MLS attendance figures are even more fictitious than we realized

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.

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50 comments on “MLS attendance figures are even more fictitious than we realized

  1. Hello, through public records requests, the actual Vancouver Whitecaps attendance is considerably less than announced. The team was fond of announcing 21,000 “sellouts” in a 54,500-capacity venue.

      1. DCU United does something similar in the that they artificially restrict the capacity of RFK to just the lower bowl and don’t sell seats on the upper deck. Then use the lower bowl to report a sell out.

        Unless they sell out quickly then they’ll open up the upper bowl anyway and report the higher number.

        1. Tickets only sell out to the lower bowl when they give them away. They had a couple decent crowds for the regular season, but the playoff game was empty. Tickets were $20 and the crowd was tiny (it bigger on the side that is shown on TV). This team is getting $200m from the city and they can barely sell 10K tickets at dirt cheap prices. I’m not sure how the DC Council bought off on this.

  2. Seattle Sounders attendance is real so come to CenturyLink Field and tell me it’s all made up

    1. The Sounders, by all accounts, are an exception to the rule. Though do they not follow the practice of giving out tons of deeply discounted tickets? I’ve hardly ever attended a Red Bulls game for more than $10, though the cheapest seats are officially more than double that.

      1. I try to go to as many Red Bulls games as possible. I have never paid full price for tickets. A couple of times I’ve gotten in for free when asking if anyone has extra tickets season ticket holders have simply swiped me in and refused to take any money. Even when the games are officially sold out I’ve always gotten great deals on StubHub or on the street.

    2. Awesome for Seattle. Too bad one team doesn’t make much of a “league.” It’s more than just one team doing well, obviously, but still problematic when you have a tiny percentage truly making it but the league continues to expand at a rapid rate. They’re on their way to I believe 28 teams while probably 1/3 will be on solid footing financially.

      They’re going to have to be careful expansion doesn’t kill the league. Not only is not sustainable to make expansion fees a major line item in your budget but they continue to water down the product with each and every new team added.

  3. I watched a fair few Orlando City games on TV this year (I do live here, after all…), and the live shots and twitpics from most of them didn’t exactly square with the 30k+ attendance numbers that they often published. There was one game not too long ago when they announced 26k, when the number of butts in seats looked to be about half of that.

    They probably figure that they can get away with goosing up the numbers, on the basis of “hey, our average crowds are still bigger than most everyone else!” So they have a bit more leeway to make the numbers look better without raising too much suspicion. Now, whether this can carry over to their new stadium? Should be interesting to see, especially if the team continues to flounder. It’ll be way more difficult to declare sellouts with a straight face with the empty seats in prime sections being much closer to the action than at the Citrus Bowl.

    1. But as the article notes, this is a league-wide thing, not just an OC thing. If any one of the “major” leagues in America began counting attendance using the exact same methods as MLS, then it would be nightly fodder on every talk show.

      1. ” If any one of the “major” leagues in America began counting attendance using the exact same methods as MLS, then it would be nightly fodder on every talk show.”

        Annnnnnnd, from the actual linked story above:

        MLS, like the NBA, NHL and even the English Premier League, bases crowd figures on the number of tickets distributed, a practice that has become an industry standard. Major League Baseball measures the number of tickets sold.

        But none of the top North American leagues use an old-school turnstile count, meaning none of the attendance figures they release reflect the number of people who actually attend the events.

        “There’s a bit of a game being played in all sports,” said Steven A. Bank, a professor of business law at UCLA who has written and lectured extensively on soccer. “The stats on the number of people at games is a proxy for . . . the popularity of the sport.”

        Huh. I’ll have to listen to the talk shows tonight. I’m sure they’re all over this.

        1. The Rays aren’t announcing sellout crowds when there are 10k people in the stands, the way a fair few of these MLS teams do. Who exactly do they think they’re fooling here?

          Of note, that same professor also said that MLS “doesn’t release enough information that someone could evaluate how well they’re doing.” As a general rule, things in sports are never as bad as fans/media think it is, but they’re never as good as the teams/commissioners make them out to be. So what would the take in the “middle” be, as far as the growth [sic] of MLS is concerned?

        2. Yep. If you follow EmptySeatsGalore on Twitter, you know that this is not only a time-honored tradition, it has really ramped up in the StubHub era, and I doubt MLS’s attendances figure are goosed any more than NHL/NBA/MLB/NFL.

          The most annoying thing is when teams use “consecutive sellouts” as a marketing point; looking at you, SF Giants and Arizona Cardinals. What’s does a “sellout” mean when 10,000 tickets are bought on spec and never actually sold at the consumer level?

          (And are they even bought on spec? When you see a SF Giants “sellout,” and the empty seats are in huge block groups, and the StubHub prices never drop down to, say, $5-$10 each, which is what would happen if you really did have a reseller who paid for the tickets and needs to recoup some of his money, I get very suspicious.)

          1. I believe the Giants have a stubhub price floor. Wouldn’t swear to it though I recall attending one of their games for less years ago.

          2. I listen to a lot of Giants’ games on the radio, and they’re always hyping available seats for every home game. Miraculously, they somehow then “sell out” every home game. Why they feel it’s necessary to perpetuate this lie never ceases to amuse me.

          3. Do “StubHub price floors” exist? TM Ticket Exchange has price floors, but that’s because Ticketmaster is also the official primary retailer, and the clubs don’t want to be undercut by reselllers on their official site. But why would StubHub grant the Giants a “price floor” unless the Giants paid StubHub to? (Which is possible, I guess, but does anyone know?)

          4. It’s a deal between Stubhub and MLB:

        3. But the truth is that there are more popular games played nationwide. Yes NFL TV ratings are down, but attendance is still tops in nearly all stadiums. In addition, the Rays still draw more people to all 81 home games than the Bucs draw if they sell out all 10 home games, regular and preseason. For the record the number is 810,000 for the Rays and 658,900 for the Bucs. Keep in mind, the latter is a sellout.

    2. You live there and you don’t go?

      So why would someone who lives there and watches on TV but doesn’t go, really care?

      1. When in doubt, pull out the “real fan” card… but see, most sports fans are casual fans who’ll tune in/turn out when big name teams/players come to town, or when there are things at stake (i.e. playoff races, postseason games). That’s pretty much the extent of my fandom with Orlando City (and for that matter, every team in town bar the local D2 hoops team).

        I don’t doubt that OC have a passionate fanbase. But I know goosed up numbers when I see ’em.

      2. Why would they care? Because they’re going to end up paying tax dollars for improvements or even brand new facilities based on the supposed economic impact of those totally fictitious numbers.

  4. ” most players aren’t paid much more than the league minimum of $51,000″

    You then link to a document showing that 57% of the players in the league earn more than $100,000.

    The median guaranteed compensation is $116,300.

    1. Sorry, meant to write “many” players. Payroll is low compared to other leagues, is the point.

  5. Wow…How in the hell can this league have no problems lining up billionaire owners when they don’t receive billions in public subsidies “Orlando Magic”, and have to pay a mortgage for their privately built stadium. Hell even when they get a few pennies from local government they still have to pay rent to reimburse the tax payer. Just Wow!

    1. “have to pay a mortgage for their privately built stadium…”

      You mean they have to pay their own dues, just like most everyone else in this country? The horrors…

      If MLS teams represent the first pieces to fall from the stadium-industrial complex, then I’m perfectly okay with that. Maybe they end up taking down every other league with them.

  6. How can MLS teams fall from the stadium industrial complex when they were never part of it in first place. Cities throw more money at practice facilities and fly by night independent league baseball . LMAO !

  7. I don’t know that the American Basketball Association model of league financing is the best to emulate…–present)#2004.E2.80.932006

  8. I used to work in college athletics. Attendance numbers are inflated worse than the Venezuelan bolivar.

    San Jose Quakes sold out season tickets this year and have been touting a waiting list. How many season tickets there are beyond there are the 4 that I split with another family I don’t know.

    I do know that, as others have mentioned, getting cheap tickets on StubHub or at the gate from other ticket holders is easy. And there are plenty of empty seats. Quakes had a ho-hum season which was a contributor.

  9. Exactly ! Its done at every sport and league. What the smart guys do is look at the trends and the direction of those trends.

  10. I wanted to understand the reason for this, and quickly found it. They’re driving up demand for season tickets.


    I couldn’t figure out why a good 10-20% of the lower-bowl seats in Golden 1 Center were empty on opening night, at least in the lower bowl. Now it all makes sense. This time next year, season ticket holders at “The most technologically advanced arena in the world!” will be selling their seats on CL for $40. Some holders will be too dense to figure it out, I guess.

    I knew $600/seat was too good to be true. Better to sell 80% of the seats for highly inflated prices than 100% for the “regular” price. No wonder people could still buy tickets on opening day.

    1. Pretty scary that the Kings are already playing to a lot of empty seats. Most excepted them to have at least a year of sell-outs.

      1. It is mostly because the league doesn’t have a salary floor, at least I think the NBA doesn’t.

  11. I wonder how many of these team owners would agree to a requirement of a turnstile count in order to get public funding. I bet I can count it on 2 fingers (touches tip of thumb to tip of forefinger).

    1. I am willing to bet that the two owners are Jerry Jones and whoever is General Manager of the Green Bay Packers.

  12. In Chicago where property taxes were raised 1 billion in past year alone the crooks are building a 300 million arena for a private college basketball team that is lucky to draw 800 people a game. The soon to be ex Mayor is a Depaul fan.

    1. Lee,

      The ghost of the famous Bill Gallo NASL editorial cartoon lives. While I do not have the link to it, let’s say he stated how that league was popular….then the game becomes just another weekend, pick-up activity.

  13. Pro sports and it’s failed business model is kept afloat by the taxpayer-funded stadium raft.

  14. It’s not so much giveaways as group sales (corporations, NGOs etc) that bloat these numbers. Usually Reported attendance > sold tickets > turnstile attendance.

    As to the article, it is full of logical leaps and misunderstands some basic attendance counting concepts.

    Which makes it ironic that the title is “MLS math doesn’t always add up”

    Math sometimes doesn’t add up, but more often it’s the journalists who can’t add it up. I guess that’s the reason why they work as journalists and not math professors.

    1. The group sales are massively discounted, though. I used to get my dirt-cheap Red Bulls through my son’s AYSO league, which was clearly getting huge blocks of tickets for next to nothing.

  15. For US Open Cup games or CONCACAF Champions League games, you can find Real Salt Lake tickets for less than tickets to your local high school football game. Yes, I know it will be several decades before RSL is in the CCL again.

    But for games against the Galaxy, maybe Seattle, NYCFC or Colorado; RSL seemed to have increased prices.

  16. As a Red Bull fan I was surprised the team called and left a message begging, I mean asking me to go. The team was 1st in pts for the Eastern conference and no one cares?? A great stadium for a playoff game has to cold call for a major game? Even at $10 tickets (and negotiable??) my friends in Queens think the same thing … super far and just too many sports and other stuff to focus on in the city.

    As far as why every investor is throwing $$$ into MLS?? No regulation and growing soccer interest, maybe easier to swindle out public funds (imho).

    1. I took my kids to the Galaxy playoff game Sunday, and it was pretty full, but I was surprised that the StubHub prices were lower than regular season games we’ve attended.

      The problem with MLS playoffs is that MLS’s basic appeal is as an alternative to MLB during the long summer doldrums: Fun, accessible, faster-paced, smaller venue, better seats for the money, etc.

      But in the fall, you’re up against MLB playoffs, NFL, NBA, NHL, and NCAA football and basketball. And kids are back in school and playing sports (including soccer) themselves, so families have less free time. Hard for the local MLS team to be anything but an afterthought in the fall, especially in a market like New York or L.A. with a ton of local sports teams.

      1. Extrapolating from personal experience here, so necessarily anecdotal, but: I think it’s more a matter of the regular season games being scheduled way in advance, while the playoffs you only know about a couple of weeks in advance, and then only if you’re paying close attention. I see the same phenomenon in minor league baseball, WNBA, etc.

        1. But most playoff games are played within a few days of the regular season ending and announced ASAP. Usually the popular sports will see the tickets scalped up for major prices. As we seen with the less popular sports, postseason attendance intends to reflect on regular season attendance. Let’s face it, the only time Soccer is really popular is when the national team is facing a big match or tournament.

          1. Neil is right–in long established sports (like major league baseball), there is a rhythm to the playoffs that can generate and support demand. Not many teams make the playoffs (Cubs being a special exception) so seeing it is a bit of a novelty.

            For less established sports like MLS, attendance money is made through advance group sales (to the extent these seats are sold for real money). You aren’t going to get a 50 or 400-person group to a soccer stadium in the US in most cities on 3 days notice.

            This means that teams have to manufacture scarcity–I was cold called by the Revs for a 3-game playoff package that offered little other than the chance to drive out and sit in slightly better seats on a chilly Wednesday night if they won a play-in game. Naturally, they lost.

            Yes–all sports do this. However, the MLS is different in that their business model seems to be based on expansion fees (as Neil points out) rather than other forms of making money, which is worrying. The correct public policy question should be–is there an existing venue that is “good enough” to host a growing sport at low cost to the public or greater usage of an existing venue? The correct public policy question is not “does this venue have great atmosphere like the Camp Nou?”

  17. Discounting group tickets to kids that play the sport is a wise investment in its future. I live in Chicago and my circle of friends have received free tickets to every team in town except the Blackhawks. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has actually paid for a White Sox ticket. In their defense I do live on the North side.

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