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Volume 23 No. 28
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MLS stadiums seek room to grow

Teams take a hard look at stadium capacity as ticket demand rises

Roughly four years ago, when Orlando City SC founder and President Phil Rawlins and his fellow owners began to sketch out what the club’s future stadium could look like, the math was quite simple.

The average stadium capacity in MLS was just under 20,000. Average attendance across the league had seen modest increases in recent years, but had just eclipsed 18,000 for the first time — albeit heavily buoyed by Seattle averaging 43,144 fans. Orlando would be one of the league’s smallest marketplaces when it entered the league in 2015, and the club had drawn anywhere between 5,000 and 8,000 fans during its four years in the third-tier United Soccer League.

After consulting with design firm Populous and undergoing market studies, the group agreed that around 20,000

Success in the club’s inaugural season encouraged Orlando City SC to incorporate more seats into the design of its new stadium (shown), which is now under construction.
Photo by: Orlando City SC
was probably the right number. Original renderings proposed 18,000 seats. In June 2014, a second set of designs was released, this time with a capacity of 19,500.

Then the club began its first season in MLS in 2015, where it would play in the interim at the Citrus Bowl while its stadium would be constructed. Orlando sold out of its allocated 13,000 season tickets before playing its first match.

And for that first match, the club sold out the Citrus Bowl for a total attendance 62,510. By year’s end, the club’s average attendance was 32,847, second across MLS.

“We quickly realized we had a bit of a problem,” Rawlins said with a laugh.

That “problem” is now popping up across many MLS markets, where the profile of the clubs and the league has risen at such a pace that clubs face the question of whether their stadiums can fit that growing demand.

In 2015, leaguewide average attendance across MLS was 21,574, representing a 12.7 percent increase from the previous year. Compared with just five years ago, that was up 29.3 percent.

While attendance is expected to rise again this coming season, that 21,574 figure represents 94.8

percent of total capacity around the league, with seven of the league’s 20 teams already seeing capacities of 100 percent or better (see charts, below).

For clubs like Orlando City, with a stadium project under construction, the way to address that was simple enough. Working with Populous, the club reconfigured the existing plans over the course of six months to use the same footprint and basic design to increase the capacity to 25,500, which is what Rawlins said the stadium will open at in 2017.

But for many of the league’s other 14 soccer-specific stadiums — almost all of which opened only within the last decade — trying to tackle that problem requires a bit more creative solutions.

Reviewing their options

“If there was some way someone could just do the old ‘Bewitched’ twitch your nose and add 5,000 or 10,000 seats and keep the stadium how it is otherwise, I think that that’d be the first thing we’d ask for,” said Mike Golub, Portland Timbers president of business operations. “It’s a wonderful problem to navigate, but it’s still a challenge.”

Witchcraft aside, Portland has tried to alter the now 21,144-seat Providence Park to satisfy demand that has led to a season-ticket-holder waiting list exceeding 13,000, gradually creating new areas of seats, or creating small premium areas that previously didn’t exist. But now the club is essentially at a maximum of what it can do in its current footprint, Golub said. Owned by the city, the grounds where Providence Park sit have been used for athletic competitions in Portland dating to 1893, also creating a unique challenge.

The Portland Timbers have maxed out at Providence Park and have more than 13,000 people on a waiting list for season tickets.
Photo by: Getty Images
“We have this really unique urban setting, game experience and overall environment that we have no interest in sacrificing, but the demand is there,” he said.

Over the last 18 months, the club has undergone design studies for ideas on what else it could do. Portland is considering a plan that would require relocating the scoreboard, thus creating a block of between 1,000 and 2,000 seats. That project could be completed no sooner than 2018, and it’s likely the only option they have to create that many seats.

In year six of a 25-year operating agreement with the city, the Timbers also have begun to look at what “Providence Park 2030 looks like,” Golub said. Is there a way to continue to use the same location but start to meet that demand for seating? Are there places that experience can be replicated?

While Populous senior principal Bruce Miller, who is lead architect for the new stadiums of both Minnesota United and Orlando City SC, said stadium capacity will always be a market-driven decision, MLS’s place among pro sports in this country presents an interesting wrinkle.

“It’s so much different than other sports in this country given that the league is really in such a rapid expansion mode,” Miller said. “We’re at a point where in the next five to 10 years, depending on what markets the league expands into, where we could go from talking about 25,000-seat stadiums to upwards of 30,000.”

To address that expectation of growth, Miller said it has become crucial for owners in new MLS stadium projects to have expansion plans in place from day one that will not affect the atmosphere and fan experience, two key elements of MLS’s local rise in the first place.

“That’s exactly how we’re planning in Minnesota, where they can enter the league in their new stadium and turn

around and expand the building even further in the following year,” he said.

MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott said the league doesn’t try to steer clubs toward a single number for stadium capacity, but it does stress building in the ability to expand in the future.

“The primary thing is always to create an unbelievable atmosphere for fans, but we want all of the clubs to be able to do that and take advantage of the business opportunity that I think we all see ahead,” he said.

Expansion was part of the plans in 2011 when Sporting Kansas City opened the then-Sporting Park, a Populous-designed $200 million stadium. While over the last few years the club has added a few hundred seats in different areas around the stadium, it still has an 8,000-seat addition in its back pocket, one that would require removing
roughly half of the stadium’s roof.

“That’s really not an inconsequential thing to do,” said Sporting Club CEO and co-owner Robb Heineman. “We like the dynamic we have now, and the look of the stadium provides such a great environment — for us to just add 8,000 tickets, which would be some of the lowest-priced tickets in the stadium and would change the layout — it’s just a tough question for us to answer.”

Even with the club riding a streak of 70 consecutive home sellouts, the longest in the league besides Seattle and

Portland, Heineman says that sort of addition is not something they would consider for at least another couple of years given its potential impact on the stadium’s environment, which he admits does put pressure on the rest of the business.

“Ticket sales are obviously the lifeblood for us, and to sit here as an ownership group and say that we can only grow ticket revenue at kind of a low single-digit type of growth, it makes us have to be creative elsewhere,” he said. “Do we try some different things, or do we wait another eight to 10 years and try to build a 40,000- to 45,000-seat stadium?”

That’s led to construction projects outside of the stadium, such as the club-owned No Other Pub, a restaurant and entertainment concept opened recently in Kansas City’s Power and Light District with real estate developer The Cordish Cos.

Heineman said the club also has looked into a plan to rework the southwest corner of its stadium to allow for a hotel that would tuck under the existing roof, adding both suites and up to 1,000 incremental seats, as well as another way to generate revenue.

Planning ahead

While many teams struggle with ways to fit in more fans, others are awaiting them with open arms.

When Red Bull Arena opened in 2010 with a capacity of 25,000, general manager Marc de Grandpre said, the club took a well-calculated risk.

“We knew that in the short term, we were going to have years where we wouldn’t sell out games, and based on that there would be the perception that the game or attendance wasn’t growing here,” he said. “But we felt it was prudent on our end to reach for that inflection point for the league, which I think will happen very soon, if it’s not happening already.”

In 2015, the Red Bulls averaged 19,657 fans per game, a 1.2 percent increase year-over-year. Representing 78.6 percent of capacity, the club has yet to finish a year above 80 percent capacity in Red Bull Arena. However, de Grandpre strongly believes that will change.

“When I rejoined the club in 2014, we planned out a five-year horizon for consistent sellouts, and we’re well on that track,” he said, citing that season-ticket sales are up 17 percent compared to club-record 2015 rates, and that they’ve seen an 87 percent renewal rate this offseason, also a club record.

For the Red Bulls, that also will provide a boon to the team’s bottom line. De Grandpre said the club makes about 24 percent of its total revenue from ticket sales, a number that clearly would be affected by the addition of 5,000 to 6,000 fans a night.

The team even has plans for capitalizing on that future as well, de Grandpre said; the stadium has the capability to add another 3,000 to 4,000 seats in its current structure, something that the team will start planning for in the next 24 to 36 months, he said.

The New York Red Bulls took a risk in opening their stadium with additional capacity and remain confident that growth will prove it was the right move to make.
Photo by: Getty Images
Even in Orlando, with a stadium not yet opened, Rawlins said the club has a plan that could allow it to expand the stadium another 5,000 seats.

As for the drop-off from going from averaging over 30,000 fans at the Citrus Bowl to a max of 25,500 in 2017 at the new stadium, he said the club already has begun budgeting around that new number, and figuring out what sort of pressures that will place on its other lines of business.

“In my book, the No. 1 driver for the business is ticket sales,” Rawlins said. “The fact that we know that we’ll have a full 25,500-seat stadium is great, because if you’ve got a capacity, you’ve also got an audience that sponsors and partners want to talk to and reach.”

As for any additional changes to the upcoming stadium, he said the club likely won’t make a decision for another three to five years, almost purely based on the size of its season-ticket-holder waiting list, which now is about 500.

“It will be almost purely demand driven: If we can sell those seats instantly, then we’ll consider it,” he said.