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MLS attendance indicates growth

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Forbes tells us that the improved attendance MLS saw this year oversells the league's growth. Forbes is wrong.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Forbes wants to make you a bit less excited about the improved attendance MLS saw this season. Allow me to explain why you should ignore their conclusions.

The article begins by arguing that this year's attendance might overstate the league's success, making 3 key points in support of this argument. Let's address these one by one.

The honeymoon effect associated with the two expansion teams (Orlando FC and NYC FC). These teams ranked 2nd and 3rd in average attendance. Neither team qualified for the 2015 postseason, and if this level of performance persists, will these teams draw as well going forward as the honeymoon fades.

First, let's deal with the so called "honeymoon effect". Does it exist? It depends on which team you're talking about.

Since Forbes is casting doubt on whether fans will come back in 2016 after missing the playoffs, let's look only at expansion teams since 2005 that missed the playoffs in their first season. That excludes Seattle Sounders FC and Houston Dynamo (considered an expansion team here because the city didn't previously have a team).

The following is the % increase or decrease each expansion team saw in year 2:

That leaves RSL, Philadelphia, Vancouver, and Montreal with substantial decreases in attendance in their second year and Chivas USA, San Jose, and Portland with notable increases. Toronto saw no substantial change. The average for all of these teams in their first year was 18,751 and 18,652 in their second year. The average change from year one to year two is a 0.5% decrease.

Even if we apply that to Orlando City SC and New York City FC, a 0.5% decrease wouldn't fundamentally change the league's attendance average. Beyond the performance of the teams, both clubs have marquee players like Kaká, David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo to keep the fans coming back.

What will cause a decrease in attendance for Orlando is not the fact that it didn't qualify for the playoffs in its inaugural season (a feat only accomplished by Chicago and Seattle in the league's 20 year history). It's the fact that the club's new stadium has a maximum capacity of 28,000. Orlando may still be able to maintain a similar level of attendance to this year's average of nearly 33,000 by having big matches at the Citrus Bowl, similar to the way Seattle boosts its attendance by opening more sections several times each year.

San Jose's new stadium, the lovely Avaya Stadium, which I had a chance to tour in June, helped create the largest season-to-season spike in attendance. Part of that increase in attendance is related to fan curiosity to experience the new stadium. Again, for a team that didn't make the 2015 postseason, it will be interesting going forward to see how sustainable their average gains will be.

It's interesting that the author neglects to mention that Buck Shaw Stadium, San Jose's previous home, had a comically low capacity of 10,525, which Earthquakes fans have packed well beyond capacity for the past few years. Even at a capacity of 18,000, Avaya Stadium is the smallest stadium in MLS, so it's not as if filling it will be particularly difficult.

Based on the history of the league, it's much more likely that San Jose will be able to sustain its increased attendance than it is that there will be a drop off. In the past decade, only Colorado and Houston saw substantial declines in attendance in a new stadium's second season. Even then, both teams recovered from those declines in year 3. There are several teams (Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas, New York Red Bulls, Chicago Fire) that saw their attendance averages increase significantly in the years following the opening of a new stadium.

The folding of Chivas USA helped league attendance averages to rise, because Chivas pulled the average down considerably in 2013 and 2014...with fewer than 9,000 fans per game in each of those seasons. Hence, their omission alone boosts the average.

This is obviously true. Chivas USA's struggles hurt the league's attendance average for the past few years. When the league bought out Chivas USA, it probably could have re-branded the team and put it in a temporary stadium somewhere in LA and it would've brought in respectable attendance in 2015, but folding the franchise was probably a better long-term solution. Having one team with low attendance bringing down the league's average isn't unique to MLS though.

Last year, Ligue 1 averaged 22,215, its best average attendance in over a decade. Despite that, the league will see its attendance decline this season. All 3 of the clubs that were promoted from Ligue 2 are within the bottom 5 in attendance this season. Angers SCO averages 12,775. ESTAC Troyes averages 11,755. GFC Ajaccio averages 3,718, which is less than half of the lowest Ligue 1 attendance last season (AS Monaco's 7,811). Further harming Ligue 1's attendance is the fact that 2 of the relegated teams were 9th and 11th in attendance last season.

Promotion and relegation cause fluctuations in league attendance averages that often swing more wildly than MLS attendance did with Chivas USA in the league. Even with Chivas USA in the league, the only time the league average dropped in the past half decade was in 2013, when attendance dropped by 1.1%. Most leagues would be happy to have that kind of stability.

Median vs. Average

Forbes goes on to argue that median attendance is a better way to measure growth. I couldn't agree more, but I don't think this actually supports the idea that MLS growth is being oversold. The author decides to exclude Chivas USA from the median attendance in 2013 and 2014 and Orlando and New York City FC from 2015 in an attempt to inflate the numbers for 2013 and 2014 and deflate the numbers from 2015. This is a classic example of what Caleb Porter was getting at when he said, "You can put your hand up the puppet of statistics and make them say whatever you want them to say."

By removing Orlando and NYCFC from this year's median calculation, he's essentially saying that he expects their attendance to decline by well over 30% next season, something that has never happened in the second year of an expansion team in the history of the league.

So let's look at MLS median attendance, according to the teams that were actually in the league, rather than an imaginary scenario in which the league didn't expand this year. MLS median attendance actually paints a rosier picture than average attendance. The MLS average attendance of 21,574 ranks below the most recent completed seasons in the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Ligue 1, and Serie A. However, when you look at median attendance, MLS is only behind the Bundesliga, the Premier League, and La Liga (barely). MLS is ahead of Ligue 1, Serie A, and every other league in Europe below the top 3 in median attendance.

Median Attendance

Growth by Expansion

If you look at the teams in the top half of the league in terms of attendance, all but one of them were added since 2005, either as expansion teams or were existing teams moved to a city that didn't already have a team. Every team in the bottom 5 lived through some of the strange rules that existed before Don Garber arrived as the league's commissioner, as Dave Clark pointed out to me on Twitter. That time period may have turned off a lot of potential fans who may have been interested in their local MLS team. That's baggage that expansion teams don't have to deal with. Most of the teams that have been added in the past decade or so have had largely successful launches and shown an ability to grow.

When Atlanta United FC, Los Angeles FC, Minnesota United FC, and Miami join the league, we can probably expect the average and median attendance to continue to rise. Don't be surprised if MLS passes La Liga in median attendance when Atlanta joins the league in 2017. I'm sure Forbes or Buzzfeed or someone else will again post an article about why that doesn't mean MLS is growing when that happens.