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Major League Soccer 2011 Attendance - By the Percents

"What do you mean, percents?!"
"What do you mean, percents?!"

Since the 2011 Major League Soccer season ended and the final attendance numbers were released, there has been a bit of excitement from MLS fans. It's excitement well deserved as we've finally broken the 1996 Attendance record as well as shattered the number of people attending games during the season by almost a million and a half fans. These are some great numbers, awesome accomplishments and even more growth from MLS that likely nobody was expecting to see even as recently as five years ago.

There's been a bit of an overzealous boasting from MLS fans about how much better the league has been doing overall than other leagues in America like the NBA and NHL, unfortunately. The stat I heard most often was how MLS's average attendance was 17921 to the NBA's 17318, a stat that I used myself at one point after the numbers were released just because it's cool to look at and a fun talking point for our still growing league. Unfortunately, looking a bit closer at the numbers makes it look a bit less impressive.

The Seattle Sounders 30,000+ per game gives MLS an already unfair advantage since no NBA team can hold more than 21,000 in their stadium. Though the San Jose Earthquakes skew it in the other direction a bit with a maximum of only 11,000 or so, it still doesn't work quite as well as we'd hope. Removing both of the outliers in the situation to give it a more even playing field in attendance sizes gives MLS a 16,794 average. Still not what I'd call a bad clip, but it's nothing to write home about and certainly wouldn't have been noteworthy for breaking any records. That number being smaller than the NBA's average attendance doesn't help the case much either.

It was pointed out to me during a discussion on those numbers that perhaps it would be a better idea to instead of looking at the raw numbers in attendance to look at the percentage numbers; in other words, what percent of the stadium was filled for each team each game. The first thing to check was the NBA's and NHL's percentages in that regard. Unsurprisingly, the two lower tiered members of the 'big four' in American sports had quite impressive attendances, especially coming off of what were considered fantastic overall seasons in both leagues.

The NBA was able to fill 90% of the seats in the league during the season with their lowest number coming from the Indiana Pacers with a mediocre 74%. The NHL actually outpaced the NBA - bet you didn't know that! - with 92% of the seats in the league filled at all times thanks mostly to a higher rate of teams selling out every game near the top of the attendance table. The NHL's lowest attendance was significantly lower than the NBA's with the Islanders managing only a paltry 67%.

So the numbers to beat are in place, 92 and 90. Unfortunately, there are obvious problems with MLS's calculations in this particular statistic which will become quite apparent in the chart down there if you haven't already figured them out. So here's what the averages look like for the 2011 MLS season. They were mostly useful for determining what the maximum size for non SSS's was.

Seattle Sounders 38,496 35,700 108
Los Angeles Galaxy 22,484 27,000 86
Vancouver Whitecaps 20,412 22,000 92
Toronto FC 20,267 21,800 93
New York Red Bulls 19,691 &1000000000002518900000025,189 78
Portland Timbers 18,227 &1000000000001862700000018,627 101
Philadelphia Union 18,258 &1000000000001850000000018,500 98
Sporting Kansas City 18,749 &1000000000001846700000018,467 96
Houston Dynamo* 17,694 &1000000000003200000000032,000 59
Real Salt Lake 17,594 &1000000000002000800000020,008 88
DC United* 16,046 &1000000000004600000000046,000 32
Colorado Rapids 14,838 &1000000000001808600000018,086 82
Chivas USA* 14,830 &1000000000002700000000027,000 54
Chicago Fire 14,273 &1000000000002000000000020,000 71
New England Revolution* 13,222 22,385 59
FC Dallas 12,861 &1000000000002119300000021,193 60
Columbus Crew 12,185 &1000000000002045500000020,455 59
San Jose Earthquakes 11,858 10,300 115

The final numbers say that 79.5% of the seats are filled for MLS all told. The biggest advantage that the other leagues have - other than 50 year head starts getting fanbases obviously - are that each team in the NBA and NHL all have stadiums specifically made for their sports. DC United's 32% total destroys MLS in this since they play in the cavernous RFK Stadium. Houston playing in Robertson isn't helping either and though New England do stifle ticket sales a little bit so not all of Gillette Stadium is open, they still can barely fill half of what they've got. It also goes to show the reason why I've been saying for years that Chivas USA should get their own stadium, perhaps a cozy little 16,000 seater, so they don't have to be in the wide open Home Depot Center. That stadium was clearly built for a team with a much larger fanbase like the Galaxy.

So MLS teams have an unfair handicap in this just like the NBA/NHL did in the original numbers up top. What happens when the playing field is leveled? Simply removing DC United from the equation boosts MLS to 82%. Removing the rest of the teams that aren't Seattle and San Jose who don't have SSS's, and this does include Chivas in my eyes, boosts the league all the way to 85%.

So who's really pulling the weight here? Teams like Colorado and Salt Lake who continue to improve attendance every year are keeping the trends going higher while the insertion of Portland and Vancouver into the league this season almost certainly made the numbers better than they would have been last season. Hilariously, giving San Jose a real Earthquakes only stadium would probably decrease their league leading % numbers. The problem children seem to be Columbus - whose attendance sunk horrifically early in the year after half their team got sold after last season - and Dallas, a perennial attendance stinker. Strangely, if those two teams didn't play in such large older SSS's it wouldn't be nearly as much of a problem.

With the level playing fields in both situations, MLS is losing slightly in both average attendance (after removing Seattle and San Jose) and the % numbers (removing the teams who are playing in stadiums far too large for their purposes). However, the discrepancy's numbers are small. 85% of the seats or even the original 79% of the seats is really nothing to sneeze at for a league that supposedly nobody in this country cares about.

These numbers are certainly going to continue an upward trend next season as Houston move from Robertson to a smaller venue and Montreal Impact enter the league with another MLS-hungry Canadian fanbase. Again, we must remember that our home league is a mere 16 years old and has plenty of years to continue growth. While we're still sitting underneath the other leagues in this country in attendance, the catching up that we've seen has been fantastic.

How fantastic? Well, let me make a bold but surprisingly possible statement.

I'm willing to bet that by year 20 of MLS, every team will have a Soccer Specific Stadium and that we will see attendance numbers higher than both of the other leagues in both raw and percent based data. Combine that with the almost certain addition of the 20th MLS franchise by that point and we're looking from a country with a big four going to a country with a big five. Will I say that MLS will be the 3rd most attended league in the country and hold that? Perhaps not, but I will most definitely say it is a possibility.

Our 'level playing field' final numbers once again are MLS 85%, NBA 90%, NHL 92%. If you'd told me 10 years ago that we'd be seeing that, I would have eaten my hat, vomited it up and eaten it again. One more cheer for us, the fans of MLS who have set a record and have made some numbers that could make a league 50 years older than ours look at and cringe.

By the way, Major League Baseball? 69% total attendance last season. So walk tall MLS, at least you're beating somebody!