Early pro soccer attendance returns show difficulties at lower levels

This is one of the power teams in the lower divisions. Look behind the ball. - Andy Marlin

The business of lower division soccer is hard. Next year, Seattle Sounders FC will re-enter that business. It will be more difficult than Adrian Hanauer's last time in that league structure, as it will be competing with big league sports.

Every team in the pro divisions of US soccer have hosted at least two home games to this point and so early attendance numbers are available. Kenn.com has the data for the top three levels and there are some interesting facts to be pulled out:

  1. Sacramento Republic are doing really well. Their three home games are averaging a tick over 20,000 or more than 10 MLS sides. Early indications are that their US Open Cup match against the Fresno Fuego will also sell-out at their huge temporary stadium.

  2. In the NASL, Indy XI are stunning. They too outdraw a couple MLS (Chivas/San Jose) sides. They are doing it while putting up a pretty awful record.

  3. The Cosmos are behind four NASL teams and two USL PRO teams. Yes, they have the best shirt sponsorship, the best TV deal and sell the most merch. They're just not getting interest from actual fans when compared to other lower-level teams. Maybe not being in New York City is the problem --  that's the Red Bull excuse -- but it is valid for the Cosmos too.

  4. Orlando City's draw is just over half what it was last year. It seems that the appeal of MLS diminished the appeal of live and local lower level soccer. This is fairly typical for "promoted" MLS teams. Their numbers are also hurt by moving to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, which seats about 5,200.

  5. Galaxy II are drawing fewer fans than when MLS sides hosted USL PRO sides last year. That's not a good sign.

That last note is of the most interest to Sounders FC. The ambition here is to have an "owned" team in the lower division to act as the Reserve side. It is very likely that team will play at Starfire (Boise and the South Sound both had previous mentions, but are far from first choice).

To draw a respectable fanbase at the USL PRO level means about 2500 fans. Throw in some corporate sponsorship and merchandise sales and a team will only lose a couple hundred thousand dollars, depending on the stadium lease/own situation. Galaxy II, which is the model to be followed, average 717 fans per home game. It probably isn't a surprise that organization looks at their Reserves as a loss item where Seattle would likely want to have more revenue from said cost center.

It's a unique challenge. The USL/A-League Sounders didn't need to compete with an MLS side. They were the top level of soccer and drew "minor league" interest. Still, in a majority of those seasons they drew enough that if replicated they could be a successful lower-level soccer business.

The current Reserve game attendance numbers are difficult to come by, the team doesn't charge so a there is not a formal tracking method. Most of the time my eyeballs tell me there are several hundred in the stands, about the same as Galaxy II.

The Timbers do a strong job at generating interest in their Reserve side. There are two primary methods they use to increase the draw of their lesser team. First, lots of people who love the Timbers can't get to MLS games as they are all sold out, whereas Seattle still has some open capacity. Second, they have scheduled and planned some of the games in ways that draw massive interest from local school age children.

Sounders II will need to do some of both of those. Using any wait-lists or partial ticket packages as a starting point for sales will help as well. Marketing to the schools, club teams and direct communities of the Academy players signed to the team is another way to pull people to games that have much lower costs than the MLS level. Near constant reminders of the progression of former youth players climbing the ranks will remind the die-hards that lower level soccer is part of what Sounders FC was and is.

Doing all of those things will not assure success, but it will help influence a different type of USL PRO Reserve team than the first example from LA.

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