640,000 viewers. By comparison, the U.S. national team’s first match of the FIFA Women’s World Cup against North Korea earned a 0.8 rating and averaged 1.07 million viewers on ESPN. Fox Soccer’s June 25 game featuring San Jose vs. Los Angeles topped that network’s MLS viewership with 130,000 average viewers. Fox Soccer’s telecast of 2010-11 UEFA Champions League games averaged 186,000 viewers.

Abbott described the TV growth as significant for MLS, and credited the league’s TV partners for promoting the telecasts effectively across multiple platforms. When asked whether the league would push to change its TV schedule — ESPN2 telecasts on Thursday and Saturday, FSC on Friday and Saturday and Galavision on Saturday and Sunday — Abbott said it would discuss possible schedule shifts later in the season.

“We’re always looking for a broadcast combination to maximize the schedule,” Abbott said. “We’ll meet with our partners fairly soon. Those conversations have not begun yet.”