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Has Seattle Reached Soccer Market Saturation?

Man United friendly sales are lagging. Reign and S2 attendance is not off to a strong start and in 2014 Sounders FC crowd numbers were flat. Is there a trend here?

Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

First we starved, then we feasted. Now it appears we're pushing ourselves away from the table.

Perhaps Puget Sound's appetite for watching professional soccer has sated, at least if the recent ambivalence toward the offering of extra courses is any indication.

Make no mistake, Seattle remains a North American attendance phenomenon, averaging about 6,000 more fans per game than the next-best crowd count in MLS. Sounders FC is currently pulling 40,236, and that number will only grow with CenturyLink Field's full capacity available for four summer dates.

Growth, however, stagnated in 2014. After setting MLS attendance records for five consecutive seasons, the Sounders' average (43,734) flatlined statistically (and actually fell back by 304 per game) despite winning the Supporters' Shield and adding Clint Dempsey's name to the marquee.

Signs of the Times

In 2015 there are further indications that growth is reaching a plateau. Manchester United, which once sold-out then-Seahawks Stadium in 40 minutes, is far from an assured sell-out when it meets Mexico's Club America on July 17. In 2003 versus Celtic and again versus the Sounders in 2011, Man United produced then-record attendances north of 66,000 for the Pacific Northwest. With less than two three remaining before the friendly, tickets were being offered on Groupon.

Across the city at Memorial Stadium, Seattle Reign FC is once again atop the NWSL table. However, attendance is 4 percent behind the pace last year, which finished with an average of 3,632. That's surprising, given the late-season rise in 2014. Furthermore, the Reign play a fluid, attractive style, lead the league in goals scored and have yet to lose a match at Memorial.

New to the market this year is Sounders 2, the mothership's USL affiliate. On the field S2 is off to a strong start, contending for the Western Conference lead while ranking third in goals. The inaugural match at Starfire drew nearly 3,000; since then it's been a slow decline. The most recent attendance (to be fair, another Thursday date) was under 2,000, dropping the average to 2,230.

It May Be More Complicated

There are, of course, mitigating circumstances. In the case of Man United, the Red Devils are not the European powerhouse of past visits, and generally friendlies have been a more challenging sale since the first year of Sounders FC in MLS. It remains to be seen whether Club America, missing its Gold Cup call-ins, will prove a significant draw.

For two months the Reign have been missing their U.S. National Team members Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe, though their lineup still provided plenty of luster in league MVP Kim Little and Jessica Fishlock. If traffic jams at the border are any indication, many local fans spent significant time and dollars watching Women's World Cup matches in Vancouver. There's optimism that the USA triumph will translate to a bump in interest and, therefore, increased ticket sales. In fact, following Sunday's final there was an immediate sales surge, and with anticipation of a sellout Saturday versus Western New York, the Reign could quickly leap ahead of last year's attendance pace.

The S2 numbers are not all that far off what the Sounders once averaged in USL-1. After the club's first three seasons at Memorial it only averaged above 3,400 once, and that was due to a record attendance for the first event in Seahawks Stadium.

What's the Solution?

So, some questions to ponder:

Is this an anomaly or a sign of new times?

Is it a case of market saturation, of too many options and only so many soccer-watching dollars to spend?

Are ticket prices a factor?

With nearly all matches available for viewing either on TV or internet streaming, are fans growing more inclined to avoid the hassle or attending and instead watch for free?

Does each situation-Sounders, S2, Reign, international friendlies-come with its own set of issues?

Is this a proper sample size, or is it much ado about nothing?

Weigh-in with your thoughts.

Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian. This story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission.

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