I’ve snarked about MLS attendance figures before, based largely on televised scenes of half-empty stadiums which near-sellout official attendance figures, as well as my own experience attending Red Bull New York games while paying a tiny fraction of face value for tickets. But this Los Angeles Times report, man:
Howard Handler, the league’s chief marketing officer, said the number of comp tickets distributed has declined by an average of 20% over the last two years. It now accounts for about 9% of announced attendance, he said.
Yet even if that figure is correct, it still would mean more than 663,000 tickets included in the MLS crowd count for 2016 were given away. And even that math doesn’t always add up. Just look at Orlando City, one of five teams whose attendance was surveyed for this story. The club claimed home attendance of 532,500 this season at Camping World Stadium although the City of Orlando, which owns the facility, released figures Friday that showed the number of tickets scanned — the modern-day equivalent of a turnstile count — was 151,060 short of the team’s total, a difference of 8,886 per game.
Which, fine, whatever — if Orlando City S.C. wants to pretend a lot more folks are turning up for games than actually are (and it’s likely that many of those who do show are getting tickets for free or at discount), that’s a time-honored sports tradition. And even 10,000 fans a game is a respectable number for a sport that not all that long ago was barely a blip on the American national sports consciousness. Where it matters to the general public is when teams start making claims about the economic impact of an MLS team: If you really think you’re going to have 20,000 fans a night show up and spend money, you should be mentally replacing a large chunk of that number with ghosts. (You should probably do this for all pro sports, mind you, but especially for MLS.)
What this means for MLS’s economic viability is above my pay grade, though given that many players aren’t paid much more than the league minimum of $51,000, they’re probably doing pretty okay. It does help explain why the league is so dead-set on expanding until the cows come home, though: It’s way easier to make money selling expansion franchises for $200 million a pop than selling tickets $3 at a time to fans who may or may not exist.